Stephen King’s On Writing

Stephen King's book, On Writing, sits on a wooden desk beside a notebook and pen

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King is both memoir and manual. It features a great deal of autobiography, but all the information about King’s life revolves around his passion for writing. This makes it a worthwhile addition to any writing library.

Overview

Title: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Author: Stephen King
ISBN: 1439156816
Publisher: Simon and Schuster

  • Entertainment value: high
  • Usefulness: medium
  • Recommended if you:
    • are looking for general writing advice, especially for fiction
    • enjoy Stephen King’s writing and would like to know behind-the-scenes details about his books
    • like to read memoir

Review

On Writing is an enjoyable read, thanks to King’s straightforward yet passion-filled approach to writing about writing. As you read, it’s clear you’re seeing the work of someone who enjoys what he does. Plus there’s tons of anecdotes and stories to keep you engaged. All of this means that On Writing provides high entertainment value.

The book’s usefulness as a writing guide is less clear cut.

King provides plenty of advice on the craft of writing. He gives insight into how he develops ideas and characters and offers tips on making dialogue and description stand out. He breaks down the tools every writer should have (a good vocabulary and knowledge of grammar and style) and writes of the value of practice, research, and observation. There’s plenty of general writing info, as well as some specific advice on what to do and what to avoid. (No excessive adverbs, please!)

However, On Writing is not a step-by-step guide to getting published. It doesn’t offer fool-proof advice for getting a publishing deal or getting your work in front of eyes. And—though King addresses working with agents, editors, and publishers—there isn’t a lot about the business of being a writer. The industry has changed since King got his start. Thus, there’s little mention of “branding” or social media within this book. But the book is On Writing and not On the Business of Writing, so I suppose we shouldn’t expect too much of that anyway.

Of course, any memoir on story craft will be limited to the author’s experience, but it’d be a challenge to read On Writing and not come away with some valuable insight. And even if you’re not a huge Stephen King fan, the stories of his writing career are interesting. So, whether you wish to be entertained or informed, On Writing is worth checking out.

Lessons from On Writing

While every reader is likely to learn something different from King’s memoir, I’ll end this post by highlighting some of the lessons I took from On Writing.

Balance

There are a lot of things out there that’ll demand your attention as a writer. Many struggle to find the time to write, and there are plenty of resources that insist on setting aside “sacred” space to write. And while having time and space for creative endeavours is important, there’s a story that King tells in this book that’s provides another valuable perspective: the story of his writing desk.

In it, he speaks of his history of substance abuse and how his life changed with a shift of focus. (Zen Pencils has illustrated this story, if you’d like to read it in comic form.)  He ends with these words: “Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”

I think this is important to keep in mind when you image what writing success looks like.

Ideal Readers

King talks about the “ideal reader” in several places in On Writing. This is the person who you can share your work with, who appreciates it, and sees value in it.

King’s ideal reader is wife, Tabitha. In fact, when he threw out the first draft of Carrie, content with giving up on it, she was the one who found it. She saved it and encouraged him to follow through and finish it.

Though we may not all be married to our ideal reader, imagining such a person is helpful. It keeps our motivation clear and helps us make writing choices by reducing the need to please everyone.

Adjectives & Adverbs

While most of King’s advice is about the big picture elements of writing, he does get into the nitty-gritty of sentence writing on occasion. One example is King’s recommendation to avoid adjectives and adverbs. While this is certainly a stylistic choice, King’s focus on strong verbs and deliberate word choice is good to keep in mind.

Is there a writing book you’d like me to review? Let me know in the comments.

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