On Writing by Stephen King
★★★★★ Insightful, honest, and funny
I’m not a fan of Stephen King’s books. I believe the last King book I read was Christine in the mid-90s, and I still shudder to think about it. It’s just not my genre. But On Writing is brilliant, and I’m glad to get to appreciate the craft without the horror.
This book is about half memoir — how King came to writing and became the writer he is — and about half advice for aspiring writers. That structure works better than you’d think: the backstory provides context for the practice, and the book’s various parts are all tied together by King’s style and wit. It’s engaging from start to finish. Also, it’s pretty short, “because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.”
Nobody ever asks about the language. They ask the DeLillos and the Updikes and the Styrons, but they don’t ask popular novelists. Yet many of us proles also care about the language, in our humble way, and care passionately about the art and craft of telling stories on paper. 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.
And the brilliance of the book is, in fact, the language and the utter lack of bullshit, the absence of dramatic lighting or a soft filter. It’s honest. At points I felt like every sentence King writes — and not just the biographical parts — is more authentic than anything I’ve ever gotten on paper.
On the writing, the thing that jumps out is how much it’s “just another job, like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks,” and how much of King’s prescription for writers is universal:
- Put in the time (reading and writing, in this case)
- Have a concrete goal (he shoots for 10 pages / 2000 words per day)
- Avoid distractions (“shut the door”)
- Build the habit (it gets easier over time)
There are things on my mind. Some are worries… some are good things… but right now all that stuff is up top. I’m in another place, a basement place where there are lots of bright lights and clear images. This is a place I’ve built for myself over the years.
How do you read more? Small sips. We imagine artists as inspired by some muse, but apparently great writers put their pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us. Most of it is fairly prosaic. King makes clear how much joy he finds in the practice of writing, not just the results, and how essential that is. (On this point he reminded me of Tom Brady, who frequently talks about how much he enjoys, and puts into, practice.)
Some of the writing advice, especially towards the end, is specific to aspiring fiction writers looking to build a career. But much of it applies to all of us who write at all. There’s no news here, but King drives the points home with wit and concrete examples (so maybe opt out of this list and just read the book, I suppose).
- Your vocabulary will get the job done. Don’t put on airs. The first word you think of is usually the best choice.
- Learn proper grammar, dammit! Don’t be sloppy. King has a striking affection for the Elements of Style. I love this.
- Avoid passive verbs. “Timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners.”
- The adverb is not your friend. Adverbs reveal a writer afraid of not expressing themself clearly.
- In non-fiction, the basic paragraph form—topic sentence followed by support and description—enforces refined thinking. (In fiction, it’s more about beat than structure.)
- The more you read and write, the more you’ll find your paragraphs forming on their own
- When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. (“Write with the door closed.”) When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story. Your stuff starts out being just for you, but then it goes out. (“Rewrite with the door open.”)
- Have your ideal reader in mind… not just the general public, but a specific person. This helps you get outside yourself a little.
- Let the draft mellow, then come back with fresh eyes. (King suggests six weeks.)
- Allow for boredom. This will help create space for “that sudden flash of insight where you see how everything connects.” King refers to it as the “overlogic,” a term I’m determined to start using.
- “Is this story coherent? And if it is, what will turn coherence into a song?”
Will felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get the reader up on dry ground or at least to throw a rope. -E.B. White on Will Strunk
King frequently returns to the famous saying, “kill your darlings.” I think about this one frequently. It’s damn hard, but it’s sound advice, and not just for writing.
It was shocking to me when King shared at the end how painfully difficult this book was for him to write. It feels effortless. It’s easy to imagine sitting down with him and listening to him reel this stuff of extemporaneously. I guess that’s the craft right there.
According to Stephen King, writing is:
- a lonely job
- refined thinking
- a way back to life