The Write Stuff
By Alan Crawford
Before he hit pay dirt with Carrie, Stephen King — married with a family — struggled to make ends meet as a gas station attendant and laundry worker. Convicted of petty larceny, he couldn’t pay the $250 fine until a check for a short story he sold to a sleazy men’s magazine arrived. Then Carrie was published and made into a movie. More than 60 novels followed, some 200 short stories and five works of nonfiction. Several of those other novels have also been made into movies.
King writes about those lean years in On Writing, a memoir, in which he includes some suggestions for other writers. The advice that he offers, rooted in common sense, is helpful. By applying them, you won’t necessarily make the best-seller lists, but your own writing will improve, and your readers will benefit.
“Put your vocabulary on the top shelf on your toolbox,” King writes, “and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it.” You’ll add to it the more you read, but the self-conscious pursuit of colorful synonyms is almost always a mistake. “One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones,” he writes. “This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed. Make a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use ‘emolument’ when you mean ‘tip.’”
Like most professional writers, King has his pet peeves: “I believe that anyone using the phrase ‘That’s so cool’ should have to stand in the corner and that those using the far more odious phrases ‘at this point in time’ and ‘at the end of the day’ should be sent to bed without supper (or writing-paper for that matter).”
And King hates passive voice. We all should. He offers two possibilities for expressing the same thought.
- My first kiss will always be recalled by me as how my romance with Shayna was begun.
- My romance with Shayna began with our first kiss. I’ll never forget it.
Which is better?
You probably won’t get much opportunity to write about first kisses as a public affairs professional, but the example is easy to remember. And if your own ear doesn’t tell you which of those options is preferable, ask Shayna.
ANNOYING WORD OF THE MONTH: Cognizant. (With apologies to the Fortune 200 tech company that trades under the symbol CTSH.) An aging UFC fighter who calls himself Bobby Maximus has come out of retirement to compete in something called the Ultimate Fighter 30 challenge. It’s a lot harder taking part in such an event at 43 than it was at 26, Maximus says. “It’s just a different world. So you have to be more cognizant of nutrition, more cognizant of sleep, more cognizant of taking care of yourself.” I guess saying you have to be “aware” of something or “think about it” isn’t good enough. You have to be “cognizant” of it. OK, I’ll be “cognizant” of that in the future, and if I find myself tempted to say it, I will be “cognizant” of the fact that it sounds pretentious.
Related Article – Are You Using ‘Yogababble’?
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