The Greatest Writing Tip I've Ever Received: Say What You Mean


I paused my coffee mid-sip when I read “Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll…..never say John stopped long enough to perform an act of excretion when you mean John stopped long enough to take a shit.” 

 I puckered my pursed lips in consideration. 

You mean, I can use the word shit? Well, that’s satisfying, I thought. 

I kept reading. Stephen King urged my writing forward with the advice to “use the first word that comes to your mind if it is appropriate and colourful.” 

I can’t remember if I finished my coffee or my copy of On Writing first, but I do remember the feeling of freedom I felt afterwards. 

As a new writer trying to move past the need to impress on the page, this piece of advice stopped my inner critic short. I’d always found writing to be a bit like stepping into a recently detonated dictionary. I’d see words fall from the sky, form incomplete sentences and land next to each other in odd formations on the ground. While my fingers danced over the keyboard unearthing half-buried phrases, my attempts to build melodies from incoherencies suffered because I was always pausing to hunt through the wreckage for word-jewels. 

Brilliant, flashy word jewels that I could string together into grand, shiny sentences. Most of the time my expeditions left me with three cups of cold coffee and a cursor that blinked at me in accusation of the blank page. 

The day after reading that particular piece of advice, however, I plucked and pulled the first colourful words I found amidst the explosion. And you know what? I moved forward. I put one word in front of the other. A sentence formed. A stronger one followed. An entire paragraph appeared. The strength of my word flow pushed the cursor to a stop.

Unlike other times, I avoided falling down one of the letter-shaped holes created by words like force, or pressure. I used to find myself lost in a literary forest laden with mystical creatures of elaborate big-worded distraction. Those creatures danced amongst treetops glittering with over description, alliteration, and mad prose. Their madness was that delicious it caused me to forget what I was there to say in the first place. 

By using the first words that came to mind, I circumnavigated that pesky minefield. It may not have been fancy footwork, but it got me back on track. Sure, it was scary to stop hiding behind beautiful words. I felt somewhat vulnerable, seeing my vocabulary stark naked on the page. 

I was rewarded with consolation when I learnt that naked vocabulary’s a lot easier to dress than a bare page. Now when I feel myself grasping a little too far sideways in my search for word-jewels and the embellished sentence, I come back to the story by using the first word that comes to mind if it is appropriate and colourful. Most of the time it’s raw, honest words that are absolutely starkers to start with, but sometimes they come out dressed for the occasion as if they were there all along, and I didn’t need to hunt around so hard for them in the first place.