Stephen King’s On Writing

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One of the best books I’ve read about writing and being a writer is Stephen King’s On Writing. Written whilst he was recovering from a horrific accident (a van driver hit him while he was out for a walk), it’s a fascinating book combining autobiography and advice. If you’ve not heard of Stephen King, he’s a very well-known American horror writer – you may have seen films such as Carrie and The Dead Zone based on his books.

The first part of On Writing is headed “CV”, and is an autobiographical account of King’s childhood and development as a writer. Loosely chronological, it’s structured in a series of short chapters or segments, each headed with a number and each dealing with a single point or topic in King’s life.

It’s a fascinating insight into the makings of a famous author – not only an entertaining read but one with a lot to teach writers about persistence and working towards your dreams. King started sending out short stories to magazines and publications when he was very young:

By the time I was fourteen … the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.

King writes about his early attempts at self-publication (helping his elder brother Dave write and print a newspaper, Dave’s Rag, then writing a novelisation of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum and selling it to school friends.)

After “CV” there is a short section entitled “Toolbox” where King segues from a story about his Uncle Oren’s toolbox into a discussion of what the writer needs in his/her own “toolbox” of writing. This includes vocabulary and grammar as the basics on the top layer (hang around at Daily Writing Tips a while and you’ll pick up plenty of help with these!) with style coming on the second layer.

The third section of the book, “On Writing”, deals with what King calls the third layer of the toolbox – everything that goes into writing good fiction. He tells us:

What follows is everything I know about how to write good fiction. I’ll be as brief as possible, because your time is valuable and so is mine, and we both understand that the hours we spend talking about writing is time we don’t spend actually doing it. I’ll be as encouraging as possible, because it’s my nature and because I love this job. I want you to love it, too. But if you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well – settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on.

This part of the book is hugely entertaining (King is very easy to read, and writes like a friendly mentor chatting to you over a beer), and absolutely packed with invaluable advice. Two of the key points King makes are:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

King strongly believes in setting writing goals, and recommends a minimum of a thousand words a day, six days a week. I tried following his advice (whilst working a full-time office job) and didn’t last long – you might prefer to set your own goal at five hundred words a day or even two hundred. Since King himself says he writes 2,000 words a day whilst working on a book, I suspect his advice is aimed at those aiming to make fiction writing their career (especially given his advice to read for four-six hours a day as well!)

King gives great advice on how to choose what genre to write in (one you read, and love), and how to create a “situation” for your story and write good description and dialogue. He goes into useful detail about what to look for when revising your work – does the story hang together, are the scenes paced well, are there factual errors? He includes an example of his own draft work and explains the edits he made to it.

As King says:

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.

On Writing is an encouraging but very honest look at what it means to be a fiction writer, and if you’re an aspiring author – especially if you secretly worry about not being “clever” enough or educated enough to write fiction – then I highly recommend it.

You can find the book on Amazon.com

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27 thoughts on “Stephen King’s On Writing”

  1. Wow, this post made me excited! Very inspiring! I’ll definitely get this book from the library next week.

    I haven’t read any S.K. yet, but I’ll check some books for sure, his style is just great.

    And about writing 1000 words per day, well, I don’t think it’s that hard, if you blog every day, that’s almost done.
    Reading 4-6 hours is another thing 🙂

    Thank you for the great post!

  2. Oh, and in the 2nd paragraph you wrote “segements”, if it was a mistake, I thought it’s better to let you know, since it’s a blog about writing after all :), you can delete this comment then…
    Not to offend you in any way, I love your blog, just for the other readers…

  3. I have a more personal reason that this is my favourite writing book. The year it was published (2001 I think), my father gave it to me as a gift for Christmas–at the time I was pursuing an undergraduate degree in English. Dad wrote an eloquent letter about my gifts as a writer and told me to follow my dreams wherever they will take me. I haven’t re-read the book, but I re-read that note all the time.

  4. Well said!

    On Writing is one of my favorite books about writing. I love how King doesn’t hold back and just tells it like it is. It was very honest, which I appreciate.

