Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully

In 1988, The Writer’s Handbook reprinted an article by novelist Stephen King entitled Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully – in Ten Minutes. In it, King told the story of the fateful 10 minutes to which he credits his success as a writer.

Back in 1964, King got in big trouble during his sophomore year in high school. Part of his punishment involved taking a job at a 12-page weekly community newspaper in the small town in Maine where he grew up.

It was at this tiny newspaper that Stephen King met an editor named John Gould, the man who taught King everything he needed to know about writing in one 10 minute review of his first feature piece for the paper.

I’ll let King tell it from here:

[Gould] started in on the feature piece with a large black pen and taught me all I ever needed to know about my craft. I wish I still had the piece – it deserves to be framed, editorial corrections and all – but I can remember pretty well how it looked when he had finished with it. Here’s an example:

(note: this is before the edit marks indicated on King’s original copy)

Last night, in the well-loved gymnasium of Lisbon High School, partisans and Jay Hills fans alike were stunned by an athletic performance unequaled in school history: Bob Ransom, known as “Bullet” Bob for both his size and accuracy, scored thirty-seven points. He did it with grace and speed … and he did it with an odd courtesy as well, committing only two personal fouls in his knight-like quest for a record which has eluded Lisbon thinclads since 1953….

(after edit marks)

Last night, in the Lisbon High School gymnasium, partisans and Jay Hills fans alike were stunned by an athletic performance unequaled in school history: Bob Ransom scored thirty-seven points. He did it with grace and speed … and he did it with an odd courtesy as well, committing only two personal fouls in his quest for a record which has eluded Lisbon’s basketball team since 1953….

When Gould finished marking up my copy in the manner I have indicated above, he looked up and must have seen something on my face. I think he must have thought it was horror, but it was not: it was revelation.

“I only took out the bad parts, you know,” he said. “Most of it’s pretty good.”

“I know,” I said, meaning both things: yes, most of it was good, and yes, he had only taken out the bad parts. “I won’t do it again.”

“If that’s true,” he said, “you’ll never have to work again. You can do this for a living.” Then he threw back his head and laughed.

And he was right; I am doing this for a living, and as long as I can keep on, I don’t expect ever to have to work again.

Everything you need to know about writing successfully (summary):

Omit unnecessary words.

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Comments

  1. Good post buddy.

    Got my attention.

  2. This is good. Something else occurred to me.

    Good writing also omits unnecessary ideas, details, facts, arguments, etc., anything that gets in the way of the main point.

    That’s why off topic posts can be a problem on a blog. They just aren’t necessary.

  3. I remember reading that back in the early 90’s it’s always good to reread every now and again. very good Advice

  4. Omit unnecessary words? An absolute must … and I would add — don’t write in the passive voice because the active voice is almost always better. (except when delivering bad news :=)

    Like King, I had a writing mentor. I was a traffic manager at a small radio station. The owner, a former ad man, asked me to write a letter to an advertiser.

    I began the letter, “Enclosed please find …” Billy, the owner, sent it back to me with “Enclosed please find” crossed out, and replaced with “Here is…”

    A revelation at the time and it still guides my writing.

  5. I started writing sports stories at my local newspaper at age 16 also, and I’ll never forget an identical revelation my editor (who had been my English teacher the semester before, she got me the job) gave me on my first overly colorful basketball story.

    The scales fell from my eyes the same way.

    Then when I got to college and met Strunk and White Elements of Style, I realized she had stolen “Omit needless words” from the classic writing manual (although William Strunk repeats it three times; are those needless words?)

    I’ve used it with my own writing students ever since.

    Chris

  6. Steven King on being concise is like Rosie Odonnell on how to stay thin. How fitting it was that his 10 minute lesson took a half an hour!

    “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”

    I call Bullshit. Using thesaurus (shift+F7) and answers.com to get the precise word you need is a best practice – not a hindrance.

  7. Quad, there’s a reason why I only excerpted the one portion that I did. :)

    And I’ve always loved Strunk’s succinct (if repetitious) three-word rule.

    When only the necessary words remain, you’ve got good copy.

    Now choosing the necessary words in the first place… :)

  8. I totally concur – BUT! There is one exception to the rule, if you are prepared to compromise: wayward editorial policy. My editors at the magazine where I work HATE it when I cull all the fluff (as I regard it). I wasn’t aware of this but had noticed lately a slightly cooler response to my monthly submissions. I put it down to familiarity breeding contempt, but then this month I was in a big hurry and nervously (Whoops! Adverb!) submitted my first draft, complete with about 400 unnecessary words, as I was out of time. They loved it! I re-read it when it came out and my God! I just wanted to get my scissors out and cut holes in the page … I commented on this to the ‘eds’ and they proceeded to rave that it was better like this! Meh! Whaddya gonna do? Go figure!

  9. >Quad, there’s a reason why I only excerpted the one portion that I did.

    Because his “10 minute Lesson” wouldn’t fit on your server?

