Four Lessons Learned From Stephen King’s On Writing
Nothing heals a writer like a good book and I’m still shaking my head on why it took me so long to pick up and read Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of Craft (2000). I’m a slow reader but I read through this in one sitting and picked up some key lessons.
Who is Stephen King and Why is He a Big Deal?
I wasn’t a big Stephen King fan. I knew about him and some of my favourite movies are based on his stories.
For one, I’m afraid of horror stories and I wasn’t an avid reader of his type of fiction. Then I read this book.
Stephen King is one of the most prolific authors today. Skimming through his Wikipedia page, King has written 54 novels and 200 short stories and has won countless awards I won’t even bother listing.
Among King’s most famous stories are The Shining (1977), It (1986), and the Dark Tower series (1982 onwards).
King is mostly known for his horror stories. Described as the “King of Horror”, most of King’s stories have become feature-length films and several of his characters have grown to become pop culture phenomena: Pennywise from It and Jack Torrance from The Shining just to name a few.
Although many of his best works mixed genres like The Stand (1978) being a post-apocalyptic fantasy and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (1982) being crime fiction.
King wrote a lot and wrote well. It’s already an accomplishment to finish one novel and an even bigger one to have it published so imagine King pumping two novels within a year.
He’s in the Mount Rushmore of all-time great modern-day authors so it seems obvious any advice he’d impart about the craft would be worth learning.
On Writing: Five Key Lessons
This is one of the best and easiest books to read and I highly recommend reading through the whole thing even if the writing advice isn’t until the middle portions of the book.
Reading about King’s humble beginnings, how he got started as a writer all the way to his accident and him writing the book will add much-needed context to his advice.
King manages to give both practical and inspirational advice and it flows naturally in his book. It reads like a conversation, which is a testament to the mastery of his writing voice.
If you’re a writer, you must buy this book and keep it close to you always along with Strunk’s The Elements of Style (which King referenced a lot in his book).
These two books should be read and re-read as often as possible.
The biggest takeaways from King are not revolutionary or mind-blowing.
They are simple yet profound.
Read. A Lot.
Sometimes the most obvious advice is the one taken for granted. It only makes sense for writers to be avid readers.
But King isn’t just referring to any kind of reading. He’s talking about books. These objects made of dead trees usually ignored in libraries or used as decorations or prop sets.
King isn’t just talking about good books but bad ones.
Writers can learn a lot from a good book but it’s the bad books that teach more. ~ Stephen King
This wisdom can be applied to other forms of media like movies.
I had a film teacher show us bad movies then quiz us on all the things the movie did wrong and what could have been done to fix it.
Read almost everything you can get your hands on.
King even goes as far as advising to ignore social norms like not reading while eating. He advises reading whenever possible.
Life is much more hectic for most people today. Writers are writing, working a full-time job, a side gig, and taking care of their families.
It’s tough to find time to read but like writers make time for writing, they should make time for reading.
In fact, even some of the brightest and most influential people who aren’t writers like Elon Musk and Warren Buffet spend a great deal of time reading.
Reading either fiction or non-fiction is a good source for inspiration and ideas. It is therapeutic and is a welcome escape from our reality where everything is “go, go, go!”
It’s also a great tool to…
Keep Sharpening Your Writing Skills.
There is a section in the book that discusses all the essential skills for writers. These are but not limited to:
- Grammar (includes spelling)
Writers need to constantly work on their craft and that is only achievable by… writing!
Much like how athletes or skilled tradesmen constantly hone their skills until they “master” them, so should writers.
Reading is a must to help hone grammar and vocabulary. Listening to podcasts, attending poetry slams and going to writer hangouts are also good ways to get embedded with other wordsmiths.
Editing and proofreading are two skills that seem taken for granted these days especially with tools like Grammarly and Microsoft Word’s spellcheck, which do half of the job.
Then the online publishing culture also puts the focus is on speed, quantity, and meeting deadlines.
There are also editors who tend to do the “cleaning up” for most writers.
It should be a writer’s habit to proofread then edit their works.
Being a writer is having a proofreading ability that increases by 1000% as soon as you hit “Submit”.
— A Geek with a Hat (@AGeekwithaHat) May 27, 2018
Go the extra step by having a friend proofread or read out loud what you wrote. Mistakes and parts that sound wonky will quickly be noticed making it easier to edit.
And as short and sweet advice goes: “the second draft is the first minus 10%” per King’s own writing.
Writing Schools Don’t Work.
King didn’t explicitly state that going to writing schools are a waste of time nor did he suggest they have no use. But many of writers have paid for writing courses as the added incentive to finish their manuscripts.
This sounds like a desperate ploy for writers to coerce themselves into completing their work since they paid money for it.
Chances are, most writing courses tend to look and sound the same. I’ve been to a few myself.
It usually involves an instructor with some degree of writing credibility, a few students mostly wannabe authors and maybe a few published looking to network, and yourself.
The main thing to writing courses is the added accountability. You are given assignments and deadlines. You’re basically giving yourself an editor/boss of sorts: someone who will be checking up on your progress.
But if you’re looking for revolutionary insights or career-breaking advice you won’t find online or through other free workshops, you’ll be hard-pressed.
Plenty of the advice I received I already either knew about or read about online. I met a few friends, gained a few contacts, and made progress on my manuscripts.
But I also paid around $500 for an eight-week course and this was over five years ago so that’s probably around $600 these days. It wasn’t a waste of money, but had I been smarter, I could have signed up for cheaper alternatives online.
You can use writing schools to network and make a dent in your manuscript. Maybe you’ll learn a thing or two. Networking is a significant part of becoming an author.
Just be wary of how much you’re paying and weigh that with what you expect to receive.
Write about the Truth.
Write because you love it and because you have something beautiful to share with the world.
Don’t write because you want a paycheque, or you want to impress people. Ignore the naysayers and don’t pay attention to trends or “what sells”.
The moment you begin to look too much outside for “writing advice” is the moment you lose your voice.
Yes, it is vital to listen to others to improve your craft.
But these should mostly be about the technical aspects like how you structure your arguments or grammatical corrections.
Ultimately, you only have your truth: your personal principles, beliefs, and views. This is what makes every writer unique. This is what gives you your voice.
It can be a long and difficult process to find a writing voice.
I’m still struggling to find mine. Writing in many different genres can also complicate things further.
But whenever I feel lost, I always go back to what got me started as a writer.
I wanted to tell stories. I look back to the video games, movies, and books that captivated me as a child and I want to impart to others the same wonder I felt.
In every writer is purity that needs to be shared with the world.
It doesn’t matter how “saturated” genres are or how many books get published in a day or how many countless writers there are.
We always need storytellers and writers are in the forefront even in an era dominated by video.
On Writing: Rekindling the Magic of Writing
As a writer, the process can be so tiring. Pumping out 2,000 words a day at a minimum can be draining. I find it impossible to sit in front of a laptop during some days.
I’m thankful for having read this book because it reenergized me and helped me enjoy writing again. I’ve gained a new perspective on writing and no longer feel it is a huge chore.
I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s almost 20 years old to the date but the wisdom King imparts is timeless. It’s easy to read, it’s inspirational, and it’s practical. It must be on every writer’s bookshelf.
Thank you, Stephen King!