‘Part biography, part collection of tips’ – Stephen King’s On Writing is probably the most comprehensive and practical guide to the craft an aspiring writer could hope to pick up.
by Nikhil Sreekandan
When we had done a listicle on books for aspiring writers earlier, the first name on the list was On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Here is a comprehensive review of the same and why we think it is a must-read for everyone who dreams of being a published writer one day.
Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.
Stephen King is hands down one of the most prolific writers of our time. Having churned out over 50 works of fiction, two non-fiction books and a number of story collections, screenplays and teleplays – there’s probably no other author who is as widely read like Stephen King since Charles Dickens.
And, in the past few years, the King brand has grown massively. The number of big-screen and small-screen King adaptations in just last one year is staggering! King’s work speaks for itself and I would suggest that anything and everything he has to say about the craft should be considered gold (probably should let you guys know, I’m a huge fan).
This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.
The very opening line of the book’s foreword sets the tone. And, this is indeed one of the most beautiful things about On Writing, its brutal honesty and the genuine love that King has for the craft.
On Writing has been divided into four parts. The first chapter, C.V. is basically the life story of the King of Horror, enriched with tidbits and anecdotes from his early childhood and his formative years as a writer to his bout with alcoholism and how writing helped him to overcome the same. The author lays himself bare as he talks about his life’s key moments like when he sold his first book, Carrie, for a whopping $40,000 or that poignant moment of his mother’s passing.
By the time you are done with the first chapter of On Writing, King will feel like someone you’ve known since high school. Also, its a genuinely surreal feeling to realise the years of struggle and hard work that has gone into the success that the King of horror enjoys today.
The road to hell is paved with adverbs.
In the second chapter, Toolbox, King dons the role of an English teacher as he talks about the essentials tools that every writer should master, like basic grammar and vocabulary and other primary elements of writing. King constantly refers back to The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr and E. B. White and is of the clear opinion that every writer should read this short 85-page book on how to improve your writing skills.
Some might refer to it as the weakest section of the book, but like King says, who likens writing to carpentry, once you have constructed your own toolbox and have built enough muscle to be able to carry it with you everywhere, no job will look too hard and you will be able to seize the right tool and get to work immediately.
Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
The third chapter, titled the same as the book, On Writing, sees King talk about the nitty-gritty of the craft. About the importance of a regular writing and reading habit, the necessity of the second draft and how it should be always less by at least 10% of the first draft. How one should always write while keeping their IR or Ideal Reader in mind so as to not lose track, and about writing with the door shut but also how it is important to critique your first draft before sitting for the revision. And much more.
Here you will learn a good deal about the craft – from a man who has spent the better part of his life writing. Surely you will pick up a lot many tools that warrant your mastery and a place in the very top layer of your toolbox.
Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.
And the final section, On Living: A Postscript, is perhaps the best part of the book. The telling account of how writing paved the way back to life, after the terrible accident which crushed King’s lower torso completely – is inspirational beyond anything else.
Most importantly, what King does with his memoir of the art of writing is put a friendly arm around the nervous shoulder of an aspiring writer and empower them with a permission slip, that you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.
Nikhil Sreekandan is a journalist with the desire to explore life through the stories he chases. He currently works as a content editor at Nature inFocus, India’s leading platform for nature and wildlife. When not lost in cinema, contemporary literature or his earphones — there is a genuine attempt at ‘giving chase’, and it is beautiful.