When I was a kid I read a book about Nellie Bly. Bly was a turn-of-the-century journalist best known for her undercover work posing as a mental patient at the Woman’s Lunatic Asylum on Roosevelt Island. This was groundbreaking stuff for a woman who had not yet secured the right to vote, own land, control her own wages or gain custody of her own children. It was a man’s world, in every sense, and Nellie Bly owned it. (At the age of 31, she married a 73-year-old millionaire and when he died in 1904, ran his company. The girl was boss, literally and figuratively.)
After I read Bly’s bio, I decided I wanted to be a writer. By the time I was of university age, my ambition changed somewhat–I skipped journalism for psychology. I’m not sure why. But I’ve never stopped writing.
I recently purchased Stephen King’s “On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft.” It’s a great book and written in King’s easy to read, story-telling style. According to King, there are several key elements to being a good writer Here are some of them, in no particular order:
- First write for yourself, then write for the audience. “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
- Don’t use passive voice. This means that the road was not crossed by the chicken.
- Avoid adverbs. Eliminate the ones that are unnecessary by writing better.
- Read. If you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader.
- Kill the Darlings. We all get attached to a particular passage or turn of phrase, but if it doesn’t advance the story, kill it.
- Don’t be pretentious. Readers want a good story; they don’t care how many big words you use. Use the first word that comes to mind. It’s probably the better one anyway.
- Learn how to write descriptions. This is the backbone of every good story.
- Don’t worry about grammar. Don’t obsess on “grammatical correctness.” You should already have basic grammatical skills. Story comes first.
- Love to write. Writers love to write. It makes it less like work.
- Stay healthy. Eat right, sleep right, stay grounded.
Part memoir and part practical advice, there are some hilarious moments in the book. (Young Stevie wiping his bum with poison ivy is a particular hoot; he and his brother almost blowing up the city’s power grid is another).
It’s a great read and I highly recommend it.