Taking the Scare out of Writing: What Stephen King (and Other Fiction Writers) Can Teach Us about Writing Essays
By Daniel Lambert, adjunct professor of Literature
“Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.”
This quotation is from Stephen King’s best work of nonfiction, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I recommend On Writing to my English Literature students, despite the fact that it is written by a fiction writer. Throughout their educational and professional careers, my students will be called upon to write essays, memoranda, and reports: all examples of nonfiction writing. So what can they learn from a fiction writer? What can fiction writers teach us about writing nonfiction?
The answer is: plenty. King likens a writer’s skills (essentials like grammar and structure) to the contents of a toolbox. King recalls as a boy accompanying his uncle to fix a broken screen. King’s uncle brought a giant of a toolbox with him to do the job. King asked why his uncle would lug such a heavy toolbox to complete a simple screen-mending: “It’s best to have your tools with you,” King’s uncle replied. “If you don’t, you’re apt to find something you didn’t expect and get discouraged.” Anecdotes such as this one are useful to the essayist. If we go into a writing project without the proper tools (such as grammar rules), we are likely to get discouraged.
Science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein (the author of classic novels such as Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) is another purveyor of fiction that essayists can learn from. Heinlein’s five rules of writing have become legendary. His last two rules (you must send out what you write; and if your writing is returned to you, you must send it out again) are there to encourage working writers to keep their material on the market until it sells. Heinlein’s first three rules are more useful for the essayist who works in an educational or professional environment:
You must write.
This is an obvious statement, but too many writers let their “writing muscle” atrophy by not writing every day. If you keep a daily writing journal, your writing will improve.
You must finish what you write.
Write a complete draft of your essay. A complete draft usually consists of an opening paragraph, a concluding paragraph, and three (or more) supporting paragraphs. Once you finish, you can go back and edit your draft.
You must not rewrite too much.
One of my favorite maxims is “writing is rewriting.” Most English instructors (including myself) emphasize the importance of revising. With that being said, however, it is possible to rewrite too much. Writers can often be our own worst critics. At some point, it is time to let your babies leave the nest.
The advice of fiction writers such as Stephen King and Robert A. Heinlein has helped me hone my craft. I learn from the purveyors of the craft who have come before me. Books such as On Writing have caused me to reflect upon the life experiences that make me the writer I am, and the reasons why I wouldn’t have it any other way.
How do you perfect your writing skills?
Image credit: Flickr/Robert S. Donovan
Daniel Lambert, MA, is an adjunct professor of Literature at Colorado Technical University. He earned his BA and MA from Loyola Marymount University. He teaches English at California State University, Los Angeles and East Los Angeles College. His writing appears in An Island of Egrets, Faces of Love, and Easy Reader. Connect with Daniel Lambert at http://dan_lambert.homestead.com.