I recently read Stephen King’s On Writing, a cross between a memoir and a writing guide. Even though King is a fiction writer, I was surprised to find that there’s a good deal of writing advice that applies to the writing I do as a consultant, explaining complex concepts to clients.
I’ve also been working to apply King’s advice to writing blog posts.
Carry Your Toolbox
King presents these writing practices and considerations in the form of a writer’s toolbox. All writers must keep this metaphorical toolbox on hand and use it to create any work of writing. Each and every one of these tools is just as applicable to writing a short, informative blog post as they are to writing a thriller of thousands of words.
King describes vocabulary as “the commonest of all” tools. Your vocabulary defines the rest of the way you write, what words you are most comfortable using in a situation, and how effectively you can leverage what you already know.
This part of the toolbox should grow organically. As you read the writing of others, your vocabulary will naturally expand in response to new things you’re learning. Don’t be ashamed to use short words if they’re what you’re comfortable with now.
The worst thing you can do is reach beyond the tools already in your toolbox. If you try and stretch beyond words you’re comfortable with, the result will feel unnatural and stilted. As King says:
“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.”
King keeps his section on grammar brief, based on the belief that grammar, like vocabulary, is most effectively learned by absorption:
“One either absorbs the grammatical principles… in conversation and in reading, or one does not.”
This is mostly true, but there’s no shame in seeking grammar assistance for your own writing — especially if you don’t intend to become a fiction author. Nearly every text editor these days is shipped with rudimentary spelling and grammar checking functions. And there are many online tools available in the pursuit of better grammar. The Gammarly browser plugin, for example, analyzes your text and suggests improvements as you write.
Just below grammar is the importance of a well-structured paragraph. Paragraphs are collections of related sentences that, together, form a larger thought. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to break from one paragraph into another. This can lead to a long block of text that runs together and is very hard for a reader to parse. Smaller paragraphs are much easier for a reader to parse quickly, but they cannot convey the same depth of information.
More than that, the way you structure your paragraphs projects complexity to the reader before they even begin reading. Writing that’s easy to read looks airy, King says, but difficult writing looks packed. Neither of these is incorrect, by any means, but each can have a different impact on a potential reader. A reader who has only a few minutes to spare could be turned off by a packed opening paragraph. Likewise, a reader wanting a deeper dive into a topic might see short paragraphs and infer that your words do not present any new ideas.
Your paragraph structure radiates the intent of your writing to the reader before they even begin. When you match your structure to your intent, you correctly tell the reader what to expect.
King repeats the old advice to “consider your audience” when you write. However, he takes an interesting spin on it. Instead of considering a group as your audience, he pushes writers to consider their singular ideal reader. Which person do you want — most of all — to love what you’re writing?
For King, his ideal reader is his wife. If he hands her a manuscript and she doesn’t love it, he takes her feedback and reworks it. He doesn’t care about his readers’ demographics or what broad groups it would be best to aim for. His ideal reader is his wife, so he writes in a way he knows she’ll love.
In writing a blog post, you too must have an ideal reader in mind. If you’re writing a technical post, what are the technologies that your ideal reader is already familiar with? Or is your ideal reader new to the technology? In that case, you might write in such a way to make it easy for them to understand the technology. Are you writing an advice post, documenting experiences that you’ve learned from? Perhaps your ideal reader is a younger version of yourself before you learned those lessons.
Whatever it may be, identifying an ideal reader allows you to make focused decisions on how best to leverage the other tools in your toolbox.
To leverage your newly filled toolbox effectively, you must care. This is the most important advice I can relay from On Writing. If you are passionate about the subject of your writing, it will naturally be easier to write well and creatively. Whatever is interesting to you, whatever you are passionate about, that will make for good writing.