In part two of On Writing, King gives an overview of what he considers the essential tools for every writer’s toolbox. The analogy is interesting, and the story he provides at the start demonstrates an excellent point: Always have all your tools with you so you can tackle any unexpected situation.
So what goes in this metaphorical toolbox?
The first layer consists of common tools. The most common tool, per King, is vocabulary. It’s something we all have to varying degrees. I really appreciate King’s take on vocabulary, which is essentially, learn to use what you have and don’t worry about developing more. Your vocabulary develops as a by-product of reading. All writers are readers first, right?
The other common tool is grammar, and it goes on the top along with vocabulary. He covers two fundamental issues in grammar: passive voice, and use of adverbs. These are pretty common topics in discussions of grammar. His reason for the mistakes really got me thinking. He attributes both mistakes to a form of fear. For passive voice, King thinks that timid writers use passive voice because it’s safe and because it lends some sort of authority to their writing. Adverbs, on the other hand, come from the writer’s fear of being unclear. King believes that “fear is at the root of most bad writing.” Good writing is about letting go of fear.
The second layer in the toolbox contains style. Aside from the usual reference book recommendation, King concentrates on the paragraph as a good measure of style. How the writer uses it to break up the page and follow the beats of the story can show the difficulty of reading the work. Easy reading has short paragraphs and white space, hard reading looks dense. In fiction, the paragraph requires less structure than in other writing. He compares it to talking, and its use can be an act of seducing the reader. It’s the music the writer hears in his/her head. He says that the paragraph is the basic unit of writing, and that to learn it well is to learn the beat.
King also talks about commitment throughout this section, and how a writer’s first goal should be to help the reader out. Words have weight, they take a lot of work to put together, and can demand a lot from a reader to digest. In writing, we must be considerate and mindful of the reader, always working towards clarity and brevity, to keep the reader from drowning in a sea of words.
King wraps up by talking about the third layer, which is to write real fiction. Stop the fear, build your works as a carpenter builds a house, one brick or board at a time. Build your writing with the basics, and you can build whatever you like.
That’s it for the toolbox. I think King does an excellent job of reminding us as writers just how far basic skills will take you.
Learn the basics, lose the fear.