Reading On Writing

Writing a review of a book about writing is one way to face your insecurities. It doesn’t help that I’ve often heard that this particular book, Stephen King’s On Writing, is the BEST ever produced on the topic. So I’ll try not to be overly long and I promise to ruthlessly eradicate any superfluous adverbs I have the misfortune of typing.

I knew that this book was having a profound effect on me when, about two thirds of the way in, it penetrated my dream world. It was an ordinary dream, I think I was just recommending the book but I was doing so with an intensity of feeling that hung around after I woke up. You should also know that I came to this book a Stephen King virgin. Sure, I’ve seen many movies based on his works, most of them in my teen years, but I’ve really not explored the horror fiction genre (unless you count a frothy vampire tale here and there).

Quiet Please!

Quiet Please!

What surprised me about On Writing is that it’s not a straight-up writing guide. The parallel title is “A Memoir of the Craft” and, as such, it begins with retellings of the author’s childhood antics and early married life. I must admit that these anecdotes did not initially pull me in and I set the book aside for a few weeks. When I picked it up again, the stories became more and more about King’s first adventures in publishing and I was hooked. I also liked the section about his alcoholic cokehead years and the family intervention that got him clean. I’d had no idea.

Now to the writing part. It seems that every successful writer’s principal advice to the rest of us can be summed up in this way: Write write write. Read read read. A lot. So there you have it. But King also imparts specifics having to do with use of language and the writing process. Here are my main takeaways (other than write write…):

Edit that shiz!

One of the first things King learns while writing for a small town paper as a teen is how to be concise and on-topic. Later, a rejection slip delivers invaluable advice: the second draft is like the first draft, only 10% shorter. After reading this, I went back and rewrote a blog post I wasn’t entirely happy with and cut it down from about 1000 words to 700 (When to Follow the Dream). I now cannot write anything without hearing Stephen King’s creepy whisper in my head asking “Is that shit really necessary?”

Reading by the fire, more effective than writing by the fire.

Reading by the fire, more effective than writing by the fire. King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner, 2010 (c2000).


Write with the door closed

Though King means this both literally and figuratively (as in – don’t let anyone else see your work too soon), it’s the actual closed door that hit home for me. I was struck by this very simple idea, that of writing in a designated space with a door which I will close so as not to be disturbed. Until recently, I didn’t have to worry about distractions, other than my cat smooshing her face on the screen, because I lived alone. It has now become clear that, with Monsieur’s propensity for singing loud silly songs and for coming in for frequent squeezes, writing in the living room is bad practice. Like Virginia Woolf, I do have a room of my own. Now I just have to get in the habit of writing there… and of closing the damned door.

Stephen King’s passion and enthusiasm for his craft is partly what makes On Writing a joy to read and the message gets through: if you don’t love it this much, then don’t bother. At the end of the book, King writes about the near-fatal accident that almost prevented him from finishing it. It was smart to stick the story in at this stage because, after having read everything that comes before, the reader gets to fully enjoy a tale masterfully told. I’ll end with an excerpt:

Smith wasn’t looking at the road the afternoon our lives came together because his rottweiler had jumped from the very rear of the van into the back-seat area, where there was an Igloo cooler with some meat stored inside. The rottweiler’s name is Bullet (Smith has another rottweiler at home; his name is Pistol). Bullet started to nose at the lid of the cooler. Smith turned around and tried to push Bullet away. He was still looking at Bullet and pushing his head away from the cooler when he came the top of the knoll; still looking and pushing when he struck me. Smith told friends later that he thought he’d hit “a small deer” until he noticed my bloody spectacles lying on the front seat of his van. They were knocked from my face when I tried to get out out of Smith’s way. The frames were bent and twisted, but the lenses were unbroken. They are the lenses I’m wearing now, as I write this. (p.255)

Would you say this book emits an eerie glow?

Would you say this book emits an eerie glow?


  1. I’ll have to give this book a second chance, I think – I’ve heard nothing but glowing reviews from so many, and yet when I tried it myself, I never got farther than halfway. Back onto the reading list it goes…


  1. […] By Me (1986): I had no idea Stephen King wrote this until I read his book On Writing in which he describes his childhood as being one of independence and [sometimes grim] adventure. […]

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