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Peter Ponders... the written word

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Don’t be boring. Most of what I’ve learned in 35 years of writing professionally can be summed up in that advice from a former editor who worked on London’s legendary Fleet Street.

Don’t be boring.

Most of what I’ve learned in 35 years of writing professionally can be summed up in that advice from a former editor who worked on London’s legendary Fleet Street. I also cherish the advice I received from a barefoot, modern-day Mark Twain, and the guidance I gleaned from a King of contemporary horror.

The British editor was an ex-boss who was known for deflating the tires on other reporters’ cars so he could be first on the scene of a big story.

Of course, I don’t recommend that behavior. But I do recommend his advice.

“Don’t be boring, mate,” he’d say. “It doesn’t matter how great the rest of your story is if you start off boring, you’ve lost the reader…

“And don’t muck up the start with history. It doesn’t have to be in chronological order. Tell the reader the most important news right away. You can fill in the rest later in the story…

“Oh, and don’t save a surprise for the end unless you’re Alfred bloody Hitchcock.”

The second writer who gave me great advice was a coworker named Bob. Bob grew up in a shack in Tennessee without indoor plumbing. He played with words as a child because his family couldn’t afford toys. His advice was to be creative when the story lent itself to it.

I remember Bob wrote a piece on a famous circus that was closing. He weaved the story together in the voice of a hypothetical ringmaster. It was surprisingly moving.

But Bob was also quick to point out that you must first write to express and then write to impress. Creativity does no good if nobody gets it.

He also recommended reading the real Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn every year or so to remind yourself why Twain was such a great American novelist.

The third major influence on my writing is from another great American novelist, Stephen King. His book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is a must-read.

Some people may see King only as a horror writer, but he has also written non-horror novels and novellas that became hit movies like The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and Stand by Me. He advises writers that they sometimes must kill their darlings... Not literally, thank goodness.

What he is saying is that you may think a phrase is witty, but if it doesn’t fit with the rest of your story, you have to plunge a stake in the blood-sucking creature’s heart and cast it into the daylight. King wrote his writer’s guide as part of his rehab after he was struck and nearly killed by a distracted driver 20 years ago.

The closest King gets to the supernatural in his book is a type of ESP that writers and readers have. He says to think of your writing as a sort of telepathy where the reader is getting your thoughts straight from your brain to theirs.

Whether you’re writing for business, for school, or for fun, everyone should try to speak directly to their reader. The reader’s attention can be fleeting, especially in the era of smartphones, smartwatches, and other smart things that dumb us down with their constant notifications. The attention of your reader is a gift. While you’ve got it, make the most of it. 

Don’t be boring.

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