On Writing by Stephen King: Book Review

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Cover of On Writing by Stephen King
4 Stars

Stephen King sits down to share his thoughts on the writing process. No matter what you think of his books personally, you have to admit that he’s a master at drawing in legions of fans. He prefaces his work with an explanation of what prompted him to write it. He was talking with author Amy Tan when he asked her what one question she wishes somebody actually would ask her at an author Q-and-A. “Amy paused, thinking it over very carefully, and then said: ‘No one ever asks about the language.’….But Amy was right: nobody ever asks about the language. They ask the DeLillos and the Updikes and the Styrons, but they don’t ask popular novelists. Yet many of us proles also care about the language, in our humble way, and care passionately about the art and craft of telling stories on paper. What follows is an attempt to put down, briefly and simply, how I came to the craft, what I know about it now, and how it’s done. It’s about the day job; it’s about the language.”

Divided into three main sections, King actually covers a lot of ground in this short book. The first section is a mini-memoir of his life and the events that influenced his writing. The second part is the mechanics, and the third is about his life-changing accident (which happened in the middle of writing this book).

I enjoyed the section about his life. I would never claim to be King’s “Number One Fan,” but I do enjoy reading his work. I can’t say that I know anything about his life. He was run over about 10 years ago, Joe Hill is his son, and Tabitha King is his wife. That’s about it. Oh, and that he was pretty strung out on drugs when he wrote some of his earlier works. That really has to be it. I liked seeing how King was formed as a writer. From his first attempts to emulate his favorite comics, to his mom telling him that he can do better, to the earliest stories he published, to the publication of Carrie, he covers a lot of ground in this section. My favorite bit might have been the story of getting the news of his son’s impending birth while at a drive-in movie.

Then he moves on to the mechanics. His best bit of advice is one that’s often quoted: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Being a reader, this is advice that I like! And then he moves on to basics like making the time to write, and how his process works. There’s the shut-door period, where he’s the only person who is reading his work, and then he opens the door to let his first readers have a crack at it. He writes about the tools of grammar, spelling, and avoiding adverbs at all costs (who knew that adverbs could be a pet peeve?). He writes about how to get yourself published and gives examples of a process that should work pretty well for most writers. I found his advice to be full of common sense, pretty encouraging, and easy to understand and follow through on.

At the end, he writes about his accident. When I first started this section, I admit to a bit of an eye-roll and a “here we go again” feeling. I’m one of those crappy people who got tired of all the stories he wrote after his accident about men who’ve had debilitating accidents. I know it’s heartless on my part, I know it’s cathartic for him, but there you go. Still, there was a point to including it here. It was very natural to include it as another memoir-like bit since it happened during the writing of this book, but there’s more to it than that. He seems to be saying that, yeah, he went through a horrendous experience that most of us can’t even wrap our minds around, but he kept writing. And if he can continue writing, we can continue to write or get started. It was healing for him and returned a sense of “normalcy” to his life.

Scattered throughout the book were references to his other books and different anecdotes about them. He writes that he’s a writer who just lets the story take him where it will rather than outlining everything in advance, so he’s often surprised by twists himself. I especially liked reading about how he originally thought Misery‘s plot would turn out. He writes a lot about Carrie as well and what influences came to bear on that story. I just really enjoyed sort of “seeing behind the scenes” of some of the books that I’ve read.

I recommend this, obviously for King’s fans, but also for those in search of (I think) sound writing advice. There’s no mumbo-jumbo, mystical, channeling stuff. There’s nothing that sounds out of the realm of possibility. It’s basically about just sitting down and getting started. Maybe it will give you the push you need to do just that.

Read an excerpt.

Find author Stephen King on his website.

Buy On Writing at

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  1. I haven't read all of King's book and I don't want to, but I do think he's an amazing author and I take his advice very seriously.

  2. Great review! This book is on my TBR list. I haven't read any of Stephen King's novels, but I would really like to read his memoir!

  3. Feel free to include this link into the challenge I'm hosting, The Stephen King Project located here: thestephenkingproject.blogspot.com (if you'd like to include the button in this post, that would be great!) 🙂 We have monthly prizes!

    I'm excited to read this one and was considering listening to the audio version. I just love his ability to tell a story and I love his digressions into other anecdotes.

  4. I have 3 books I keep copies of on my desk at the office and on my desk at home – Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, Webster's New World Thesaurus, and Stephen King's On Writing. This is such a great resource, both for tips and techniques, but also for general advice and motivation.

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