What’s in your writing toolbox?
2024-02-15

In On Writing, Stephen King admonishes aspiring novelists to build a writing toolbox. Being a master of story, King demonstrates the importance of having a toolbox through a story.

He was eight or nine at the time and followed his uncle to fix a broken screen. He balanced the screen on top of his head, “like a native bearer in a Tarzan movie,” while his uncle “had the toolbox by the grabhandles, horsing it along at thigh level.”

When they got to the broken screen, King’s uncle asked for a screwdriver. He replaced the screen and then put the screws back in, and that was it; all fixed, but King was puzzled:

I asked him why he’d lugged Fazza’s toolbox all the way around the house, if all he’d needed was that one screwdriver. He could have carried a screwdriver in the back pocket of his khakis.

“Yeah, but Stevie,” he said, bending to grasp the handles, “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.”

King explains:

I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.

[…]

Common tools go on top. The commonest of all, the bread of writing, is vocabulary. In this case, you can happily pack what you have without the slightest bit of guilt and inferiority. As the whore said to the bashful sailor, “It ain’t how much you’ve got, honey, it’s how you use it.”

[…]

Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it. (You’ll be doing that as you read, of course  . . . . but that comes later.)

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Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word—of course you will, there’s always another word—but it probably won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean.

[…]

You’ll also want grammar on the top shelf of your toolbox,

Verbs, specifically active verbs, also go on the top shelf of your toolbox. (King goes on quite a diatribe against passive verbs.)

Take the top shelf out of your toolbox—you know how it works. Below is where your elements of style go. How do you organize paragraphs, sentence structure, and chapter titles?

In fiction, the paragraph is less structured—it’s the beat instead of the actual melody. The more fiction you read and write, the more you’ll find your paragraphs forming on their own. And that’s what you want. When composing it’s best not to think too much about where paragraphs begin and end; the trick is to let nature take its course. If you don’t like it later on, fix it then. That’s what rewrite is all about.

[…]

I would argue that the paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing—the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words. If

And remember…

Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes. The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story  . . . . to make him/her forget, whenever possible, that he/she is reading a story at all.

The last tool in your writer’s toolbox is what the book feels like: How long is it? How heavy is it? How big are the words?

Grab that book you were looking at off the shelf again, would you? The weight of it in your hands tells you other stuff that you can take in without reading a single word. The book’s length, naturally, but more: the commitment the writer shouldered in order to create the work, the commitment Constant Reader must make to digest it.