During a recent stop at a used book store, I picked up a copy of “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” by Stephen King.
It’s the best $7.95 I’ve ever spent.
True to its title, King tells the story of how he became a professional writer and honed his craft over many years.
Besides offering moving passages about his early struggles as a writer while supporting his family, King inserts a lot of humor in the book—something I didn’t expect from the author of “Carrie” and “Pet Semetary.” Several passages made me laugh out loud, particularly the one about poison ivy (that’s never funny, which tells you something about King’s writing skills).
King genuinely cares about helping less experienced writers find success. He hadn’t forgotten the days when a $250 payment for a magazine story meant he could pay the rent. So he offers plenty of tips to help writers avoid some common pitfalls.
As you’d expect, much of King’s advice is for fiction writers. But content marketers can also find a few helpful nuggets:
Axe needless words
Economy of expression is always important—perhaps even more so in content marketing where space is more limited than in fiction.
King recalls an early rejection slip he received from a magazine editor. The brief note contained some advice: “You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.”
Completing a first draft (I call it “draft zero”) is simply doing a mind dump on the page, putting all your thoughts down so you can begin to make sense of what you want to say. Editing (or completing the true “first draft”) is partly about deleting all the stuff that doesn’t meet the goal of your blog post, newsletter piece, website copy, or other project. Every word must serve a purpose. If it doesn’t belong, cut it. And be ruthless about it (a.k.a. “kill your darlings”).
King writes, “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. This is like dressing up a pet in household evening clothes.”
This point gets at the heart of considering the reading audience. If you choose the more complicated word over the short and direct one, readers will notice.
Industry jargon compounds the problem. Health care marketing is notorious for inserting medical terminology when ordinary language will do. No matter how impressive it may sound to write “the cancer metastasized,” do your lay readers a favor and opt for “the cancer spread.” Avoid “doctor speak” unless you’re writing for an audience of physicians.
Kill passive voice creepers
Which sounds better: “The meeting will be held at seven o’clock” or “The meeting’s at seven”?
King uses these examples to encourage writers to avoid the passive voice trap. He goes on:
“Two pages of the passive voice—just about any business document ever written, in other words, not to mention reams of bad fiction—make me want to scream. It’s weak, it’s circuitous, and it’s frequently torturous, as well.”
Don’t put readers through slow-drip passive voice agony. Instead, use active verbs to empower your prose (this is also a great way to omit needless words).
Passive voice can creep into your work like silent spirits, but they’re easy to catch. Just use the “readability statistics” feature built into Word’s spell check to determine the percentage of passive sentences. Then go through each paragraph to identify and exorcise those demons.
Write bite-sized paragraphs (like Halloween candy)
At one point in “On Writing,” King asks the reader to select any book and glance inside randomly at the lines of type, margins and blocks of space between paragraphs.
“You can tell without even reading if the book you’ve chosen is apt to be easy or hard, right?” he asks. “Easy books contain lots of short paragraphs—including dialogue paragraphs which may only be a word or two long—and lots of white space.”
Since you want readers to easily absorb your marketing content, aim for breezy bite-sized copy.
A direct mail piece I received recently emphasizes the importance of writing short. Few readers will grab a machete to slog through dense paragraph blocks. Minuscule margins tell me a committee wrote the copy or the writer just didn’t take the time to edit.
Why shoot yourself in the foot by writing copy that readers will reject at a glance? Read your work aloud as you edit. If it’s too long, you’ll run out of breath mid-sentence. Write conversationally and your audience will more likely read your content.
Craft like Dr. Frankenstein
I often say “writing is thinking” because it takes a heck of a lot of thought to create a polished work (it’s pretty obvious when a writer didn’t put much effort into a piece).
I prefer King’s phrase: “Writing is refined thinking.” Anyone can jot down some notes or dream up a concept for a marketing piece. But it’s during the act of writing (and especially editing) when a work becomes crystallized.
Just as Dr. Frankenstein combined different body parts to bring his monster to life, content writers artfully craft and edit their writing to create engaging copy. It takes a lot of clear thinking and concerted judgement to bring a piece of writing to life. Imagine if Dr. Frankenstein had just thrown things together—his monster might have had a foot instead of an ear sticking out of the left side of his head!