    ;)

  10. LOL!

  11. Very interesting piece. Years ago I watched a machinist friend take a square block of rough aluminium, study it for a while, make a few pencil marks and clamp it into a milling machine. A few minutes, and a few adjustments later and there was a beautifully sculptured race car rear view mirror.

    When I marvelled to him about his skill he replied, “It wasn’t me, the mirror was inside the billet all along, I just cut off the bits that weren’t part of it.”

    I believe he stole the line from one of the ancient classic sculptors, but the validity of the idea never suffered.

  12. James Henderson :

    Weird: I just finished reading The Stand last night, and this post shows up.

    This is a great post, and one that has sort of flicked a lightswitch 1/2 on in my head. Time to get out and flick that switch fully up on my current and future writing projects. I imagine that I’ll be referencing this post very often.

  13. For an alternative view to Strunk & White, I would recommend Spunk & Bite. It is an entertaining read.

  14. People tend to be on a hurry on the web, and using unnecessary words just slows them down.

    Nice post. :)

  15. The two bloggers that influence me the most are Seth Godin, and you, Brian. Seth, for his ability to make a point in a few words, and you for your way of parting the fog.

    I’d already thanked Seth. Now I thank you.

    Regards,

    Glenn

  16. Thanks Glenn. When I grow up, I hope to be brief like Seth.

    For now, long winded will have to suffice. :)

  17. That copywriting stuff is kind of … simple.

    This post is simply great.

    I knew I knew something …. now if I just knew what it was and how to do it.

  18. Yes. Saying things simply is hard. Great lession for us writers. Only practice and constant self-examination can lead to this writing style. Bravo!

    Mike

  19. A very good point made there. I leave articles for a few days, return to re-read them and then end up cutting out about one third of the content.

    *****
    Good Point. After writing, I re-read and cut a third of the content.

  20. Like Brian, I found myself thinking of Strunk and also, Robert Southey:””If you would be pungent, be brief. For it is with words as with sunbeams: The more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.”

  21. Good reading makes perfect since to me.

  22. I love the succinct final summary.

    Steve Krug, when imparting the same advice in “Don’t make me think”, illustrates this by using a strikethrough on the word ‘unnecessary’.

    i.e. omit (unnecessary) words

    It’s a good visual aid that I keep in mind when writing.

  23. Hmmm…

    But “unnecessary” (or needless) is actually the most important of the three word.

    You just can’t cut words, you’ve got to cut the right (or wrong) ones. :)

  24. A perfect rule, but

    1) it’s much easier to apply it to blogs (and to anything published on the web) than to paper publications – a magazine has a certain number of pages, which mostly depends on advertising, and each page has a certain number of words, according to the layout;

    2) though important, it’s not the first stage of writing process. First, you have to write something. Otherwise, if you tend to omit words before even writing them down, all you can get is a writing block:-)

  25. Years ago, I read two books by William Zinsser. One was “On Writing Well”, a classic. The other, I can’t remember. In one book, Zinsser quoted a famous American writer who basically said, after you write something, go back and strikeout every other word with a pencil. If it doesn’t make sense, insert any necessary words. I used to follow that method automatically, but I guess I have to review. It’s easier to be verbose, harder to write with brevity.

  26. Ten minutes well spent.

    I’ll leave out the unnecessary words from this comment (even though that statement is itself unnecessary — and so is this one).

  27. A superb piece of writing. In Stephen King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” of 2001, he takes 8 hours to get his point around (the audio version). More than the 10 minutes advertised in the article of 1988.

    Clearly he has not taken his advice over the years. Or has he?

    The book is as close as it gets to King’s own autobiography. It details the trail what brought him success, what brought him failure and what he has learnt. It is clear and crisp.

    Not only does it sum up to a memoir, but a tribute to the craft of writing. If you enjoy writing and liked his article, it is a book I recommend.

  28. You know, I’ve read that article before. It’s one of those writer legends that never go away. With the Internet it keeps going on round and round being retold again and again. Again, it’s all about the power of the ‘story’. Isn’t it?

  29. A William Struck rule: “omit needless words”

  30. Have any of you been having frequent Stephen King sightings? Like people who look a lot like him? I don’t think its just me.

  31. I clicked through and read the entire Stephen King Article. The stuff of legend.

  32. Love this post, Brian. Glad to have arrived here where my writing style feels right at home. :-)
    Clara

  33. Great article, short and sweet!

  34. This is, in fact, the sanitised version of the story, not the Stephen King original.

    “[Gould] started in on the feature piece with a large black pen and taught me all I ever needed to know about my craft. ”

    In Stephen King’s version the “craft” in question was, of course, witchcraft (the most popular pastime in Maine) and that “large black pen” was in fact a large black staff which Gould would use to draw satanic symbols on the floor and open the gates of Hell.

  35. Researching is also a huge factor in the writing process, as well as some sort of emotional attachment. The attachment can be small like sharing an idea, story, or history of the material. Mastering your craft should be simple and to the point. I believe great writers are clear thinkers.