Stephen King’s On Writing and how to kill your darlings so you can kill your essays

The person who recommended that I read Stephen King’s On Writing was the editor of a website I wrote album reviews for. He responded to a draft I sent over with the book title and a reply appropriating its famous quote: “Have you ever heard the advice, ‘Death to adverbs’?”

I was so embarrassed that I downloaded the audiobook that very evening — this was slightly before the days of Amazon Prime. I soon encountered another, oft-repeated gem from the book, that I’m sure most students have heard misattributed at least once: “Kill your darlings.”

King is quoting Faulkner here, and what he means is that every writer is going to write sentences that they like but which need to be removed anyways. These are sentences that the writer will overlook during the revision process. These are sentences that will become invisible because they seem perfect. These, King says, are the sentences you need to watch out for.

“Killing your darlings” requires a ruthless commitment to your message. The next time you’re trying to get under a word count or find yourself stuck during the writing process, try identifying the sentences you may have left in because you favour them. Do they still directly relate to what you’re talking about? A thesis can change over the course of writing a long paper. A phrase you wrote at the beginning may not actually be saying what you intended it to. If there’s a sentence that seems just too good to be true, it probably is.

On sentences, King says that “words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe.”

We all know the feeling of good writing, when words and meaning connect and flow easily. We certainly all know the feeling of reading good writing (I hope). Sometimes writing only seems “good” in retrospect, when you read back and begin to get excited. And sometimes you can tell good writing as you’re actually writing it. This relates to something important King says about inspiration.

“Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we?” he begins. “There is no idea dump, no story central, no island of the buried bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”

Takes some of the pressure off, right?

King’s focus here is on creative re-combination, something that is becoming increasingly relevant as interdisciplinary education gains popularity. If you read something in philosophy class that kind of relates to your English class, chances are your prof will love to talk about it with you, and that’s a great reason to head to office hours with an intelligent question.

My personal takeaway lesson from this was that too much pressure to find an idea can be discouraging. It’s daunting to try and think of an innovative thesis that can contribute to the academic conversation.

One of my favourite UBC profs, Sheryda Warrener, said to our CRWR 201 poetry class last year, “You have enough experience in your life to make beautiful poems,” and I think that stands for King’s ideas, too. You have good ideas in your interesting and curious brain. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself and let your experiences float to the surface and combine with each other. That’s where the real innovation happens.

A metaphor that King makes and carries through the first part of his book (and that I’ve carried through my life) is of a toolbox. A writer’s toolbox, he says, contains the mental tools needed to get the job done. And just like a real toolbox, this one has layers. On top are vocabulary and grammar, which I’ll talk about shortly. Below that are form and The Elements of Style — yes, the Strunk & White classic you can find at the UBC Bookstore. Hint: Canterbury Tales on Commercial also has about five copies at any given time.

This second layer also includes description, dialogue and theme. I’ll let you read his book to find out more about those because what I want to talk about is a related metaphor King draws when he talks about plot. He says that stories are like fossils which the writer uses tools to uncover. Palaeontologists uncovering dinosaur bones start with large tools and work their way to the finer brushes. One always want to use the most delicate tool available to brush away the dust from their story.

Plot, King says, is like a jackhammer. The writer’s job then, is not to create the story, but simply to uncover it. The editing process is like using smaller and smaller tools with each revision, tweaking less and less as you go.

Back to the first layer of the toolbox for a minute. King says grammar should be studied and used as a tool to sharpen all of your other tools. Vocabulary, however, is completely different and should not be studied. A writer should be, first and foremost, a voracious reader. Read enough, and your vocabulary will improve naturally. King favours using simple words instead of complex ones and insists that the first word that comes to mind is probably best.

In academic writing, this applies to the discourse of the student’s chosen subject. The best way to write a good paper in your discipline is to do all of the readings — required or optional — and engage in extra reading and research to become fully versed and confident in the lexicography of your major. Remember walking down the hall in first year and not being able to understand what fourth-years were talking about? Soon, you won’t even notice how naturally you’ll be using words that once seemed foreign and awkward.

While it doesn’t have the same dramatic effect as “kill your darlings,” the lesson I learned from On Writing that has helped me out the most in university, actually, has nothing to do with the book. I mentioned earlier that I started by listening to an audiobook. While I did get a copy out from the library shortly after, that was really my introduction to absorbing audio information.

Listening to audio was, for me, a skill I had to acquire. Over the years, I’ve improved and honed this ability and now learn much better by listening because I continually re-focus my attention on what I’m listening to. I use a free online program to complete some readings which reads text out loud while I follow along with a written copy. This has greatly improved my reading comprehension and information retention. It’s especially helpful for struggling through dense upper-year Philosophy papers when words begin to swim before your eyes. I’ve passed this hint on to some peers who have also found it helpful. Nothing will ever replace the feeling of a book, or reading things on a page, but as a student who spends an inordinate amount time reading, it’s nice to have a break every once in awhile.

Each professor has a different way of teaching and a different way of writing. The same goes for books about writing. No matter what the author says about the art of writing, what they are ultimately explaining is their personal style, beliefs and lessons. The key word here is personal. Every writer and every student is unique. That’s what gives a writer their advantage. Your personal voice and style are just as important as following the conventions of your discipline.

King acknowledges that writing can fill one with despair upon the realization that it is impossible to put what is your mind and heart on the page. Writing can also be exciting, hopeful, revolutionary and nerve-wracking. Whichever way you come, says King, “Come to it any way but lightly.

“Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.”