In previous installments of examining King’s writing tips, I discussed King’s concepts of what it takes to be a writer and creating a toolbox. In this article, we are going to discuss the vocabulary used by writers and hear a few things that King has to say about the tool that he identifies as the “bread of writing” (On Writing, 114).
Vocabulary is simply the words that a writer chooses to use in his/her story. Some writers will use a complex vocabulary that will send you thumbing through a dictionary every other sentence. To each their own, but this can make the story difficult to read and, sometimes, cause the reader to throw the book to the side before even finishing it. However, some readers like those writers with an extensive vocabulary. Again, to each their own, this applies to writers and readers alike.
King encourages writers to use the vocabulary that they have. He suggests that a writer just pack that vocabulary into the toolbox without giving it a second thought. King suggests, “You can happily pack what you have without the slightest bit of guilt and inferiority” (114). Most writers, including myself, have struggled with this concept in their own work. Some worry that if it is too complicated, people will be turned off by it. Others may worry if it is too simple that people won’t take it serious. King helps put those fears to rest in On Writing.
I believe that Blood Meridan is another (fine novel), although there are great whacks of it that I don’t fully understand. What of that? I can’t decipher the words to many of the popular songs I love, either (116).
“Street vocabulary” is another category discussed by King. King defines street vocabulary as “phonetically rendered” words, such as “yeggghhh” as used by Tom Wolfe. Tom Wolfe and Elmore Leonard are two writers who use this tool in their work.
King discourages writers from trying to make any “conscious effort to improve” their vocabulary (117). The improvement of vocabulary should be primarily done through reading, which King has identified as a key element for successful writers. It is as important for writers as the actually writing itself.
Writing should be a natural thing to some degree, although it takes work to become so. In order to maintain this naturalness, a writer should use the words that are natural to them. King gives a warning about writers altering their vocabulary for the wrong reasons.
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 (117).
You have to love his examples. There are people who do dress up their pets. Doesn’t it make you feel just a little bit sorry for those poor creatures being forced to wear a cutesy outfit? Remember that poor pet the next time you think about changing your words just for the sake of “dressing it up.”
Finally, King suggest that you stick with your original thought when writing. He identifies the basic rule of vocabulary as “using the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful” (118). Of course, a thesaurus can help find a word that might make you, as a writer, sound more intelligent or sophisticated. However, it might also change the meaning of what you really want to say and how you want to say it.
Some of the greatest stories ever told are written by authors who use a combination of their regional tone with a vocabulary that connects with the reader. As a writer, a person should tell their story in the way that they would normally do it without changing the words to fit somebody else’s idea of right. Imagine Mark Twain writing in Stephen King’s vocabulary or vice versa. It wouldn’t work for either one of them. In the South, we would say, “It all comes down to using the words that your momma gave you.”