lessons stephen king can teach every college student (and writer)

Gen-Ed writing classes: a majority of students hate them. While one of the greater liberties of going to college is having the freedom to choose a course of study, Freshman to Seniors are forced to pay for “useless” classes that aren’t applicable to their major.

Nobody wants to take Effective Writing lectures or intriguing seminars that end up putting even the most eager student to sleep (cough, cough… “Writing Across Cultures.”) Like I said, nobody wants that as much an English major want to be slaughtered by logic based math classes.

But the question is, do we need these effective writing courses? The answer is simple: yes. Yes, we do.

This is why: Few writers are born great and even less are made. However, adequate writers can become good, but that is not going to happen in general education classes. A semester or two of writing lectures is not going to break the habits of bad writers, especially if there is no motivation to improve.

Think of it this way: people always say, “Don’t go to college if you aren’t going to study. If you are going to spend all your time partying, then you definitely aren’t ready.” The same thing goes for any classes that require basic skills, not just writing. If a student isn’t ready to see what they can improve on, they are wasting their money.

Writing classes are different from math classes. After a math lecture, a student has to practice or they won’t be able to progress in the next section. The same thing should be applied to developing a firm understanding of Standard English, but this is often not the case. English is so easy to brush off because it’s native to us. However, the Writing Center at West Chester University speaks differently.

photoMany students don’t have the basic skills of focus, content, organization, style, and conventions. Students are shocked when a professor marks them down for not having transitions or an awareness of their ideal audience. This is why I believe every college student should be required to read Stephen King’s On Writing, and every writing class should require students to refer to The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.

Realistically, that is never going to happen. However, if you happen to get the chance at some point, I recommend picking those books up at your local bookstore.

Why bother? On Writing is a fantastic memoir that branches off in ways most memoirs don’t. In 290 pages, King utilizes recursive storytelling to convey his reading and writing literacy from early childhood up to the present. King’s memoir is full of hilarious, honest, and vulgar anecdotes, as well as countless “how to” tips and tricks for becoming the best writer you can be. Throughout his memoir, King raves about The Elements of Style. For writers, this book is practically above the Bible.

photoKing’s Rules that You Should Obey

  1. If I had more time, I would have written a shorter ______ (fill in the blank). As you craft the first draft of your novel, play, paper, etc. let the ideas flow and try to get them on paper within the shortest time span as possible. This part of the writing process is allowed to be “fluffy.” This is because “when you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story… When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story” (King 57).
  2. Rewrite formula: 2nd draft= 1st draft – 10% (222).
  3. 10 “easy” points: mechanics. My friends love to make fun of me for taking online grammar classes from Writer’s Digest. Sure, grammar lectures don’t meet many people’s requirements for a good time on a Friday night (or any day of the week, rather). However, like anything in life, you cannot expect to progress very far if you don’t have a firm grasp of the basics. Just so you know, you already have the basics of grammar; it is mostly a matter of cleaning the rust off the drillbits and sharpening the blade of your saw (119). When it comes to writing papers, the grammar police won’t come and arrest you if you don’t follow the rules, but your professor is not going to give you an “A” (121).
  4. Prepare your toolbox. “’I didn’t know what else I might find to do once I got out here, did I?’ It’s best to have your tools with you. If you don’t, you’re apt to find something you didn’t expect and get discouraged” (114).
    1. Vocabulary. As I reflect on my career as a high school student, I can recall numerous English teachers who compiled lists and lists of words that students needed to define and memorize in order to improve their vocabulary. If I am correct, I can only remember the word “gesticulate” from 10th grade English. While you should put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox and you should not make any conscious effort to improve it (117-118). Sorry English teachers.
    2. Take appropriateness into account. This next rule may not be applicable to argument and proposal essays that you’re crafting in any general education courses, but if you’re going to say a curse word, make it count. If you normally say “sh*t”, don’t write “sugar!” There’s a great quote by George Carlin that reads: In some company, it’s perfectly alright to prick your finger, but very bad form to finger your pr*ck.”
    3. Omit needless words, especially if they mean different things to different people.
    4. Avoid past tense.
    5. Adverbs suck. Just say what you have to say. There is no need to be quite superfluous in your diction. They’re stupid and clunky. Now, you may be tempted to fill your essay with adverbs just to make it longer. If you do decide to do this, please be advised that your professor may not be amused. Just saying.
    6. Reading isn’t just for pleasure. “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that” (147). King’s opinion here is valid, because it can be applied to many different facets of life. If you don’t have time to practice, you don’t have the time (or the skills) to play the game.
  5. Don’t bullshit a bullshitter.
    1. Thematic thinking can be extremely useful. Think of it as a magnifying glass for your toolbox (206).
    2. If you don’t see meaning in a text, do not try to excavate it. You are not a paleontologist digging for dinosaur bones. Also, when crafting an essay, don’t make stuff up just to fill space on the page. It’s not going to work.
  6. You are not Steinbeck.
    1. Do not belabor your point with heavy description. It is not necessary (and it is counterproductive) to describe every little aspect of something. You should also avoid being “name- brand specific” (174). For example, if a lady dresses classy and you want to write about her appearance, don’t describe every aspect of her Versace outfit.
    2. Research but don’t write an instruction manual (227). Even if you’re writing a boring paper, make it an aesthetic read instead of an efferent one. What I mean by this is, let your reader have a connection with your work no matter what appeal it may be: ethos, pathos, or logos, and no matter what style: argumentative or persuasive, descriptive, or analytical.
  7.  Write for your ideal reader and your muse will start showing up (219). This means, write for your audience (rhetorical triangle) and you’ll be in good shape. Just don’t forget to stay on topic and have a purpose.
  8. Welcome criticism. If you are having a peer conference, make sure your peer actually critiques your work. Sure, every human likes to hear “wow, this is fantastic!” but after your professor gets his red pen out, your ego may deflate a bit.
  9. Just write. “The scariest moment is just before you start. After that, things can only get better” (267).


Reference List:

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner, 2000. Print.

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  1. September 18, 2015 / 4:07 pm

    Great list, Stacey! I too love King’s ON WRITING! Here’s my Writer’s Resource page that list my recommendations too. http://www.elementtrilogy.com/writers-corner/ My fave new resource book is WIRED FOR STORY by Lisa Cron – AMAZING! Uses the science of how we are hard wired for story to help us be better writers.

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