Stephen King’s “On Writing”: Passive Voice and Adverb Free

April 12, 2013 — 10 Comments

Stephen King scares me. I have read only a handful of his books: Christine, The Green Mile, Carrie, but those have left a residue in my brain. My fear, created by the gruesome images in his fiction, would probably please him: he likes to tell stories that unsettle the reader.

I have, however, become a fan of his non-fiction book On Writing. While I am not as rabid as Annie Wilkes of Misery, I push this book on as many readers as possible. When I mention King’s name, however, I recognize the same uncomfortable flicker in their eyes. King scares them.

“No, really,” I urge, “this is nothing like the Stephen King books you don’t like. This is the Stephen King book you will like.”

On the surface, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is King’s memoir mixed with writing tips. The book is divided into three parts; the second part has two subsets of witty literary criticism.

In section one, the reader learns about King’s childhood, the history of his writing career, and the inspiration for several stories. He discusses his addictions, his stories, and his marriage to Tabitha, an author and his chief literary critic. In the second section, King discusses the craft of writing, first through the use of a “toolbox” of grammar  and then with application of these tips in various works of literature. The third and final section of the book covers his near death experience in June of 1999 when he was hit by a motorist on a side road in Maine.

We assign this book to our juniors who are taking the Advanced Placement English Language class, a course in familiarizing students with rhetoric and argument. The critical commentaries he offers in his “toolbox” section are especially helpful in helping students develop a style of writing.

He lectures the reader in a voice that is informal and wise. He gets the respect that English teachers struggling to impart the importance of subject-verb agreement crave to have from students. Plus, he swears; he swears a lot:

“You’ll also want grammar on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t annoy me with your moans of exasperation or your cries that you don’t understand grammar, you never did understand grammar, you flunked that whole semeste rin Sophomore English, writing is fun but grammar sucks the big one. Relax. Chill. We won’t spend much time here because we don’t need to. One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or not.”

Some of his other observations include:

“Remember that 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 word — of course you will, there’s always another word — but it probably won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean.”

“Bad grammar produces bad sentences.”

The adverb is not your friend. … Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind.”

I have had some success in locating used copies of the book in its various editions. There are hardcovers and paperbacks in the secondary markets of thrift stores and library book sales, but I need to look close at the book spines since they are different in size and appearance. Our class set is a mish-mash of all editions.  The most frequent edition’s cover art is a picture of the cellar door, and if there was a book cover design that was dead wrong for the contents, this cover gets my vote. The cellar door may mean entrance to the “foundation” of writing, but the cream colored clapboards, bright window, and potted plant are an odd chice for King. The cover art with the letters of rejection nailed to a wall is macabre, perhaps a better choice for King and the contents. My favorite cover, though, is the most recent and centers on a photo of King working at his desk.

Cover simply did not match content!

Cover disconnect from content.

The macabre cover with rejection letters nailed to the wall

The macabre cover with rejection letters nailed to the wall; blood red title.

The most appropriate cover; one that matches the content

The most appropriate cover; one that matches the content-King writing On Writing

Last week, I offered this book to my own book group, an adult group of educated readers. Our discussion led to the question, “What is good writing?” We failed like so many others to come up with a definitive answer, but we did appreciate KIng’s four pages of suggested titles listed at the end of the memoir to read as examples of good writing. This list brings me to a major point in On Writing, King likes to read. This is repeated many times in the text:

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

“If you want to be a writeryou must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

King’s dedication to the craft of writing is inspiring; the final paragraph captures his passion:

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”

On Writing has changed how I write. Because of On Writing, I hesitate to add an adverb (see? I consciously did not use “frequently hesitate”). I hear his voice say “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs” when I craft sentences,

My favorite part of the “toolbox” deals with his disdain for the passive voice. King tells the writer to “energize your prose with active verbs. … good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.”  My students tell me they write in write in passive voice to sound smart, so I need to counter with a clear example of why the use active voice is more powerful. King provides me a hilarious example:

“Everyone’s entitled to his/her opinion, but I don’t believe ‘With a hammerhe killed Frank‘ will ever replace ‘He killed Frank with a hammer.’”

“But how do you know when you are using passive voice?” my students ask. I offer my new “tool” to test, a tool I found on a Facebook post.

“If you can put ‘by Zombies’ after the verb, then you have passive voice,” I respond.

“Frank was killed…by Zombies?”

“Passive voice. To make the sentence active, you would have to write, ‘The Zombies killed Frank’. Much clearer, don’t you think?”

Passive voice and Zombies? I think Stephen King would enjoy that discussion.

10 responses to Stephen King’s “On Writing”: Passive Voice and Adverb Free

  1. 

    I’m a big fan of this book too. No matter what he’s writing, Stephen King knows how to make his words and images stick with readers. Great review here, Colette. Thanks!

  2. 

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. 

    Love the “by Zombies” rule!

  4. 

    If I could only have one book on writing it would be “On Writing.” Even though I am a big reader, advocate, proponent of literary fiction, and study medieval text at university, I never apologize for reading King. Although, the few books of his you mention are not on my favorite list of his works. I like “The Stand,” “The Dead Zone,” “The Talisman” “It,” and his latest about the Kennedy assassination. He is simply a great story teller and does not pretend to be anything else, but he has insight into the human condition too.

    • 

      I will revisit King; On Writing has made me more appreciative. I hear many good things about 11/23/63, so I will try that soon. Thank you for recommending.

  5. 

    Excellent post! I’ll definitely have to pick this one up for my ELA classes next year (and for my own benefit)!

  6. 
    schillingklaus March 7, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    I like passive voice and adverbs. No linguistic demagogue will ever be able to dissuade me from using those a lot in my fiction, no god, no King, no tribune!

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