Updated on 11.25.07

Review: On Writing

Trent Hamm

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.

on writingMany of you might be quite surprised that I would review a book by Stephen King under the guise of a personal productivity/personal development book, but if you’ve ever read On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, it makes a lot of sense.

On Writing is Stephen King’s attempt at writing a book about, well, how to write. Along the way, though, he touches on a lot of different interesting areas that are well worth looking at from a productivity standpoint – after all, this guy can crank out two or three bestselling novels a year, so he must know something about productivity. Even better: King knows how to write for the entertainment factor, so this book is substantially more entertaining than other books on how to write productively.

Is there enough under the hood to make this book worth reading for a person looking to improve their writing or communication skills, or is this one for pure entertainment only? Let’s dig in.

Digging Into On Writing

The first portion of On Writing is mostly an autobiography of King and his development as a writer. It’s a collection of well-written, short anecdotes from his life, focusing on particular points where his writing skills grew or life dealt him a hand that led him in the direction of writing. While this section is perhaps the most entertaining for a general audience, it is the least useful for someone looking for advice on writing; thankfully, the rest of the book has a lot more meat on the bones.

Here, King gets down to business, offering up tons of specific points on the actual written word, tips that are quite useful. I’ve extracted a good handful of them here – at least the ones that really rang true for me.

Don’t worry about perfect grammar or a great vocabulary. The goal should always to make the sentence as readable as you can for your audience, so if you’re writing for a general audience, don’t use complicated words or complex sentences. After all, Steinbeck and Hemingway rarely used multisyllable words.

Read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and follow that advice thoroughly. King is an enormous fan of this book, which is basically a short pamphlet (less than 100 pages) on how to write effectively and succinctly.

Use the first word choice that comes to mind. King basically argues against using a thesaurus, arguing that instead most people tend to make the right word choice first. In general, try to use simple, flavorful words instead of dry and complicated ones, something that works well no matter what topic you write about.

On Writing
From there, King moves on to discuss the process of writing – in fact, he goes so far as to say that if you don’t read a lot and write a lot, you shouldn’t be pursuing a writing career. Here are some of the more specific suggestions.

Read several hours a day – and read good stuff. He offers a lot of suggestions, but mostly he recommends really well written short stuff or novel/book-length materials. For my reading diet, I read The Atlantic and The New Yorker and I try to read a few books a week.

Write a certain amount every day. King suggests 2,000 words – at least, that’s what he does. Set whatever number you decide on as your goal. Some days it can be very hard – other days, very easy.

Find yourself a place to write. Then, use that place exclusively for your writing. That way, that place becomes associated with your writing mindset.

Turn off the television. I’ve discussed turning off the television in the past, but King reinforces that recommendation, stating quite adamantly that television takes away from time that a writer ought to be reading and writing.

Be honest. If it doesn’t feel true in your heart, don’t write it. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s factually true (fiction, for example), but it does mean that it seems reasonable. Imagine the characters alive, then ask yourself truthfully whether they’re acting realistically.

When you write something, put it away for a while before editing it. Unfortunately, I often don’t do this with entries for The Simple Dollar (in my mind, The Simple Dollar is more appropriate for urgent and fresh idea-oriented pieces, not polished and finished ones), but it is a very good idea for finished pieces. Write them, then put them in a box for a long while before getting them out to edit. That way, the freshness of your mindset from writing it wears away and it reveals the actual flaws in the writing.

There’s a lot more meat in this section. In fact, I re-read this section and the previous one about once a year to inspire myself.

On Living
The final section returns to the autobiographical nature of the opening section, discussing the 1999 incident in which King was struck by a van while walking along the road near his home. This accident nearly killed him, and he discusses with great candor the accident itself and the painful recovery. While it’s fascinating material, it almost feels as though the first and fourth sections are one book while the second and third ones are another book – and the two “books” have been smashed together into one.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

Anyone who writes on any sort of deadline should read this book. This includes anyone who writes a blog, writes professionally in the workplace, or is in the business of writing book-length works. On Writing goes beyond being just a book about how to put words on paper and almost becomes a personal productivity and inspirational guide to those of us who write.

On the other hand, if your livelihood does not involve writing for deadlines, you can probably skip this one, though it will make for some entertaining reading. For me, the first portion (“C.V.”) was perhaps as good as any King novel and I gulped it down in one sitting. However, it was the second (“Toolbox”) and third (“On Writing”) that really influenced how I thought of myself as a writer.

