Posted in Writing

How Stephen King’s On Writing Can Make You a Better Author

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No writer has had a positive influence on my life the way that Stephen King has. The author of more than fifty novels, two hundred short stories, and five works of non-fiction, King has given me the tools and tricks not just to better my fiction writing but produce more work than I ever thought possible. Through both his writing practices and writing style, he has shown me what it takes to become a successful author, and no book about writing has had more practical use for me than his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Published in 2000, this book offers inspirational stories, clear advice, and important strategies any person can take with him in his own writing practices.

King’s book is more geared toward fiction writers, particularly in his passages about description, dialogue, and how to find representation. Many of his examples include sentences from his own fiction, as well as from other fiction writers, like Elmore Leonard, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway. These specifications then beg the question: can a non-fiction or academic writer benefit from King’s advice in this book? And, vice versa, can a fiction writer learn tricks and tools from a book geared toward academic and non-fiction writers?

In this essay, by examining the four sections of King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and pulling examples from three academic and non-fiction writing books — Rhetorical Grammar, by Martha Kolln and Loretta Gray; How to Write a Lot, by Paul Silvia; and Stylish Academic Writing, by Helen Sword — I will set out to prove that good writing advice is good writing advice, no matter the genre.

1st Draft — 10%

King’s book is split into four sections: “C.V.,” which details his early background; “Toolbox,” which discusses what a writer needs to get started; “On Writing,” which offers his advice on the craft; and “On Living: A Postscript,” which goes into the horror of his almost dying in a car accident, and his will to live and write that followed.

The first part of On Writing is a memoir of his early life that offers more inspiration to the reader than practical advice, but still with important writing tips. King details how he received numerous rejections from magazine editors in the beginning, with one telling him, “2nd draft = 1st draft — 10%” (54). This is an important lesson for all writers to learn because many assume a second draft should be longer and more detailed; instead, cutting the fat and shaping the manuscript into a leaner form is always the better way to go.

The section gets immeasurably interesting when King describes his experience writing his first novel, Carrie. He didn’t understand his main character, Carrie White, and he didn’t know where his novel was going after the first fifty pages. However, his wife Tabitha enjoyed the pages and insisted he continue, giving King the encouragement to discover the rest of his story. He learned an important lesson in this process, which he explains in On Writing: “Stopping a piece of work because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea … sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position” (77–78). Some writing projects come more naturally to me than others, and the ones that are difficult sometimes feel exactly how he describes. But for a writer to quit because the work gets too hard is a poor choice because the best writing often occurs when the author pushes through his uncertainty.

Build Up Enough Muscle So You Can Carry It with You

King’s writing practices are at the center of the book, starting with the “Toolbox” section, and going more in detail in the section accurately titled, “On Writing.” The toolbox he describes is the workbox a writer needs on his shelf before he puts down a single word. He says, “I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you” (114). Elements of his toolbox include vocabulary, grammar, paragraph form, and sentence structure. He doesn’t guilt the writer into feeling like a lesser artist for not utilizing the best versions of these elements but instead persuades him to evaluate what he has learned so far in his craft.

He tells the reader to use what he has when it comes to vocabulary and grammar, but he takes time to insist that a writer learn the differences between active and passive voice. King says, “You should avoid the passive voice … I’m not the only one who says so; you can find the same advice in The Elements of Style” (122). He explains that in fiction, writers often use the passive voice when they are timid, and active voices when they have more confidence in their sentences and storytelling. He says, “Two pages of the passive voice make me want to scream … it’s weak, it’s circuitous, and it’s frequently torturous as well” (123). Until reading On Writing, I was unaware of the difference between active voice and passive voice, and this practice King stresses time and time again in his work is the number one element that has strengthened my writing in the last four years.

But is active voice always the right choice every single time? Even King admits, “I won’t say there’s no place for the passive tense” (123). Martha Kolln and Loretta Gray, in their book Rhetorical Grammar, don’t offer the writer advice as to which kind of voice to use, but simply explain the tools he needs to make his choice in the matter. Unlike King, they aren’t against the use of passive voice. They assert, “the passive voice has an important purpose: to shift the focus of the sentence, changing the topic under discussion … this shift is an important tool for sentence cohesion” (44). They go on to admit that, “the passive voice is especially common — and deliberate — in technical and scientific writing, in legal documents, and in lab reports” (46). Whether a person writes fiction or non-fiction, it is important that he understands the ways that active and passive voices are used in different kinds of writing. He should take note that passive voice should be mostly avoided in fiction writing, but that passive voice is more acceptable and sometimes even beneficial in academic and non-fiction writing.

You Have to Read a Lot and Write a Lot

King begins the next section with his immortal words: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot … there’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut” (145). He explains that with a lot of hard work and dedication, a good writer can be made out of a competent one, not through formal education or writing how-to seminars, but through practice, practice, practice, and reading every day. One can write thousands of words a day, but if he never reads another writer’s fiction, his work will stay stale and never improve. Also, one who reads a novel a day but never writes a word down will ultimately always find reasons to never put a pen to paper.

Finding time for both writing and reading every day is essential for all writers, and it is one of King’s pieces of advice I have stuck to year after year. In 2010 I attempted writing my first novel, and I knew the only way I would ever finish it was to stick to King’s rule of composing 2,000 words a day. After two long months I finished the first draft of the manuscript, and now eight years later, I have completed more than a dozen novels, each of which is between 70,000 and 100,000 words. I never could have finished so many writing projects in such a short amount of time if I didn’t follow King’s rules.

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3 thoughts on “How Stephen King’s On Writing Can Make You a Better Author

  1. One of my three top favorite books on writing. The other two are Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott and Writing Down The Bones, the first book on writing by Natalie Goldberg.

      1. Of course there is no doubt in my mind that a fourth will soon be added as Why I Write by George Orwell has just been added to my TBR piles and I love Orwell.

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