What I learned from Stephen King’s On Writing

I’ve just finished reading Stephen King’s writing advice book ‘On Writing‘. King is a prolific and successful author who has a lot to say about the craft, and as every writing website demands that you read it, I read it.

The first part of the book is King’s memoir – a very speedy run-through of some of the formative moments in his life that shaped him into the man and writer that he is now. This section is interesting and helps you to understand why King is the way he is (it also makes you realise just how often he puts himself as a character into his books) but is largely missing any key nuggets of writing wisdom that I was hoping to find…

The second part of the book gets down to business, and King starts to outline some of the rules and guidelines he lives by and believes are necessary to becoming a successful writer.

So what did I learn?

King is an absolute writing machine that has dedicated his whole life to his craft

If you want to be a writer then you have to apply yourself and actually write, write, and write some more. King started at an early age and never stopped practising and honing his craft. He believes that anyone can learn to write, but that you need to enjoy it and possess at least a little natural talent to build from if you want success.

He also demands that writers read too and that you must find as much time as possible to pursue reading with vigour. That said, he also makes a point that he has softened his approach over the years and that it is important to remember that “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around”.

King has a lot of rules that he blatantly ignores in his own work

King provides a long list of advice for writers on the do’s and don’ts of writing. Some of the best advice he gives is on grammar (basically just buy Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style), word choice (say what you mean using words you understand, don’t get fancy), and the now industry gold standard advice: SHOW DON’T TELL.

He also gives a lot of advice which he admits he doesn’t always follow himself. Key rules of his that he ignores constantly include:

  • Never use adverbs
  • Never use passive voice
  • Keep description functional and to the point, let the reader fill in the blanks
  • Avoid flashbacks and info-dumps
  • Mercilessly cut useless words

King and I disagree on the fundamental point that plotting is necessary

One major bone of contention I have with the book is King’s stance on plotting – he hates it and thinks it ruins stories! This is where he lost me significantly, I absolutely cannot write without a plan of some kind or I drift into boring and irrelevant details (you can probably tell that I don’t plan these blog posts…). With a plot I can keep my stories and characterisation tight and not risk derailing myself and my work.

I can see his perspective though, King believes in writing character-based stories by putting characters in situations and seeing what organically develops – he believes this creates realism, tension, and suspense for readers which is often underdeveloped in plotted novels. As usual in this debate, it’s best to work how you feel comfortable (but you should try both methods at least once).

King has a very specific process for his drafts

  • Draft 1: Write with the door closed and at top speed
  • Wait for six weeks before editing and reviewing draft 1, come back to it fresh
  • Draft 2: Make whatever amendments are needed but you should aim to cut 10% off the first draft’s length
  • Only now should you show your work to other people for feedback

King recommends that you find a regular place and mindset to write

Finally, King makes a very good (and relevant for me) point that successful writers treat writing like a job – they don’t wait for inspiration or a muse – they have a set place, time and mindset that they turn up to again and again to make progress and art. This is important to me because I seriously struggle to start writing, but when I get going I can’t stop! I’m still trying to find my own writing place and time that works for me – I’ll keep you posted.

Great poster from Zen Pencils

I also wanted to share this poster on King from Zen Pencils that sums up his approach to writing as an art and how his mindset has changed over the years:

About the author

DSM Griffin

My full name is Daniel SM Griffin (but call me Griff), a European (have been described as British), male human. My views and opinions (like my hair and teeth) are my own.