This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "On Writing" by Stephen King. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.
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Do you want to learn about the mechanics of writing? What are the mechanics of writing, and how do they work?
The mechanics of writing are as important as any other element of your story. Without solid mechanics, you won’t produce a successful piece of writing.
Keep reading to learn about the mechanics of writing and how to improve your skills.
What Are The Mechanics of Writing?
A writer is an artisan who has a number of tools in her toolbox available for use—diction, grammar, phrasing. You likely already have these tools, so don’t worry that you don’t understand them well enough to be a writer. For dependable guidelines, look to The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
King does single out two of his pet peeves—passive tense and adverbs as the top mechanics of writitng.
Avoid Passive Tense
Passive tense arranges words so that things are done to subjects. “The car was started by the driver.” “The discovery was announced with great fanfare.” “The meeting is scheduled for seven.”
All of these sentences sound weak. In active tense, the subject does the action. “The driver started the car.” “The grandmaster announced the discovery with great fanfare.” “The meeting’s at seven.” Don’t these sentences feel better?
This is common enough advice, but why do writers still use passive voice? Because it’s safe. Passive voice avoids the need to assert a subject doing a deliberate action. Passive voice is the refuge of timid, uncertain writers.
Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They usually end in -ly, as in “Tom started the car dejectedly.”
Like passive voice, adverbs are a sign of weak, timid writing. Writers often use adverbs to make sure the reader knows exactly what is happening, but this blunts the power of the verb.
Instead of using adverbs, make the context clear so that the adverb becomes unnecessary. If Tom is starting the car, the prose preceding it should be so clear it makes “dejectedly” redundant: “Tom sat for ten minutes, imagining the look on his boss’s face as he pounded out the email at 3AM that morning. He sighed and started the car.”
These are a few simple rules Stephen King follows about the mechanics of writing. As you craft your own toolbox, keep these mechanics in mind.
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Here's what you'll find in our full On Writing summary :
- Stephen King's personal writing habits that led to superstar books like Misery and It
- How to make a story and characters feel real
- Why you should never use adverbs