Improving Essays with the King
Over a few essays I have talked about storytelling and stories and how they can affect us as humans at a fundamental, some primordial level. Our pre-historic lizard brains cannot necessarily learn from stories, but even they, our darkest parts, can feel a connection to other people, to fictional people even, through well told stories. We feel stories (or at least good stories) and can sympathize with the characters, their struggles, the challenges they face. We can step into the shoes of historical characters and walk a mile or ten in their shoes. When I read the biography of Che Guevara, I could feel the humidity and heat of the South American continent he toured as a young doctor, riding on dirt roads with his motorcycle, La Poderosa II. As a younger man, I read the whole of Harry Potter series and could feel the snow drifting down on Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry as Harry and his friends traveled to Hogsmeade for butter beer (a drink that now as an adult and prodigious beer drinker feels foreign, ill-advised and just plain horrible). I thought I could taste the drink!
But how are stories formed? How can you create these images and conjure these feelings with naught but ink and pulped vegetation (or rather more modernly, with naught but ones and zeros)? I know stories. To paraphrase United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (see, I wasn’t talking about Harry Potter for nothing, it’s a thematic name), I know a good story when I see it. Can I put it to paper though? There are hundreds of stories stuffed into hundreds of books by authors from all around the world, and all of those can’t be good. We must admit that there are authors, who maybe should not be. Your mileage may vary, of course, but did, for example, 50 Shades of Grey, a fan fiction about Twilight, written in part on iPhone and littered with typos deserve to become one of the most read romance novels of all time? If you are inclined to that type of literature incidentally, you can find better quality and cheaper erotica on Amazon or even on internet fan fiction sites.
Again, mileage may vary, and tastes differ on these matters of prose and stories, but I find that there are a few guides, a few sages of literary process we can turn to. And luckily, one of the most prolific authors of our times has written an illuminating guide to developing yourself as a writer. I’m going to go ahead and pilfer some of Stephen Kings’ guidance for this essay on writing. Incidentally, that’s the book. On Writing.
Style guides and the literary toolbox
On Writing is Stephen Kings memoir and a written masterclass on the craft of writing. While King focuses on writing prose (though not necessarily fiction), his general advice can absolutely be useful to writing essays, at least if you want your essays to be interesting to read, instead of piles and piles of academic hand wringing. To those shouting and hollering that essays are academic in nature, I’d argue that our essays, here in Proakatemia, are not really academic. They can handle academic topics and can be academic in style, most of our essays are not going to be published in scientific journals, their readers will not be professors of macro-economics or psychologists seeking to read about extensive studies conducted into team work. I put to you, reader, that most of the eyeballs scanning our essays belong either to our coaches, or to other teampreneurs (either from our school or from any other academy from around the globe). As such, we could take a page from authors of prose. And Stephen King is probably the most productive of such modern authors.
King compares the tools any author needs to actually write anything worth while to a carpenter’s toolbox. And not just any tool box (like the old undivided, battered plastic box of mine that used to hold cookies and now holds all of my tools: a hammer and two screwdrivers), but a proper, professional one, that when opened divides into three levels that each old different essential tools. I find it that the toolbox can be upended and compared rather nicely to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. A pyramid like structure that begins at the most basic level, providing the actual steppingstones to further heights and (hopefully) eventual mastery.
The first level of this inverted toolbox is twofold. The basics that anyone writing anything (excluding, maybe, scribbles by children and the modern format of the hieroglyph, the instant message) requires. Grammar and vocabulary. All writing is built on these two (rather large) blocks.
If you want to be exact in your language, a large vocabulary may be what you need. Is what you want. Is what you demand. Is what you crave. See? Four words, all meaning the same thing when you strip them down and analyze them. All of the words I used above can be summarized as a requirement for something. But each adds their own unique twist to the meaning: need implies that you can’t proceed before you have fulfilled the requirement, want implies not a need, but a desire. Demand is a forceful word that implies authority, while when you crave something, you have an almost emotional or physical need. But words are, in essence, only a brief descriptor of the actual meaning behind the word. Just as we can’t push a three-dimensional object onto a two-dimensional plane, we can only represent the meanings we want with the words that we have.
A large vocabulary helps you convey what you mean when you write. But a gargantuan vocabulary can also be a trap. We can become afraid that our words sound dull or dumb and need to be covered in a way. Why say conversation when you can claim that two people were having a discourse? Does saying someone communicated, declared or articulated when you can just use the word said make your prose better? Can’t the reader make sense of the emotion and meaning behind the dialogue without these crutches? Is the reader an idiot? First rule of vocabulary that King puts to us is “use the first word that comes to mind, if it’s colorful and appropriate.”. Don’t be afraid of little words.
One thing in your vocabulary that you should be careful with, are adverbs. Adverbs are verbs that are twisted to work as adjectives, in my mind against their will. In English, these are words that usually end in -ly. Compare the two following sentences:
John closed the door firmly.
John closed the door.
Now, severed from context the former sentence might seem different from the latter. But with context, with all the scenes before the sentence, should be enough to tell us how John closes the door. Adverbs do not describe, they coddle. They make the writer think that they haven’t conveyed to the reader what is going on in the scene. Compare these two:
John slammed the door in the gun mans’ face and shouted, bravely, “You’ll never get in!”
John slammed the door in the gun mans’ face and shouted, “You’ll never get in!”
Again the sentences are devoid of context, but we should know from the earlier scene if John is scared, amused or unfazed by the gun man. Using the adverb shows that we don’t trust the reader to know what’s going on and want to hold their hand as we walked them through the motions of the narrative. Passive voice is another similar sin.
English verbs come in two distinct voices: active and passive. Active verbs mean that someone is doing something. Passive voice on the other hand means that something is being done to something. Example:
I will always remember my first kiss
My first kiss will always be remembered by me.
Passive voice is afraid of committing to anything. It is weak and to quote one of my other favorite authors, Matt Colville “why use a weak word when a strong will do.” Don’t be a coward about your intentions when writing. Now, you could argue that passive voice has a place (and in formal and scientific writing that may be true), but I challenge you to find an essential sentence that couldn’t be made better by using active voice. Last example, I promise:
The chest was carried to the second floor and placed at the bottom of the bed.
The servants carried the chest to the second floor and placed it at the bottom of the bed.
These few rules scrape just the top of the toolbox (or the bottom of the pyramid). King says that your toolbox should be at least four to five deep, with guidance on style, paragraphs and finding your own voice still to be covered. There are a lot any writer can learn from King’s On Writing, and I heartily recommend it to anyone whose interested in communication, marketing or even authorship. But I think that the most important rule that King posits to any prospective writer is something that is encouraged by our school:
Read a lot and write a lot.
King recommends also seeking guidance from his own teachers, whose style guides and grammar rules he read and studied when figuring out how to set out to the world of authors. The on such teacher he suggests is William Strunk, whose 1918 book, The Elements of Style, King recommends to anyone who seeks to understand one the basics of any writing: grammar.