Stephen King Writing Tip: Build Your Toolbox

I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.

What Stephen King means when he talks about constructing your own toolbox is that writing like any other job has much to do with problem-solving. An organized worker has his tools, screwdrivers, hammers, wrenches, batteries, tape measurer, different nuts and bolts and so on, in their toolbox so that when they need to fix something, all they have to do is pick up that toolbox and approach the problem. At which point they can assess the issue and see what tools would resolve it quickly. Certain problems require a screwdriver with a flat head, another might require a Phillips head or something may just need hammering, another might require loosening the bolts with a wrench or measuring the exact diameters and so it’s the simple process of finding what tool fits right.

In this manner, a writer also requires his own toolbox. So, instead of helplessly and blindly attacking a problem that arises in your writing, you can find the proper tool and aim it at fixing your problem.

The next question is then, what tools does a writer require?

The commonest of all, the bread of writing, is vocabulary.

The way this tool works is that when you are reading markdown passages that you really enjoy reading. This is a good practice because right away you will notice how it’s not the vocabulary that is important but rather how the words are used. James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway are both praised for their prose. Additionally, as you read, write down any word that you aren’t familiar with it. You don’t have to make a conscious effort to learn it and use it in your own writing but knowing that you have it in your toolbox, it can naturally come of use if you ever need it. Otherwise, it can just take up space like those random bolts that are never used but it’s better to have them there just in case.

After vocabulary comes grammar.

Vocabulary used in speech or writing organizes itself in seven parts of speech. Communication composed of these parts of speech must be organized by rules of grammar upon which we agree. When these rules break down, confusion and misunderstanding result. Bad grammar produces bad sentences. My favorite example from Strunk and White is this one: “as a mother of five, with another one on the way, my ironing board is always up.”

Grammar can be a complicated subject and also a boring one, however, it is essential to understand the basics because as Stephen King said “bad grammar produces bad sentences.” The last thing a writer wants is to write bad sentences. But at the same time getting bogged down by all the grammatical do’s and don’ts can be difficult. Which is why at the very least you have to understand how nouns and verbs work and interact with each other. Additionally, before you adopt the idea of “breaking the rules”, understand what the rules are and what you’re breaking.

Simple sentences are another way to ease the headache of grammar. So, if the sentence or paragraph starts to become overwhelming, just remember to simplify, return to your nouns and verbs.

The third tool comes in two parts: The verb and the adverb

Verbs themselves can be split into two.

With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense.

If you re-read the passages that you love you’ll quickly see how almost all of them are written in the active tense. What’s compelling to read is a character attempting things rather than constantly reacting. What goes with passive is timid and that’s how the writing ends up if you use passive tense.

This is why compiling writings that you enjoy is so important. You need something to compare your writing with when an issue arises. This way, you can spot the differences between your own writing and someone else’s and use their structure to resolve your problem.

Think of other prose as how-to videos, things to learn from and apply to your own writing. Speaking of which, the other part of this tool is adverbs.

The adverb is not your friend.

Often times the overuse of adverbs robs the writing of its emotions. We end up telling more and showing less which is reason alone to be sparse with your adverbs.

The last aspect your toolbox should have is an understanding of how paragraphs are written. However, this is just the base of a toolbox, your foundation, after this you can add whatever it is that you find useful or informative that can help you be a better writer.

The ideal expository graf contains a topic sentence followed by others which explain or amplify the first.

This pattern of a topic sentence followed by explanation and description of this topic sentence forces the writer to organize their thoughts, according to Stephen King.

However, that’s just one way of writing paragraphs. Once more, the more you read, the more examples you come across different ways of formulating what you’re trying to say.

The more fiction you read and write, the more you’ll find your paragraphs forming on their own. And that’s what you want.

Often, the flow of the story narrates the form of the paragraphs. Stephen King believes that it’s this natural flow that you should stick with.

My main takeaway from this exercise is simple: writing is a skill and it needs work. You’re not going to come out the gates writing perfect sentences, possessing the exact vocabulary you need to vocalize what you want, in proper grammar and creating beautiful flowing paragraphs and stories. Rather, all of this takes dedication and discipline.

To deconstruct writing to its rawest form and build something that is your own. That’s the goal and with the understanding of the basics, we can get close to this. The toolbox itself is a tool in improving as a writer.

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