One of the things that seems to be built into writers and editors is reading what others have written. Recently I’ve been reading Steven King’s On Writing and have really enjoyed his thoughts on this topic. Though I rarely read his books because his genre is one of my least favorites, there is no doubt that he is a powerful writer.
In his essay “Toolbox” King first discusses his grandpa’s toolbox complete with screwdrivers, hammers, drills, etc. He then compares this to a writer’s toolbox. He explores the basic elements of writing while leaving the writer free to use these tools in the way that serves him or her best.
King refers to vocabulary as the bread of writing and goes on to say that how much you have isn’t as important as how you use it. Some people use long words with multiple syllables. Others stick to single syllables. Some express guttural sounds in dialogue.
You don’t need to make a conscious effort to increase your vocabulary – this will come naturally as you continue reading.
You want to use words that say what you need without ‘dressing up the vocabulary.’ Using long words just for the sake of using long words is ‘like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes.’
According to King “the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another–of course you will come up with another word—but it probably won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean.”
King chose not to go into a detailed description of the rules of grammar – how we structure our thoughts in language, the words we use when speaking and writing. However, he emphasized that when the rules aren’t followed you are left with confusion and misunderstanding.
When the words are put together you get a sentence. A basic sentence is a group of words containing a subject and a predicate that combine to make a complete thought. While most sentences are complete (have both parts) many times it is appropriate to use fragments.
An early style manual mentioned by King is The Elements of Style by William Strunk, later expanded and revised byE.B. White. The manual covers common word-usage errors, punctuation and grammar, principles of writing, matters of form and reminders for better style. The Chicago Manual of Style is one of several style manuals in current use.
King has two particular pet peeves regarding style — using passive verbs and using adverbs. It is really easy to fall into the habit of using the passive voice. It is frequently used by someone who is timid or unsure about what they are writing.
Active verbs convey a more positive attitude on the part of the author and are more easily understood. Consider the difference between the following two sentences
The topic of sales was the second item on the speaker’s agenda.
The speaker spoke about sales next.
Adverbs are those words that typically end in –ly and modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. To King they don’t add any real information to the sentence and are a waste of space. He believes the context of the passage should convey the intended meaning eliminating the need for the adverb. For example, in He closed the door firmly. the word firmly shouldn’t be necessary if the preceding prose is well-written.
So the top layer of your toolbox contains your vocabulary and the grammar stuff. Next comes the layer with elements of form and style.
You can tell without reading the first word of an article or book if it is apt to be easy to read. The visual cue for this is the pattern of paragraphs – are they dense and close together? Is there some white space between paragraphs?
The basic paragraph contains a topic sentence followed by additional sentences that support and describe the topic. It can be long or short. To Steven King “the paragraph, not the sentence, that is the basic unit of writing –the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words.”
I encourage you to take your tools – words, grammar, style, and paragraphs – and begin building your book.