Lately I’ve been reading Stephen King’s On Writing, and while I haven’t really learned anything about the craft, he did answer some of the ‘why’ you shouldn’t do some things. Stuff that I had known was bad, but couldn’t really explain what was bad about it. I’ll reiterate some of the things he said, using my own examples, but really the best way to learn the things in that book is to read it. Even in a half memoir-half advice book, he still has a great sense of humor.
He describes the writer as needing a toolbox when they get to work. They need all kinds of things, first and foremost are a vocabulary and grammar. He emphasizes that having a big vocabulary isn’t necessary for a writing career, but it would naturally improve with time as one reads and writes more. He gives lots of examples from famous novels with large vocabulary and a small vocabulary.
What he does not explain, is that there is also something that certain words do to prose. An obvious example is that when your narrator speaks formally using large words, it implies that they are more educated or even above the action of the story (proverbially), especially if the narrator is not actually a character in the story. By contrast, somebody who uses small words can often come across as slow, but it also sends a message that they are simple. ‘Simple’ isn’t necessarily a bad thing to be. You can have a wise old grandmother that knows a lot yet speaks only in one or two syllable words. There’s quite a bit of implication that goes with words, but don’t let a limited vocabulary keep you from writing. That’s a point that he really hammers down on.
As far as grammar goes, he points out that a lot of people shy away from that word because of what they think it means. It means knowing what all the parts of a sentence are called, being able to identify what is past perfect tense and what instances it is and is not okay to use such a tense. But really, a writer doesn’t need to be equipped with that sort of knowledge. The idea that you need to know what a prepositional phrase is before you can even use it in a sentence really gets under my skin (see what I did there?)
There are two things that Stephen King makes clear when talking about grammar. These are two rules that every aspiring writer hears a lot, but On Writing is the first time I’ve read why these rules are a thing.
The first is to never use passive voice. If you don’t know what that is, the short answer is when the subject of the sentence is letting what ever verb is happening happen rather than making things happen (like in active voice). “The door was closed” is passive, but “Jeremy shut the door” is active. Why make the subject of the sentence the door when you could make it about Jeremy? A door isn’t important. It’s a door. You’re not going to hurt its feelings by excluding it as a character from your story.
To Stephen King, passive voice makes the author seem timid or nervous. Using passive voice makes the writing feel a bit more authoritative. “There’s no questioning what happened to the door now!” the novice thinks. But that makes it no less weak. In the first sentence, we have no way of knowing whether ‘closed’ is simply the state of being that the door is in, or if somebody closed it. You could amend this by saying “The door was closed by Jeremy“, but why in the world would you willingly construct a sentence like that? This is a story where things are happening, your narrator should feel more like a commentator at a sports arena than David Attenborough describing the behavioral patterns of a frustrated Jeremy.
The second rule is to avoid adverbs. These are words that end in -ly. You could say “Jeremy shut the door angrily“, and it works. It really does. But a lot of people would argue that adding the word ‘angrily’ takes away the impact of the sentence. Why? You shouldn’t need to tell us how he shut the door. The context of the rest of the sentence and the paragraphs prior should tell us what mood Jeremy is in, leaving the reader to conclude for themselves how he shut the door.
Stephen King says that the use of adverbs expresses not a lazy writer, but an insecure one. One scared of being misunderstood. In good writing, the addition of adverbs would be redundant. Pretty much any time you would use an adverb, a writer should look back at what came before and think “Do I give the impression of ‘angrily’ in this context?”
If the answer is yes, don’t use the adverb. It’s a word that doesn’t add anything to the story, and your story shouldn’t have any useless words! If the answer is no, then you need to work on your subtext. Put ‘angrily’ in the paragraphs without using the word ‘angrily’. Make Jeremy express anger through his words or actions. Use different words! “Jeremy stormed into his room and slammed the door.” There, now we can be sure that the reader needs no help understanding what kind of mood Jeremy is in.
This is a sliver of the things Stephen King points out in his book On Writing, and I’d highly recommend it. I believe the audiobook is also read by the writer himself, which is pretty neat.