Unraveling Rowling

In my quest to become a better writer, I think it is only logical to study those who have found success in their own writing. In my mind, no one has done better than J. K. Rowling in writing success in the last fifteen years. So, I am going to dissect one page of her writing, bit by bit to see what I can discover.

The following is an excerpt from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Page 90.

“Just been showing Professor Sprout the right way to doctor a Whomping Willow! But I don’t  want you running away with the idea that I’m better at Herbology than she is! I just happen to have met several of these exotic plants on my travels…”

“Greenhouse three today, chaps!” said Professor Sprout, who was looking distinctly disgruntled, not at all her usual cheerful self.

There was a murmur of interest. They had only ever worked in greenhouse one before -greenhouse three housed far more interesting and dangerous plants. Professor Sprout took a large key from her belt and unlocked the door. Harry caught a whiff of damp earth and fertilizer mingling with the heavy perfume of some giant, umbrella-sized flowers dangling from the ceiling. He was about to follow Ron and Hermione inside when Lockhart’s hand shot out.

“Harry! I’ve been wanting a word – you don’t mind if he’s a couple of minutes late, do you, Professor Sprout?”

Judging by Professor Sprout’s scowl, she did mind, but Lockhart said, “That’s the ticket,” and closed the greenhouse door in her face.

“Harry,” said Lockhart, his large white teeth gleaming in the sunlight as he shook his head. “Harry, Harry, Harry.”

Completely nonplussed, Harry said nothing.

“When I heard – well, of course, it was all my fault. Could have kicked myself.”

Harry had no idea what he was talking about. He was about to say so when Lockhart went on, “Don’t know when I’ve been more shocked. Flying a car into Hogwarts! Well, of course, I knew at once why you’d done it. Stood out a mile. Harry, Harry, Harry.

It was remarkable how he could show every one of those brilliant teeth even when he wasn’t talking.

First, Verbs

In my high school, teachers teach us not to use the “to be” verbs. (is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been). They preach the eradication any of these supposedly “undesirable” verbs. Here, Rowling shows us that it is both practical and useful to use a mixture of exciting and boring verbs. The “to be” verbs fade into the background to allow other fun words to draw our interest. Take, for example, “There was a murmur of interest,” instead of ‘The students murmured in interest.’ The way she phrased it, the murmur has a greater presence in the sentence rather than the emphasis given to the students in the alternative phrasing. She employs a wide range of verbs – gleaming, dangling, doctor, and mingling –  while allowing verbs like ‘said’ to blend in quietly.

Second, Adjectives

Rowling places her adjectives very carefully. Most of the details and descriptions are derived from the verbs and nouns.  Each adjective has a purpose. Some tell how many or position. Others are more for the mental eye (brilliant, giant, umbrella-sized, exotic). She also chooses to use simple adjectives (heavy, large, several) to keep the flow. The easier something is to read, the happier those who read it will be. I believe this is one of the keys of her writing style.


Other Tips

Rowling uses words that flow well. “Distinctly disgruntled” is perhaps my favorite from this passage. Little things like alliteration can making reading more enjoyable. The ear likes to hear complementary sounds. Rowling also varies her sentence length. Sentences range from 5 words to 24 words. This keeps the reader from passing out from using up all their breath on a huge list of long sentences or hyperventilating from the overuse of short, choppy sentences. Of course, her creative character names draw our focus and add to the personality of her writing. The best aspect of her writing, in my humble opinion, is her ability to use only necessary words. The writing is crafted, through endless editing I’m sure, to speak for itself. And it does. And we love it.

I know that there are gobs more about J.K.  Rowling’s writing to learn, but that is all I have time for today.

Long live the Boy Who Lived.


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