Lahey: By extension, how can writing teachers help students recognize which words are required in their own writing?
King: Always ask the student writer, “What do you want to say?” Every sentence that answers that question is part of the essay or story. Every sentence that does not needs to go. I don’t think it’s the words per se, it’s the sentences. I used to give them a choice, sometimes: either write 400 words on “My Mother is Horrible” or “My Mother is Wonderful.” Make every sentence about your choice. That means leaving your dad and your snotty little brother out of it.
Jessica Lahey: In On Writing, you identified some phrases that should be excised from every writer’s toolbox: “At this point in time” and “at the end of the day.” Any new irksome phrases you’d be willing to share? (Mine’s “on accident.”)
King: “Some people say,” or “Many believe,” or “The consensus is.” That kind of lazy attribution makes me want to kick something. Also, IMHO, YOLO, and LOL.
Lahey: You write that “it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer.” If so, how should writing teachers proceed when it comes to our least talented students?
King: Ask yourself what they need to get on in life, the bare minimum (like filling in a job application), and concentrate on that. Sometimes it can be as simple as writing—as a class exercise—instructions on how to get from Point A in town to Point B. They tie themselves in knots, at least to start with. It can be pretty hilarious. My kids used to end up shouting at each other, “No, no, you go left at the water tower!” Stuff like that.
Lahey: Great writing often resides in the sweet spot between grammatical mastery and the careful bending of rules. How do you know when students are ready to start bending? When should a teacher put away his red pen and let those modifiers dangle?
King: I think you have to make sure they know what they’re doing with those danglers, those fragmentary and run-on sentences, those sudden digressions. If you can get a satisfactory answer to “Why did you write it this way?” they’re fine. And—come on, Teach—you know when it’s on purpose, don’t you? Fess up to your Uncle Stevie!
Lahey: Oxford comma: yea or nay?
King: It can go either way. For instance, I like “Jane bought eggs, milk, bread, and a candy bar for her brother.” But I also like “Jane raced home and slammed the door,” because I want to feel that whole thing as a single breath.
Lahey: You extol the benefits of writing first drafts with the door closed, but students are often so focused on giving teachers what they want and afraid of making mistakes that they become paralyzed. How can teachers encourage kids to close the door and write without fear?
King: In a class situation, this is very, very hard. That fearlessness always comes when a kid is writing for himself, and almost never when doing directed writing for the grade (unless you get one of those rare fearless kids who’s totally confident). The best thing—maybe the only thing—is to tell the student that telling the truth is the most important thing, much more important than the grammar. I would say, “The truth is always eloquent.” To which they would respond, “Mr. King, what does eloquent mean?”