First in an Occasional Series: Stephen King’s “On Writing”

In the late 1990s, the New Yorker serialized Stephen King’s memoir about writing (appropriately titled “On Writing”). The series was wildly popular, and was published in book form in 2000, going on to sell more than 500,000 copies.

In this space, we will periodically share snippets from the book that we think hold particular interest for memoirists.

Verbatim from “On Writing”:

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 household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed. Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use “emolument” when you mean “tip.”

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.

Here’s an example (from YWYS, not Stephen King):

In the last season of Friends (one of our all-time favorite shows), Joey writes a letter of recommendation for Monica and Chandler, who are planning to adopt a baby. Joey’s vocabulary is a bit limited, so he uses a thesaurus to help him.

In doing so, many of his sentences become overblown. The sweet and simple “They are warm, nice people with big hearts” becomes “They are humid prepossessing homo sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps.”

Of course, the Friends writers exaggerated the situation for comedic effect, but we still think it illustrates Stephen King’s point nicely.

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