The horror of messy communication
Bloody Carrie might give you chills, but Zoe Wilkinson believes that Stephen King can also teach communicators something about writing for an audience…
I’ve always had a morbid fascination for the novels of best-selling horror writer Stephen King. Misery was my Greek beach read last summer.
Surely such gruesome writing has to come from a twisted mind? Corridors awash with rivers of blood and creepy identical twins merely scratch the surface of his chilling creations.
As it happens, I found the answer to my musings when I read On Writing; a Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King.
Part biography and part writing pointers, this was the literary jackpot I’d been hoping for. I began his memoir trying to understand the dark workings of the mind that gave us The Shining, but I ended up with something else; I related to him.
In his first newspaper job as a sports reporter, King submitted a piece of writing only to have his editor, John Gould, “start in on the feature piece with a large black pen”.
“I took my fair share of English Lit classes,” he recalled, “and my fair share of composition, fiction, and poetry classes in college, but John Gould taught me more than any of them, and in less than ten minutes.”
This moment struck a chord with me and my mind flashed back to my early days at 44. Only, instead of sports writing, my challenge was to whittle down a piece on turbogenerators from 160 words to a lean 80.
After agonising over which words could be lost I handed the still incomplete piece to Chuck, a veteran writer at 44. With a few deft swoops of the ‘large black pen’, he created a succinct 80 words in a matter of minutes.
I quickly learned that phrases can be short and perfectly formed.
People are often told how to put words together, to create new sentences, but it’s something different to realise that the important parts can be what you take out.
King’s editor told him something similar: “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”
The first draft is for yourself, to write in a way that makes sense to you, before refining your words for your audience and ‘opening the door’.
And this is what you’re reading now – my scaled back, edited draft.
All this talk of editing and the importance of being concise takes us right back to the most important thing. The point of writing and striving to nail the perfect phrase, paragraph or book is that it’s all for the reader.
This is crucial to internal communications, as telling tailored and compelling business stories is at the heart of what we do. The aim is to get the right information, to the right people, at the right time, in the right way.
It’s easy to get caught up in the beauty of words, but we also need to remember the beauty of clarity and the beauty of meaning – the beauty of straightforward communication.
To leave you on another pearl of wisdom from literary royalty: “The reader must always be your main concern.”