BLUF*. Every writer should own two copies of Stephen King’s book ON WRITING: a keeper and a loaner. Expect to buy a new loaner every time you allow someone to “borrow” this book. It never seems to make it back home.
Many books on writing are boring technical manuals. While they have their place, they often fail to engage the reader on any level beyond cerebral. Stephen King’s ON WRITING is not one of those books. Written by one of America’s best-selling authors, ON WRITING is part memoir, part lessons learned, part best practices. The 10th anniversary edition is only 291 pages, but it provides more information and advice than a 700-page textbook. Originally printed in 2000, and updated twice, it remains relevant to writers today.
One of the first things I noticed about ON WRITING was there is no Table of Contents, though the book is broken down into four separate sections. I suspect King wanted us to start at the beginning, his CV, and follow the path laid out of us. He is telling a story, his story, and we all benefit from the telling. The CV contains nuggets of advice throughout, so don’t skip this section thinking you’ll only learn about King’s life. On page 50, King admits “I have spent a good many years… being ashamed about what I write.” Seeing this confession shored up my resolve to not allow anyone to belittle my ideas or writing. I may not be Stephen King, but I am me.
The second section is labeled Toolbox, and King discusses vocabulary, grammar, and avoiding passive verbs, among other things. Toolbox is only 26 pages, but it gives you, the writer, the essentials to start honing your craft. One part smacked me in the face during my first reading of ON WRITING. King states, “Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind” (p124). Most of the naval writing I drafted and edited used adverbs in almost every sentence (awards and evaluations). I was flabbergasted by King’s statement, and it was then that I realized I needed to relearn how to write.
The third section is called On Writing, and you may get the urge to start reading here. Don’t! While this section is what most of us are craving, the two preceding sections set the stage for the third. In this section, King lays it all out on the table. He is blunt and brutally honest, but we’d expect nothing less from him. The first point he makes is that to be a writer you need to read and write, and he’s not talking about the casual, read-a-book-a-month reading. “The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate-four to six hours a day, every day will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them; in fact, you may be following such a program already. If you feel you need permission to do all of the reading and writing your little heart desires, however, consider it hereby granted by yours truly (p.150). Thank you, Mr. King!
The last section is On Living: A Postscript, and King details his near fatal car accident in 1999, and the recovery process. He describes how his wife gets him writing again. And he gives us his best piece of advice, but I’ll let you read that for yourself.
ON WRITING has no bibliography or works cited, however, there is one book King refers to repeatedly: THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. King introduces this book in the Second Foreword, exclaiming “I’ll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style.” I’ll take Mr. King’s advice; stay tuned for my next post: E is for Elements.
To order your keeper and loaner copies of ON WRITING.
*Bottom Line Up Front