Stephen King’s On Writing: Honest, Funny, and Practical

Aug 28, 2021 | Book Reviews

While pondering which writing book I wanted to review first, I took a mental stroll through the library in my mind until I came to the room with writing advice books. I have a number of them in my “to read” pile, placed haphazardly on the floor and in no particular order. 

But the shelves that hold the books I’ve read? They have an order. And Stephen King’s book On Writing, a Memoir of the Craft is prominently displayed on the favorites’ shelf. To date, this is one of the best books on writing that I have read. It is funny, informative, and inspirational. But the main reason it remains at the top of my list: King writes with unapologetic, in-your-face honesty about what it takes to be a writer.  

On Writing was first published in 2000 by Scribner. In this review I will be quoting from the Scribner hardcover edition copyright July 2010. Stephen King is the best-selling author of more than 50 books, with many of his stories being adapted to TV shows or movies. At the time of the book’s initial release he had been writing professionally for over two decades.

My cat, Ink, helping me with this book review. She doesn’t hand out good reviews to just anybody.

With all of that success, you would think writing a book about writing would be an easy choice for King. But in the forward to the first edition King builds trust with his readers by being honest about his reason for writing the book. “If I was going to be presumptous enough to tell people how to write, I felt there had to be a better reason than my popular success” (viii) he says. For many of us, his popular success is reason enough to read the book. But he needed more. King found his reason: the language. He wrote the book because he cared about the language, and what better reason is there to write a book about writing. 

The forward finishes with King saying “What follows is an attempt to put down, briefly and simply, how I came to the craft, what I know about it now, and how it’s done. It’s about the day job; it’s about the language” (viii). He carries that promise through the rest of the book.

Memoir

King’s deep love for the language and craft of writing is obvious on every page. The first part of the book gives readers a fascinating look into the experiences that formed him as a writer. It takes us through early memories of his childhood, adventures with his brother, and the struggles he had as an adult with addiction and substance abuse. Each anecdote is told with humor and honesty, and in King’s clear and crisp writing style.

Confession time: I have never read any of King’s novels. A friend gave me this book as a gift, and because I hadn’t read any of King’s other work I was planning on skipping the memoir section. Don’t skip it. King is a master storyteller, especially when it comes to his own story, and reading the memoir section is both entertaining and educational.

Writing

The second part of On Writing tackles the craft of writing. It begins about a third of the way into the book, starting with King’s definition of what writing is. “Telepathy, of course,” he says (103). And when you think about it that way, writing becomes obvious in theory! In practice, you need a toolbox. 

King banner

King’s toolbox is arranged with multiple levels and holds a myriad of tools for writing. “Common tools go on top. The commonest of all, the bread of writing, is vocabulary,” he says, and clarifies that you don’t need fancy vocabulary to be a good writer (114). Other tools include grammar, style, form, and using paragraphs to create beats in your writing.

King forms a vivid picture with his toolbox, encouraging writers to learn new skills and dust off old skills to put in their toolbox. The practical approach to writing as craft gives it the feel of a workroom, with bits of ideas in boxes and on shelves around the room. Things like voice, vocabulary, and sentence structure hung up on pegs on the wall. The writer sitting at her workbench, tinkering with bits of paragraph. But don’t forget the magic. “At its most basic we are only discussing a learned skill, but do we not agree that sometimes the most basic skills can create things far beyond our expectations? We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style . . . but as we move along, you’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic” (137).

King fulfills his promise to write about the language. On Writing is a book for writers that addresses both the how-to of writing on the page, and the how-to of the writer’s mind and heart. King gives us tools, tough love, and gentle encouragement. 

My favorite part of the book is a call-to-action of sorts, at least it was for me. Between the memoir section and the writing section King writes,

“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair–the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. . . . Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it agian: you must not come lightly to the blank page. 

I’m not asking you to come reverently or unquestioningly. . . . But it’s writing, damn it,  not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else” (106-107).

Reading these paragraphs startled me. I put the book down, went outside, and took a walk. King was right, and I needed to make a choice. Would I take the blank page seriously or not?  I needed to straighten that out because if I continued reading it under false pretenses I might end up a victim in one of King’s novels.  

I decided to take it seriously, and I finished the book. 

If you need a wake-up call in your own writing life, an entertaining story, or a book that you can savor both the language and the content, I recommend On Writing.

1 Comment

  1. Bree

    ink is perfection

    Reply

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