I just finished grading my first batch of ninth-grade essays (farewell, summer – it was fun) and Stephen King is on my mind. No, not because the papers were a horror show, but because King’s memoir, On Writing, speaks to what my kids need.
Honors freshmen tend to overwrite. They use 12 words when three will do the job. They think dropping words like “contrapositive” into a thesis makes them sound smart. They think I won’t realize a clichéd idea wrapped in a pretty word package is still a cliché. Oh, silly freshmen, they don’t know me at all – yet.
Stephen King slayed his own Wordiness Dragon when he was in high school, working as a Friday night sports reporter for his hometown paper. In addition to being stunned that he could actually earn money with his writing, he also was humbled by the no-nonsense style of the newsroom.
A short slice from King’s memoir illustrates the point:
I took my fair share of English Lit. classes in my two remaining years at Lisbon High, and my fair share of composition, fiction, and poetry classes in college, but [newspaper editor] John Gould taught me more than any of them, and in no more than ten minutes. I wish I still had the piece—it deserves to be framed, editorial corrections and all—but I can remember pretty well how it went and how it looked after Gould had combed through it with that black pen of his. Here’s an example:
Gould stopped at “the years of Korea” and looked up at me. “What year was the last record made?” he asked. Luckily, I had my notes. “1953,” I said. Gould grunted and went back to work. When he finished marking my copy in the manner indicated above, he looked up and saw something on my face. I think he must have mistaken it for horror. It wasn’t; it was pure revelation.
Teacher friends, let’s help our kids cut the fluff. Lean writing helps students clarify their message and deliver it with punch. My students are about to attack their own dragons, beginning tomorrow with their very first round of essay corrections. Join us in the fight. Onward, warriors!