Pens up! Stephen King on how to put pen to paper

Spread the word!

When I was in my teens and early twenties I found myself happily trapped in Stephen King’s universes several times. More than ten years would pass until I laid hands on one of his books again. Following a recommendation from Corinne McKay in the podcast Speaking of Translation, I decided to give it a try, and so my stroll through the pages of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft began.
The book starts with not one, not two, but three forewords. After these, King goes on to share the first years of his biography – no shortage of funny stories in these first 100 pages. Then he gets to the crunch: a mere 30 pages where he describes a writer’s toolbox, and the actual section on writing as a craft. The book wraps up with a postscript, an example of what his own editing looks like, and a reading list with books of his choice.
Although he focuses on fiction, I’ve tried to draw a few lessons that can be applied not only to non-fiction and content for the web, but also to translation, for it’s commonly said that translators are writers, and I agree with that completely. Sharpen your pencils because here we go!
King’s toolbox:
His toolbox is surprisingly underwhelming for any linguist: vocabulary, grammar, style, and paragraphs. Not too daunting, right? And this can be applied to any type of writing. 
For starters, vocabulary. His advice is do your best with what you’ve got. Don’t try and force fancy words if you’re not sure they do work in the context. Is your word ammunition a bit scarce? No shame! How many times have you heard others say ‘I can’t find the words’ or ‘I don’t know how to describe it’? Remember it’s not about the size, it’s about what you can do with it. And of course, the more you read, the better your lexicon will get. This is very important for translators: the more words we have at our disposal, the easier it’ll be to find the closest equivalent.
Concerning grammar, he is very straightforward: noun and verbs make sentences, and these are the basics. Don’t use complex clauses that will take the focus away from the content. Simple isn’t synonymous with unglamorous. As translators, our grammar knowledge tends to be pretty advanced, above all because we’ve learned other languages and have established comparisons. Regardless, having a good manual at hand comes in handy.
When it comes to style, he has clear recommendations: kill the passive voice, kill most adverbs, and remember that ‘say’ is king in the realm of reporting verbs. I think fiction gives you a certain freedom to do ‘whatever you like’ which is absent in non-fiction, may that be articles, academic writing, blog posts, or even translation. Style manuals are compiled and published for a reason, and yes, they tackle how to avoid verbosity and obscurity, but also more complex issues; namely, punctuation, capitalisation, abbreviations, ambiguous words, and many more. This is the bread and butter of every translator. For Spanish, I mainly use the RAE’s Orthography (2010), El libro del español correcto and Fundéu, one of my favourites online, although there are many other resources. For English I use New Hart’s Rules (OUP), but Garner’s Modern English Usage is another great option.
Finally, he addresses the paragraph, which according to him is the basic unit of writing. How long should it be? Writers need to develop a feeling for the right length, only achievable through extensive reading and writing practice. Yet, he suggests long paragraphs can get tedious and even intimidate the reader. This applies to online content. For some reason, we try to get to the gist by merely skimming, scanning, and scrolling the content, hence the importance of boldface, colours, headings, bullet points, and shorter paragraphs.
As for translation, style must reflect what is appropriate in the target language for the genre at issue, and not only at paragraph level, but also in sentences. For example, Spanish or German sentences can be painfully long, but English ones tend to be shorter. This needs to be adapted in a translation.
This post isn’t meant as a detailed analysis of the book; it is a compilation of useful tips that can be applied to non-fiction and translation, so I’ve turned my notes – interspersed with my own ideas and practices – into bullet points to cut to the chase (plus it’s more user-friendly online).
  • Read and write a lot. Practice makes (almost) perfect, courses and theory don’t. The same could be claimed about translation regarding practice – courses and theory do help translators, though. This doesn’t mean beginners can’t be as good as more experienced ones. In our case, I think it’s a question of speed and productivity: the more you translate, the faster and more self-confident you get.
  • Have a regular schedule. King claims that, for writing, you need a routine. We freelancers love the flexibility that comes with the insecurity of being ‘on our own’. I agree with the general idea that, much as we can make our own working hours, most have an optimal time for being creative, productive or inspired. But I dare say that many of us find the time that suits us best and stick to it, at least to a certain extent.
  • Set a daily goal. On average, the daily output for most translators is in the vicinity of 2,500 words. This varies enormously depending on topic, research, experience, CAT tools, etc. King says that, whatever your daily goal might be, you must close the door to your office and stay until you’ve accomplished it. In this case, I think we can afford more flexibility. Many of us find that a yoga class, walking the dog, or chatting with a friend in between words helps to clear the head and come back with renewed energy. So I’d say don’t call it a day until you’ve reached your goal, but don’t think you must be locked in until that happens! Let’s take advantage of our freedom and enjoy co-working spaces, cafés and libraries until we find our best working environment.
  • Clear seeing = Clear writing. King says that if you are capable of visualising something in your mind before you pen it, it’ll be clearer. In our case, this can be transferable to reading and understanding the source text well – even picturing what is being described or explained if possible – before venturing a rendition in the target language. First, make sure the message is clear, then go for it and let the magic happen!
  • Drafts. According to King, there must be at least two, plus the editor’s suggestions in his case. He claims that the first draft must be put ‘in a drawer’ for a while once it’s finished, six weeks is a fair time for a novel. That works for translation as well, doesn’t it? Ahem! Given our tight deadlines, this proposition is outrageous – although, in literary translation, it would make sense to have such a long time to let it ‘settle’, too. He assures us this period away from the text allows you to read it as if it weren’t yours, which means you can be ruthless. Basically, he says it’s easier to kill someone else’s darlings than your own. I couldn’t help but smile at this, for I find it hard to kill mine. A quick formula he gives, which wouldn’t work for translation but would for non-fiction, is as follows: 
    King’s magic formula
    When I write, there are several drafts, and I do my best to kill my darlings (I will even more from now on!). Regarding translation, there are at least three drafts. Once I finish a text, I edit it against the source text while the content is fresh. Then, whether it is two days or two hours, I let it be and focus on something else before I proofread it once, or twice. Encountering the text afresh gives you a different perspective. So does printing it, or changing the font, size, and/or colour of the text to make it look different. To really ensure that the target language sounds natural, this last step should be a monolingual task. You don’t want the sneaky structures of your source language seeping into the translation. Ideally, this is when another pair of eyes peruses the translation for final improvements.
This book was a great read, light and easy, but very informative. Get hold of it if you’re keen on writing fiction and would like to learn about the craft and how to get published. Stephen King is a great story-teller, even when the story isn’t fiction at all. I waited over ten years to return to his world, but I can tell you I’ll be getting lost in it again pretty soon!
So, what about you? Do you have writing or translation tips you’d like to share? How long does your work sit ‘in a drawer’ before you open it again? Have you read this book? Help me complete this post!


King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Hodder, 2012.

Spread the word!

2 thoughts on “Pens up! Stephen King on how to put pen to paper

  1. Thanks very much for putting this together, I’d love to read this in full now but appreciate your overview! My advice is always to leave it, walk away and do something else before picking up and reading though what you’ve written again. I do the washing up! 😉

  2. Hi Katie,

    Doing the dishes is a great idea, especially if they have been piling up for a while! That way, your writing will have more time to ‘settle’.

    Thanks for reading =)

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