    It was equally interesting to see his beginnings and how he got to be the writer he is today. I almost cried when he got that $400,000 phone call! I felt like I was with him the whole way.

    This is one book every writer needs on their bookshelf.

  5. What an excellent topic. I just read On Writing this summer… great read. It is, more than any other book, what finally inspired me to write seriously. Which led me to this site, and beginning the novel my wife is tired of hearing me say I would love to write.

  6. This book inspired me to get off my duff and write. King is a genius who doesn’t get enough credit in the literary circles because of his background and his genre. Might sound too strong, but I think he sits at the same table with Twain and Hemingway.

    I highly recommend this book to anyone who is writing or plans on writing. I also recommend Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

  7. This shows the determination:
    “By the time I was fourteen … the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.”

    Wonderful post.

  8. @Jani Well spotted, unfortunately writers aren’t immune to typos (though I should have proof-read more carefully!) Fixed to “segments”. Do check out the book from the library, and let us know if you enjoy it!

    @Allan I can imagine how much it must mean to have a letter like that from a parent. My mum in particular has always supported and encouraged my writing, and I doubt I’d be starting my Creative Writing MA if it wasn’t for her.

    @Keith We do have a lot of international readers on Daily Writing Tips, many who are still learning English. I don’t know how widely read Stephen King is outside the English-speaking world, and I was concerned about making these readers feel left out.

    @jennifer Yes, I got quite emotionally involved in the story too — just goes to show what a powerful writer King is!

    @Joshua Good luck with the novel 🙂

  9. I just took your advice, went out and bought this book. I’m excitedly looking forward to reading it tonight as I find little more appeasing (in a literary sense) than an author who allows me to breeze across the page when reading their material. His sentence structure is brilliant and a pleasure to read, thanks for the tip guys and gals !

  10. I too liked the quote:

    “By the time I was fourteen … the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.”

    So instead of being fearful of getting rejection slips I’m going to try to collect as many as I can. Remember, for every no you receive you are one step closer to a yes.

  11. “Read a lot”: that’s good advice but it shouldn’t be swallowed whole. What improves your writing is reading good writing (like Ali’s blog posts, I should point out). Read nothing but romance novels, and everything you write will smell of perfume. Read nothing but a single genre of literature and you will certainly become skilled at writing in that genre. But what if later on you want to outgrow it? Unfortunately, entire publishing industries seem to make their money from readers who don’t read anything else, by selling books written by authors who don’t write anything else. There’s a certain familiarity, but nobody knows if there’s any quality, because they are only judged by how much they resemble what’s already been published.

  12. Thanks, Michael! And great points about how reading broadly is necessary. I’d encourage any writer to read as widely as possible — of course you need to be thoroughly familiar with the genre in which you’re writing, but you develop as a writer by challenging yourself in your reading, as well as in your writing.

  13. I had to sigh when I saw this post.

    Perhaps two weeks before you posted this blog, I was in the process of re-reading my copy of On Writing each day on the train to and from work. I was somewhere near the end of the section talking about the writer’s toolbox when suddenly I had to “push.” I went to the on-board toilet and as I was finishing up, the train pulled to my stop. I knew I was short on time so I grabbed my jacket and bag and rushed out the door, thankful that I wasn’t too late to climb off the train, and that I wouldn’t be late for work.

    Moments after I stepped out, I realized that I had left the book next to the sink. However, by this time the door was shut and wouldn’t re-open. I watched in dismay as my book (and the train it was in) began to pull away.

    I immediately went to the customer service counter at the train station, but they basically told me that there was nothing they could do. Later that day, I went back, and a woman gave me a website where I could register the missing book, in case it should turn up.

    Six weeks later, I still don’t have it, and I feel hopeless about getting it back. If you had any idea how I feel about books, you might realize what a loss I felt, what a defeat it was to be meters away from retrieving my property, yet utterly helpless to do so.

    It truly is an amazing book, thank you for blogging about it.

  14. Ali, I agree that “On Writing” was a great book for a writer (aspiring or established). I do like King’s fiction (with some caveats, but that’s a blog for another day), and “On Writing” was enjoyable while being educative. I also recommend his “Danse Macabre” for anyone interested in writing in the horror genre (as I do). King examines horror fiction in in-depth, easily understood, detail. He focuses on movies, but the lessons apply equally well to written fiction.

