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Book:  On Writing

Author:  Stephen King

Purchase:  Print | eBook | Audiobook

Citation:  King, S., Hill, J. & King, O. (2020). On writing : a memoir of the craft. New York: Scribner.

Three Big Takeaways:
  1. 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. I'm a slow reader, but I usually get through 70 or 80 books a year, mostly fiction. I don't read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It's what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. (pg. 145)

  2. You may find yourself adopting a style you find particularly exciting, and there's nothing wrong with that. I wrote stories in my teenage years where all the styles that I like merged. This sort of stylistic blending is a necessary part of developing one's own style, but it doesn't occur in a vacuum. You have to read widely, constantly refining your own work as you do so. It's hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written. if I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he or she wanted to become a writer but didn't have the time to read, I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time – or the tools – to write. Simple as that. (pg. 147)

  3. TV is about the last thing any aspiring writer needs. If you must have the news analyst blowhards on CNN, or the stock market blowhards on CNBC, or the sports blowhards on ESPN, it's time for you to question how serious you really are about becoming a writer. Reading takes time, and television takes too much of it. Once weaned from TV, most people will find they enjoy the time they spend reading. I'd like to suggest that turning off that endlessly quacking box is apt to improve the quality of your life as well as the quality of your writing. (pg. 148)


Other Key Ideas​​:

By the time I was 14, the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing. They would say this is good. Not for us, but good. You have talent. Submit again. 10 years or so later - after I had sold a couple of novels - I rewrote an entry and resubmitted it. This time they bought it. One thing I've noticed is that when you've had a little success, magazines are a lot less apt to use that phrase, “not for us.” (pg. 41)

I have spent a good many years being ashamed about what I write. I think I was 40 before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her god-given talent. If you write, someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that's all. I'm not editorializing, just trying to give you the facts as I see them. (pg. 50)

One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate you will come up with another word, but it probably won't be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean. (pg. 117)

Verbs come in two types - active and passive. You should avoid the passive tense. I'm not the only one who says so; you can find the same advice in the elements of style. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with. I think unsure writers feel the passive voice somehow lends their work authority. (pg. 122)

The adverb is not your friend. Adverbs are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They're usually the ones that end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously. With adverbs, the writer tells us he is afraid he isn't expressing himself clearly, that he is not getting the point across. (pg. 124)

Here is there a rule on how to form possessive: you always add ‘s, even when the word your modifying ends in s. Always write Thomas's bike and never Thomas' bike. (pg. 129)

It is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer. It is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one. It is possible, with lots of hard work, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one. If you're a bad writer, no one can help you become a good one, or even a competent one. If you're good and want to be great, forget about it. (pg. 142)

I'm afraid the idea that a writer can go from average to good is rejected by lots of critics and plenty of writing teachers.  Many of these people are liberals in their politics but crustaceans in their chosen fields. Men and women who would protest the exclusion of minorities from the local country club are often the same men and women who tell their classes that writing ability is fixed and immutable; “Once a hack, always a hack.” (pg. 142)

“Asteroid Miners” was an important book in my life as a reader. Almost everyone can remember the first book he or she put down thinking: I can do better than this. Hell, I am doing better than this! What could be more encouraging to the struggling writer than to realize his or her work is unquestionably better than that of someone who actually got paid for his or her stuff? (pg. 146)

The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing. Constant reading will pull you into a place where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn't, what works and what doesn't. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your writing. (pg. 150)

My schedule is pretty clear-cut. Mornings belong to the current composition. Afternoons are for naps and letters. Evenings are for reading, family, Red Sox games, and any revisions that just cannot wait. Basically, mornings are my prime writing time. Once I start to work on a project, I don't stop and I don't slow down unless I absolutely have to. (pg. 152)

I like to get 10 pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That's a hundred and eighty thousand words over a three-month span, a good length for a book. On some days those 10 pages come easily; I'm up and out and doing errands by 11:30 in the morning. More frequently, as I grow older, I find myself eating lunch at my desk and finishing the day's work around 1:30pm. Only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my two thousand words. (pg. 154)

The biggest tip to productive writing is working in a serene atmosphere. It's difficult for even the most naturally productive writer to work in an environment where interruptions are the rule rather than the exception. When I'm asked for the secret of my success I say there are two: I stayed physically healthy, and I stayed married. The combination of a healthy body and a stable relationship has made the continuity of my working life possible. (pg. 154)

When I got stuck I started taking long walks. Boredom can be a very good thing for someone in a creative jam. I spent those walks being bored and thinking about my manuscript. For four weeks I got exactly nowhere in my thinking – it all seemed too hard, too complex. I circled the problem again and again. And then one day when I was thinking of nothing much at all, the answer came to me. It arrived whole and complete, and a single bright flash. I ran home and jotted it down on paper, because I was terrified of forgetting. If there's one thing I love about writing more than the rest, it's the sudden flash of insight when you see how everything connects. (pg. 203)

I usually send manuscripts to between 4 and 8 other people who have critiqued my stories over the years. Wouldn't you rather hear feedback from friends before your work goes to print? When you give out six or eight copies of a book, you get back six or eight highly subjective opinions about what's good and what's bad. If all your readers think you did a pretty good job, you probably did. More than likely, they'll think that some parts are good and some parts are not so good. If some people love your ending and others hate it, and tie goes to the writer. If everyone who reads your book says you have a problem, you've got a problem and you better do something about it. (pg. 216)

My formula is that with every second draft I take out 10%. I will aim for a second draft length of 3600 words if the first draft of a story ran 4000. What the formula taught me is that every story and novel is collapsible to some degree. If you can't take out 10% of it while retaining the basic story and flavor, you're not trying very hard. The effect of judiciously cutting is immediate and often amazing. (pg. 222)

I was fairly optimistic about my chances of getting published; I knew that I had some game, and I also felt that time was on my side; sooner or later the best-selling writers of the 60s and 70s would either die or go senile, making room for newcomers like me. (pg. 238)

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