6 Things Writers Can Learn From Elvis

Written by Laura MacLemale | April 24, 2014

To many admirers and fans, Elvis Presley was an anomaly, a one-of-a-kind show business performer and personality who touched several generations with his work and music. Isn’t this what many newer writers want to accomplish in the publishing world? Through all of his accomplishments in music, the King can be a mentor of sorts to newer writers who are just finding their own “voices.” Elvis’ approach offers several guidelines that writers can glean from it and that apply to many different types of writing.

1.  KISS…Keep It Simple, Sumner

The beginning of one of Elvis’ most well-known musical hits, “Blue Suede Shoes,” makes just one simple, non-wordy request that can be briefly paraphrased: , “Just stay off the shoes, ‘kay?”

Many would-be works of literature combine complicated characters, situations, and/or both. One mistake some less experienced writers make is to assemble an overly descriptive would-be masterpiece that contains too many overused plot devices or too many characters take away from the “voice” of the writer. Don’t be afraid to leave some details or plot ideas to the reader’s imagination. Just as the listener knows that Elvis can have a good time dancing with you as long as you stay off the “Blue Suede Shoes,” the reader should receive a message that doesn’t require too much over-explanation. Yes, Elvis, his fans, and good writers all know that it is best to “Keep it Simple, Sumner.”

What exactly do you want your characters to experience? What types of people are they? If you must, write a “kitchen-sink” first draft and set it aside for a couple of days. Then, go back and revisit your own “voice” and remain true to it. Instead of adding additional details about a severe sibling rivalry or a betrayal between a couple, look for ways to streamline them and let the reader draw his or her own conclusion. This approach focuses the reader’s experience on the story being told, rather than the skill (or lack thereof!) of the author who created the characters and prose.

2. Visualize Your Audience, Respect Them, and Emotionally Move Them

Although Elvis was respected and revered by millions of fans, he knew who his true, core audience was: women in a certain age group. His performances catered to that audience. When Elvis sang his old standards, he was connecting with his audience’s memories of those earlier days. When he sang Gospel with dramatic flair, he was connecting with his roots, which his fans instinctively understood.

Writers must also do this: know your audience and visualize their expectations and what they want to get from your writing. This concept is different than focusing on what the writer wants the reader to take away from it, but it should shift to what the reader’s purpose is for reading your compelling tale. Just as Elvis knew who would swoon when he tossed out a sweated-on scarf during his performance, the aware writer knows who will most likely respond emotionally to his or her storyline and delivery.

No matter your genre, make sure that your performance will connect with your largest targeted readership. Even though you may be more of a writer than a “performer” per se, this is still a lesson from Elvis for writers in all genres. In example, today’s numerous true-crime documentaries and dramas on TV mean that true-crime readers will have a certain level of knowledge about data collection and forensic crime solving. As a fictional or non-fictional crime writer, then, you are responsible for researching the “real-life” implications of crime scene investigations. If this step gets neglected, then your readers may not be swooning in the audience, so to speak, within the Elvis context

3. Embrace Your Inner Uniqueness

In the 1960s through the 1970s, Elvis accomplished this through his bold appearance—the oversized sunglasses and sideburns, and the sequined, flared-leg jumpsuits. Granted, not every performer can pull off that look, but Elvis knew that he was who he was. Beyond his appearance and on-stage performance, Elvis’ song lyrics were quite expressive as well. And he didn’t shy away from what made him unique. Nor should a writer.

Do you have a particularly sarcastic view of today’s world? Are you particularly sensitive to the needs and thoughts of others? Do you find humor in even the most mundane situations? In any case, find that unique characteristic and express it in your writing. As long as you follow the previous two guidelines, you can usually embrace your inner writer’s “voice” as long as you realize what that is. What if it takes you a few drafts to find it? No problem; as long as your writing rings true to you, it should to your reader. Know your audience, find your voice, and write accordingly, just as Elvis did. Then, have someone review it for you and give an honest evaluation. Remember, Elvis had various collaborators in many of his music-making efforts and yet he remains the “King.”

4. Experiment with Various Styles, as Elvis Did

Blues, Gospel, and Rock and Roll – Elvis covered or even combined each of these styles of music and written lyrics to capture a unique sound. When trying to find your writing “voice,” experiment with different styles of writing. Many of today’s most commercial and bankable authors have written in several genres, just like Elvis. . To start experimenting with writing styles, just as Elvis might have, ask yourself these questions:

  • What style of writing comes most naturally? (Elvis’ songs “In The Ghetto,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “Little Sister” each show a distinctive side to Elvis’ artistic expression.)
  • What style of writing garners me the most positive feedback? (Elvis’ target audience mostly responded to his fast-paced songs and bodily movement in his stage performances.)
  • What style of writing am I most comfortable doing? (While Elvis covered many types of musical genres in his performances, he obviously had his favorites when he knew instinctively that his audience would respond.)
  • Are there any other factors to consider? (As we have seen, Elvis considered romantic ballads (“Love Me Tender”, “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You), fast-paced rock anthems (“Jailhouse Rock’ or “Hound Dog”, and bluesy-driven songs (“In The Ghetto” or “You Were Always On My Mind.”)
  • If I am uncomfortable with a certain style, what is the outcome if I attempt it? (Honestly, throughout his catalog, Elvis tried on many styles. We can learn from this. This author writes articles for publication, but has completed a novel on pop culture, a cookbook for busy professionals with help from busy friends and family, and a textbook on case studies in a communication format for use as a classroom teaching tool. It pays to go where your writing skills, interests, audience commitment, and goals take you.”

 

5. Gratuitous Acknowledgment of Elvis’ Intentionally Sexy Hip Shake

Are you writing romance or love stories? No need to strive for the R-rated (or even PG-13-rated) details; leave some of them to the reader’s imagination. Many romance writers seem to concur that the fewer specific details about an intimate encounter, the better. If the individual’s brain is truly the most intensely responsive organ (which just means that the brain can process these thoughts and emotions on an intense level), then some of the details should challenge the reader’s imagination. Which is more fulfilling to the reader: composing an intimate scene in your own head as you read about two (2) star-struck characters, or being spoon-fed each and every detail about each of the individual characters’ romantic life together? Most likely, the reader wants that freedom of imagination to wander through an idea with just a hint of suggestion from the author.

In the song “Little Sister,” Elvis warns the little sister not to do what the big sister has apparently done. His lyrics don’t come right out and say, but it is still a compelling song because the listener understands the exact directive he is giving to the little sister.
6. Gratuitous Parting Shot – Remember to Thank Your Reader

If you’re ever lucky enough to meet your readers, don’t forget to smile and say, “Thank you.”

 

Laura A. MacLemale is a writer based in Rochester, New York. She received an M.S. degree in Technical Communication from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an M.A. degree in Communication from SUNY Brockport. She has written and managed software manuals, policies and procedures, online help systems, electronic product demos and tutorials, and Internet and intranet content, and she has taught college writing and communication courses and provided writing training as a consultant. In addition to writing and teaching, she has worked in the legal field as a litigation paralegal and title examiner. Currently, she is looking to publish a first novel and follow that up with a short-story collection, textbook for courses in undergraduate Professional Communications, and a cookbook for busy professionals. Official Web site and author’s site are currently in progress.”