  15. I love this advice, Stephen King is one of my favourite writers. I did not realise though that he had written a book giving advice to us who seek to take the writers path. Will definitely look into getting this book as soon as possible.

  16. i like stephen king also and i am learning about writing a novel or short stories right now but i want to be a writer but i know it takes
    time and effort to learn how to write a book. i’m lost at how to start a story, is there anything you could tell me how to write a story? where can i go?

  17. This was the last book reharding writing I read and I think it will be the last. There’s really no need for me to carry, I think. It covers everything a writer needs to know about the creative process. As King notes, anything we do is really just putting off putting pen to paper.

    After reading I realised what I was doing by collecting all these books on writing was procrastinating and allowing my fear of failure to take over. I took his advice ad set myself a goal of 1,000 words a day (1,000 over the weekend) come hell or high water. I won’t lie, it was hard in the first wo weeks. With a full time job and a small child I was limited to what I could do on the train commute and lunch break and sometimes went ot bed ater midnight when I wouldn’t let myself finish until those 1,000 words were on the screen.

    But after 2 weeks I saw my manuscript jump by 12,000 words and it spurred me on.

    In short – read this book. Sell you hamster for the money if you ahveto, but get this book.

  18. SB, asking how to write a story is like asking how to cook and eat a meal — there are a million ways to do either, but not every one will be right for everybody.

    In a nutshell, to write a story you choose (invent or report) a sequence of events and put them onto paper in the correct order. Something as simple as “I got up this morning, brushed my teeth, then sat down to read the morning paper and found my obituary in it!” is a story, albeit a very short one. Anyone who’s ever told a ‘this guy walks into a bar’ kind of joke or told about something they did, like take some friends to the movies, has told a story, and “telling” the story on paper is writing a story.

    Now, doing this WELL is another matter. That involves things like proper word choice and use, grammar and punctuation, rewriting, character development, etc. There are many ways you can learn tips and ways to do these things, and I won’t go into them here.

    For a short answer to your original question, “i’m lost at how to start a story, is there anything you could tell me how to write a story?” I’d suggest you start by writing about something that happened to you — a surprise birthday party, first date, time the principal called you to his office for something, when you almost got mugged, the day you moved out of your parent’s house, etc. — something that you remember pretty well so you can recount all the important details and steps. Write it all down, then start to edit and polish what you’ve written. Again, this is not the venue for a long lesson on that subject, but at least you’ll have taken the first step: you’ll have actually written a story!

  19. I haven’t read the book yet… but I’ve made my dicision after seeing all your guys’ saying. I must get this book!

  20. Ali,

    This is certainly one of your most useful posts. Superbly written with valuable insights from the King. Thanks for the quotes.

    These insights should serve us well. Daily word counts help a writer accomplish his or her goal. It is important to stay on track and away from distractions. When you are writing, be in the moment. Cheers.

  21. wow, this sounds really great. so THAT’S who stephen king is. will get the book soon’s i get the money…or possibly from the library. wow..1000 words is ALOT per day…tho not much for a future cities essay :p

  22. Whilst, I like your article, three whilsts is a lot of whilsts. I don’t care if it feels like the right word for the job. I would look for another option whilst writing my next article.

    Real talk, I enjoyed reading this.


  23. if I had half the talent stephen king has my self esteem piggy bank would burst. I want to aspire so many people just as this horror hero has done. his work is darkly beautiful and one day Il be published too

  24. For some bizarre reason I had for many years a quite snobbish attitude to the horror genre, and all its contributors. I held this notion, received from god knows where, that horror writers produced poorly written tripe. That was until I came across Mr King; something that happened quite by accident. I was surfing for material on what it takes to become an author and discovered a blog referencing King’s “On Writing”. I bought the book almost immediately and have since become a major King fan. My road to conversion started with “On Writing” and this post – which presents a very good precis of this work – should stimulate all aspiring writers to consider reading it

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