On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King is a book that comes up often when discussing writing advice or books about writing. I’ve been told countless times that I should read it, despite those recommending it knowing that I have not read any of King’s novels. So, after years of seeing quotations floating around the web in writing advice articles or as trendy typographic images, I finally picked up a copy.
As the title suggests, On Writing contains both memoir and manual. It features a great deal of autobiography, but King’s passion for writing and his writing career are the focus. The first part of the book offers his story from youth to successful author, and the second deals more with the craft of writing.
Entertainment Value: High
Because there are a lot of personal anecdotes in On Writing, it is a very enjoyable read. King’s writing is straightforward, yet it captures his passion well. It is clear you’re reading the work of someone who enjoys words and the act of creation.
This isn’t a step by step guide to getting published. It doesn’t offer foolproof advice for getting words on the page or the page in front of eyes. Instead, it offers more general advice highlighting the tools of the writer, some good practices, and a look at what has worked for King.
It doesn’t offer much on the business side of things. King addresses working with agents, editors, and publishers and mentions money on numerous counts, but the business has changed since King got his start, so you won’t see much mention of “branding” (beyond writing style) or social media or any of that kind of thing. But it is “On Writing” and not “On the Business of Writing” so that can be forgiven.
Lessons from On Writing
But a lot of this is probably not news to you. The book’s been in print since 1999, after all. So without further ado, here are a few of the lessons I took from On Writing.
Writing as Telepathy
King writes of writing as a form of telepathy. He says writing brings the reader and writer together. It makes them see the same things regardless of location or time. (Readers are likely familiar with this comparison.) This is a significant connection that shouldn’t be taken too lightly. Or as King puts it, “you must not come lightly to the blank page.”
There’s a story that King tells that discusses finding a balance between life and art that I really enjoy. (It’s been illustrated by Zen Pencils, and I’d recommend checking it out.) In this story, King talks about opening up his writing room and allowing art to support life, rather than letting life support art. This idea comes through when he discusses why he writes and when he later discusses writing after injury.
As a freelance writer and editor, I can find it difficult to balance self-promotion, paying work, my own projects, and free time. This story is a reminder that it’s okay to let life happen. When there’s so much these days that encourages over-working, this is important to keep in mind.
One of my favourite parts of this memoir is King’s appreciation of his wife, Tabitha. He recounts how he had thrown out the first draft of Carrie, more or less content with giving up on it. His wife found it in the trash and saved it, encouraging him to follow through.
He later discusses how she is his ideal reader and how he enjoys her feedback and support.
I appreciated these sections because they show that King doesn’t write in a vacuum. Furthermore, they acknowledge that a second set of eyes is good for not only catching your mistakes but also for providing support against self-doubt. The ideal reader also reminds us that one can’t write for everyone. Writing for an audience of one is a useful alternative.
This is kind of silly since it isn’t uncommon advice, but one of the things King recommends avoiding is adjectives and adverbs. I’ve never been accused of using them excessively, so I hadn’t thought about it. Now it’s something I see the work of new writers a lot, and it is rather jarring.
Have you read On Writing? What did you take from it? Share in the comments.