Stephen King's On Writing

December 23, 2009

I just finished reading Stephen King’s On Writing: A memoir of the craft.

Since I started my travel memoir nearly a year ago, I’ve read quite a few books on writing. So far this is my favorite.

Why? Because King offers practical advice. Instead of emphasizing that writing is different for every writer, he tells us what works for him and what might work for us.

Full disclosure: I skipped the first third of King’s book, the part about his life, and went right to the sections on writing. I’d never read one of his books before — I’m not a horror fan — so I wasn’t much interested in learning about his life. But the writing parts were so well done and offered enough enticing glimpses into his personality that I may re-read from the beginning.

A few things I learned from King:

~ When you start writing, it’s okay not to know how the book will read when you finish. Start with an idea — a situation, King calls it — and uncover the story like a fossil. Symbolism in particular should not be plotted; if something is meant to be symbolic, he says, you’ll notice when you revise and polish till it shines.

“Once your basic story is on paper,” he writes, “you need to think about what it means and enrich your following drafts with your conclusions.”

While he’s talking primarily about fiction, this advice also can apply to nonfiction. I thought I knew how my travel memoir would turn out; after all, I experienced it. But ideas, themes and realizations have become clearer through the writing process.

~ Think about your story as a What If? What if a woman decided to backpack alone through Africa? What would happen? And since I’m writing nonfiction, what did happen?

~ 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10 percent. I love this formula partly because it reaffirms my own revision process, which has included cutting about ten percent of my first draft.

~ It can’t hurt to hear certain advice a second, third, fourth time. Don’t use adverbs. To write well, read a lot. Write every day. Description is a matter of how-to and how-much-to; don’t overdo it. Even though I’ve heard all this advice before, King’s explanations of why they apply, as well as his specific examples, were helpful.

(Want more? Read excerpts from the book here.)

I was also shocked to read advice that King attributed to novelist Elmore Leonard: Leave out the boring parts. These exact words came out of my mouth three months ago when I was talking with a writer at my Hambidge residency. I was trying to explain how I would cut word from the first draft of my too-long travel memoir, and when I said that, the phrase sounded awkward, not well-thought out. But the writer friend (or, more accurately, best-selling author friend) told me the following day that he’d thought a lot about those words, that they would change how he revised of his own book. Little did I know they’d already been said and attributed.

Any fans of On Writing out there? Care to share what you learned?

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    0 Replies to “Stephen King's On Writing”

    • Jamie says:

      I love this book. It actually got me back on the writing horse after I had fallen off 7 years earlier. I am also a huge King fan so there was a little bit of fanboy going on.

    • Nancy Aiello says:

      Hi Alexis,
      Very good review, I enjoy this book a lot.
      Another excellent novel on writing is Night Train by Martin Amis, totally different approach but very useful.
      Thanks again and keep it coming:-)
      Ciao from Italy

    • Karen Walker says:

      I got a lot out of King’s book as well, although I don’t read his books either. Happy holidays, Alexis.

    • Maria says:

      This is also one of my favorite books about writing. It really fires me up and motivates me to write. In fact, I need to read it again this summer — maybe I’ll finally get around to writing that novel.

    • @LaurenEdwardsSV says:

      Read the first part about his life, too. It’s more educational than you think. I, too, love this book. My other fave is “The Associated Press Guide to News Writing,” which isn’t just for journalists.

    • 2nd draft = 1st draft ““ 10 percent. This is good advice. The second draft can’t be just about filling out the draft. One has to be aware of elements that need to be deleted. My slogan, “When in doubt, leave it out”

      Stephen Tremp

    • I love this book, Alexis! It’s on of my top five favorite writing books. The other one I’m CRAZY about is Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose.

      Those two books did more for my writing than all other books combined.

    • jessiecarty says:

      I’m with Lauren read the first part as well. Interesting to see how he built up his career.

      I was surprised at just what a good craft book it is. Another one I found recently is by Bret Lott if you are wanting some more 🙂

    • Ami says:

      I received this book as a gift soon after it came out and absolutely loved it. King offers really practical advise, and while, as you said, I’d heard much of it before, it was good to read it again. In fact, I might thumb through it this weekend to refresh my memory.

    • I’ve been reading a lot of “how to’s” on writing, but I haven’t read King’s book. I went through a Stephen King phase when I was a teenager (which provided a few nightmares), but I no longer read horror books (Probably because of the nightmares). I respect him as an author, and will check out his book based on your recommendation.

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