Want Content Success? Stephen King Writing Techniques That Actually Work
Back in 1973, 26-year-old Stephen King was a relatively unknown writer who would inevitably use a story about a tormented teenager (Carrie) to place an eternal stake in the world of literature with his name engraved into it. More than 45 years later, King continues to crank out literary classic after classic as he keeps his growing fanbase excited, enthusiastic and engaged with each release – such as with his most recent release, The Outsider. You could spend countless hours wishing that you lived his life. However, it would be far more productive to just focus on the key writing techniques that would push your content closer and closer to a Stephen King-esque level. Here is a brief overview of some of his techniques and tips that can get you off to a great start:
You Only Need “One Word at a Time”
Stephen King believes that a radio talk show host from a past interview assumed Stephen was joking when he responded to the question of how he wrote with the 5-word statement: “One word at a time.” According to King, there is nothing funny about it at all. Whether you are writing a social media post or a bestselling novel, the approach is always the same: one word at a time. This statement may remind you of the common saying “one day at a time” or the joke that the best way to eat a figurative elephant is “one bite at a time.” The art of simplicity and pacing is highlighted in each of these sayings and should remain highlighted within the forefront of your mind as you write. At the end of the day, your content is filled with words – words that you wrote, dictated or typed one at a time.
Avoid the “Comfort” of Passive Voice
Riding the fence that separates active from passive voice may seem nearly impossible to do – especially when you have a complicated subject or touchy topic to cover. With a tight deadline breathing down your neck, the natural tendency is to rush through sentences and paragraphs as quickly as possible to rush completion of that article or blog. However, the “safe” approach to sentence structure calls for the excessive use of passive voice. Passive verbs, passive phrases and passive expressions seem to come out organically in verbal speech and published content. Stephen King emphasizes the need to fight against the urge and stick to active voice within your writing. It may seem a little risqué, but King compares the desire that timid writers have for passive verbs to the desire that timid lovers have for passive partners: it allows them to “play it safe” instead of seeking the pleasure above and beyond those types of boundaries. By putting the time and effort in creating sentences filled with active voice instead of passive, the overall flow of the content is much smoother. It is much easier to keep the readers and viewers engaged and excited about your content simply because it is easy to follow and stay connected to it from start to finish. Fortunately, popular word processing software (such as Microsoft Word) has advanced proofing options that allow you to check for proper grammar and style instead of just misspelled words. You must manually change this setting within your proofing options menu, but the high-quality results of your future content will make that minimal effort worthwhile.
Cut the Cord Attaching Adverbs to Your Content
At first glance, one may argue with the principle of removing adverbs from your content – especially after you have already exerted effort towards removing passive voice and enhancing your sentence structure. Can you keep adverbs within your content and still maintain its high-quality and engagement? According to Stephen King, the answer is a resounding “NO!” King simply states that “the adverb is not your friend.” A writer may initially feel as if they are adding more color to their content with descriptive words that end with “ly”. When you think of the need to cut out the extra fat of your sentence to keep the meat intact, you must consider what the reader already knows and can figure out for themselves without boosting your word count unnecessarily to make the same point. Take the following 5-word sentence for example: “The man slammed the door.” As you read that short yet simple sentence, what did you picture in your mind?
- Perhaps the man was filled with frustration and anger – which would explain the need for him to slam the door in the first place.
- What about the speed? How fast (or slow) did the man close the door? When you “slam” something, it’s done with power and speed, correct?
Within that 5-word, you can identify the action (he slammed a door), the emotion (he was angry/frustrated) and the speed of the action without using a single adverb. That is the point that Stephen King makes when he discusses the need to remove adverbs from one’s content. Adverbs overshadow the context along with what was already revealed or relayed through the prose leading up to it. Stephen King admits that he hasn’t always followed this “no-adverb principle” – especially when it came to dialogue attribution (i.e. “she said firmly,” “he said passionately”, etc.) However, King believes that most writers use adverbs in their dialogue attribution tags due to their fear of the reader not understanding the material without them. In his book “On Writing”, Stephen addresses the need to have confidence in knowing that the context of your story effectively relays the extent, degree and type of actions taken without the need for excess words. He advises writers to remember that to write adverbs may be human, but “to write ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ is divine.” Once you take a moment to focus on what your audience already knows or understands about the flow of your content and the expressions artistically painted within it, then you can shine a spotlight on the words and phrases (including adverbs) that are no longer necessary or useful.
Keep Thorough Research in its Proper Place
Thorough research and quality content go together; you cannot have one without the other. According to Stephen King, digging for valuable research is like digging for buried treasures. A quality content creator’s primary objective is to use the tools available to him or her to get as much out of the ground as possible. Whether the “fossil” that you discover is small or large, King states that the “techniques of excavation” remain the same across the board. However, it is vital to ensure that your research remains in its proper place. A common misconception is that just because you must do the research also means you have to show it all within your content. More than likely, you have read examples of this type of excess where it seemed like the research overshadowed the rest of the content. Statistics, case studies, third-party references along with quotes from authoritative experts and sources can quickly consume most of your article or blog – leaving an insufficient amount of your words and creativity that breathes life into the overall content. Stephen King believes that research should always remain in the background of your content – “as far in the background…as you can get it.” A solid technique that allows you to effectively apply this principle to your content is to remember the illustrative concept of the cake with icing. Your research should serve as the icing that accentuates the delicious cake of content that you have created – not dominate the entire culinary creation to the point where all you can taste is the “icing.” That type of imbalance never works out – whether in a baker’s kitchen or at a writer’s desk.
Chief Content Officer
Annie has over 20 years of experience as an editor and content creator and manager. With work in television and written media, she has dedicated her past 10 years to learning the ropes of online content creation, from writing to editing, from SEO to content management.
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