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On Writing by Stephen King

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The scariest moment is always just before you start.

If you sit down with a Stephen King novel, two things will probably strike you…

Firstly, the number of pages can be kind of intimidating. The Stand, King’s largest novel, is a whopping 1,142 pages – but at least you’ll only need to buy one book at the airport.

And secondly, no matter how big and beastly, you’ll be surprised how quickly it takes you to get from the first page to the last.

Some of his stories are well known (The Stand, IT, Carrie), while others have been transformed into films that feature on many people’s top 10 lists (The Shining, The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me).

Stephen King has written 47 full-length novels (to date) and yet one of his most captivating pieces of work isn’t the creation of the super virus Captain Trips or telling the story of a teenage girl who goes on a telekinetic massacre after getting drenched in pig’s blood. It’s his memoir ‘On Writing’.

In a radio interview, at the time he was promoting Carrie, the host asked King how he wrote the book. He answered simply ‘one word at a time’.

Whether it’s emails, presentations, press releases or your first novel, there’s plenty of wisdom in this book for any writer, no matter what you’re writing, reshaping or editing.

King’s practical advice will arm you with the basic tools every writer needs. Giving personal accounts of his own journey, you can’t help but be inspired by this empowering book.

So, what did I gain from reading On Writing?

I’ll tell you. One word at a time.

1. “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”

This is especially relevant in the workplace if a number of stakeholders are involved. It can be hard to open that door and let people in to critique your work… but sometimes it’s unavoidable.

Usually they’ll give you a technical change that doesn’t affect the tone of your work. Sometimes they’ll want you to take something out because it’s not compliant. Or maybe they’ll suggest something that’ll make you want to slam the door shut.

But, as King says: “Subjective evaluations are a little harder to deal with, but listen: if everyone who reads your book says you have a problem, you’ve got a problem and you better do something about it.”

So if everyone round the table has the same issue, it might be time to take another look. After all, you’re working for the same organisation and no one likes a princess.

2. “The ideal reader. He or she is going to be in your writing room all the time.”

With insurance it can be a little tricky to visualise your ideal reader…but it’s not impossible. You’ve just got to get creative.

Writing a piece on higher premium products? Then your ideal reader will probably have a higher income and worry less about hunting down a bargain.

Creating something around telematics? Then you’re writing for first-time drivers between the ages of 17-25.

It’s a good idea to create a persona for every type of reader who uses your products. That way, you have a clear understanding of whom you're talking to, before you begin.

Take our new Shotgun app, for example. As it’s aimed at a much younger audience, we don’t use the same kind of language as on the main Direct Line website. Abbreviations like FYI, words like ‘dodgy’, and phrases such as ‘Sorry. Boring answer’ have a younger reader in mind. We’re using language that they’d use to build trust and create a rapport with them.

3. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

This makes sense, and I reckon the same goes for insurance copy.  Take a look at how the competitors do it – the good, the bad, and the confusing.

Ever tried explaining accidental damage to a first-time buyer? Do you know what multi-car discount is (clue: it’s not the same as multi-car insurance)? How about the differences between buildings and contents insurance? And don’t even get me started on all the acronyms.

Not only do you have to read our website to work these things out, you also have to read other websites to see if they explain these things better.

And while you’re at it, read non-competitor websites too – they may not be selling the same kind of products, but they may just inspire you to approach a problem from another perspective.

Read anything… magazines, books, ad copy, the sides of drink cartons. The more aware you are of what’s going on in the world, the better your writing will be. You can reference current trends and use appropriate language for your target audience much more effectively.

Remember, your customer is a real person with real emotions. Don’t baffle them with jargon. Talk to them and explain your products as you would in real life.

4. “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

You’ll never know everything. The good thing about working in Digital is that someone will always know something if you don’t, so all you have to do is ask around.

A while back I was racking my brains for the easiest way to explain the difference between contents and buildings insurance. In the end, I asked a co-worker who started out in the call centre.

Here’s how she described contents insurance over the phone:

“If you turn your house upside down, everything that moves should be covered by home contents insurance. That’s how it’s different to buildings insurance, which just covers the structure of your home.”

Eureka! It’s that easy.

What a simple way to describe it to the customer.

And now it’s on our website.

5. “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” 

Adverbs are the devil. I hate them. You probably hate them. The whole world hates them, and yet, we still use them.

The reason King hates them so much is because they’re ‘for the timid writer’.

If you don’t trust the reader to know how your character is doing something (loudly, energetically, cruelly), then it means you’re not doing your job properly.

Adverbs rarely appear on websites, especially not ours. However, the principle is the same; trust your audience, you don't have to explain absolutely everything.

Take Emergency Plumber, a proposition we did in 2016, which promises to get a plumber to you within three hours if you have an uncontrollable water leak. 

As you can see from the copy, we’ve pulled out the main selling points above the fold of the page. Getting a plumber to your doorstep FAST is the USP that sets us apart from other insurers – so that’s what’s been highlighted.

Below the fold of the page there’s plenty more information, but that’s just extra info (the equivalent of the adverbs).

You’ve got to trust the customer to see the value in adding Emergency Plumber to their policy, without overselling it and bombarding them with too much information.

Cut the waffle and get straight to the point. Customers don’t want to search for your USP; it needs to hit them straight away when they read your ad.

Final notes from a fangirl

Other than the useful advice, the first section of Stephen King’s book is more of a biography.

You’ll find out how ‘Little Stevie’ got an unfortunate rash after wiping his bum with a poison oak leaf. And his first drunken experience, which eventually led to a severe alcohol and drug addiction.

However, one of the most interesting parts of the book is the postscript; On Living. Here, King goes into detail about the van that hit him when he was taking an afternoon walk. The driver was drunk and trying to control his dog who’d taken a sudden interest in the fresh meat that was being stored in a cool box on the back seat. King’s struggle back to health, from being unable to pick up a pen for months to writing bestsellers again, is really inspiring. 

Perhaps the most important thing this book has taught me is that I should feel proud of being a writer. And all that stuff you’re taught at school about themes and plotting, are all secondary to good characters and a thrilling story.

As always, Mr King says it best:

“I have spent a good many years – too many, I think – being ashamed about what I write. I think I was 40 before I realised that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all. I’m not editorialising, just trying to give you the facts as I see them.”

Now pick up your pen, or start tapping on your keyboard and begin writing.

One word at a time.