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  1. Kin says:

    Excellent review – I love this book. Even my hubby reads it regularly, and about all he writes is letters/engineering reports for work.

    Loads of great advice and very entertaining.

  2. Dawn says:

    These are great tips Trent, even for a plain blogger like myself. I would have to emphasize the comment that you should always write what is true to your heart. People can always read through it and see if you are fake.

  3. Gena says:

    “On Writing” is one of the many good books available on wordsmithing as a craft. Also good: “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott and “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg. I just picked up “Reading Like a Writer” by the aptly named Francine Prose and I’ve gotta say, she’s magical.

  4. Hmm…somehow I thought the cover of his book would be a bit different – more horror/suspense related perhaps. Although I guess he is writing about the generic topic of writing rather than about the topic of horror novels

    Glancing at the cover I would have thought it was a book about gardening… :)

  5. RobD says:

    Great recommendation, I am well into my first novel and constantly find it tricky to find that ‘spark’ or quiet time, as I work full time as well. I’ve just ordered this on the strength of your review, sounds like it may well be able to help me.

    Keep up the good work :-)

  6. amypalko says:

    Raymond, I think the cover probably refers to where King believes his muse lives; ‘He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level’ (On Writing, p. 163.
    Trent, thank you so much for reviewing this book. It is one of my personal favourites, and I am a firm believer in its usefulness for all types of writing. Great post!

  7. Peter says:

    I read this book a while back. If you do read it there is one exercise he recommends where he asks you to send it in (like a contest). Go ahead and do the exercise, but don’t send it in unless something has changed at his website. They closed it to new submissions years ago (though you should also visit the site just to see the results in what he picked and compare it to your effort). I enjoyed the book and would recommend it.

  8. Peter says:

    Oh, with respect to the cover. Do you know what is behind those doors leading to the basement?

  9. WritersCoin says:

    One of my favorite books of all time. It is one of the best motivators to actually sit down and write that there is. And to submit. As we speak I am collecting my own huge pile of rejections slips. Not on a nail but in a folder. This is a fantastic book.

  10. Fecundity says:

    I very much enjoyed this book too, and agree that it seemed like two books in one. The autobiographical parts of it had me almost howling with laughter at times, or wincing in sympathy (be it over repeated rejections or getting creamed by a van). The educational parts were quite helpful and were certainly inspirational.

  11. Norman MIller says:

    Reading popular writers “On Writing” books is a good idea for anyone interested in writing.

    Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, Ayn Rand, the variety of authors who have written an “On Writing” book is broad.

    I really like King’s story of finding out about the “Carrie” book deal. The where he was and and what he could and couldn’t do about it. It must have been a budding young authors fairytale come true.

  12. vh says:

    Great precis! Anyone who wants to be a Writer with a capital “W” (at least for the print media) should also read King’s book, _None but a Fool_. It’s hilarious…or would be, if weren’t so right on.

    Having taught writing to adults for many years, I can say that people who decide in their 20s, 30s, and beyond that they want to improve their writing often develop skills they never imagined they would have. It’s a matter of figuring out how and then, like learning to play the piano, practice practice practice.

    An important point that Trent summarizes is that READING is a crucial part of writing! This seems to be lost on many who want to write.

    My own book on this subject is still used in many college classrooms. One day I ran into a journalism professor who requires it for her feature-writing classes. She suggested I dumb it down (it ain’t exactly nuclear physics as it is, folks!), because, she said, students complained that it contained “too much reading.” And in my own classes, I’ve met people who say they want to be professional writers and then, literally in the next breath, continue that they don’t read much because they don’t enjoy reading.

    If you don’t like to read, you shouldn’t be trying to write. LOL! Why would you want to inflict more written words on the rest of the world unless you think writing is worth the time & effort to read it?

  13. Brad says:

    Another great book ostensibly about writing but actually more about the larger challenges of self discipline and fulfilling your dreams, is “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield (author of The Legend of Bagger Vance and several other works of fiction). This little gem is 165 pages; some chapters are only a couple of sentences. But it is a really interesting view of what it takes to overcome “resistance” and sit down and write, or start your business, etc. Highly recommended.

  14. James Morgan says:

    I love this book. Yet so few people, especially writers (and aspiring writers) seem to know about it.

    Raymond: I think the cover of the book may be his home, his writing place. Or at least that’s what they want you to think.

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