Review: On Writing by Stephen King

It’s a classic, alright.

Part memoir, part writing manual, “On Writing” describes Stephen King’s route to becoming a writer and then a best-selling one (spoiler alert – it involves a lot of luck and hard work), as well as his tips for style and general writing advice.

I first read this in high school and, no shock, I thought it was the bee’s knees, seeing as the only writing advice I’d ever encountered was a mild critique on an essay from my literature teacher. Of course! Never use anything other than “said” and get rid of all the adjectives, and everything’s going to be just fine and dandy.

A few years and several failed manuscripts later, revisiting a book is like seeing a favorite aunt or cousin after a long separation – you’re still getting the warm fuzzies, but you don’t necessarily agree with everything they say. Having tried most of the tips in the second part (the writing manual part,) I’d say it’s a question of personal preference whether you take them up or not. Waiting for 6 months between drafts, for example, has never worked for me. If anything, coming back to a WIP after such a long time has only left me with the conviction that it sucks and that there is nothing redeemable about it.

The real strength of “On Writing”, in my opinion, lies in the parts concerning what it takes to be a writer. As a society, we have this idea that writing (or dancing, or acting, or any other sort of work in the arts) is somehow different from any other job; that writers are all either starving geniuses or John Green; and that, if you’re not going to write the Next Great American Novel (change country according to preference), then why bother.

King’s take on it is more on the pragmatic side: read a lot, write a lot, persevere and don’t be a twat (okay, so he doesn’t say the latter, per se, but her does provide a very good rebuke on the whole “a writer is a singular being” myth, more on that in a bit.) Writing courses aren’t going to teach you any great secrets, but they will give you some validation as a creative, and they will help some struggling creatives financially. (No illusions that writing will make you super-rich, here.)

None of this is ground-breaking – in fact, if you read between the lines, you will find much of the same advice in any “Buff up your CV” or “Prepare for an Interview” column. (Gee, it’s almost as if writing is, I dunno, a real job!) What sells it is King’s voice and how he manages to deliver that advice – through anecdotes and some carefully drawn conclusions.

Personal anecdotes have their downfalls. You may read King’s account of becoming an addict and think that this is something that doesn’t apply to you, or you might decide that the information is too carefully edited. Personally, though, I think that is the best part of the book. It says all that needs to be said about the idea that an author is a super-special being for whom the laws of nature and men don’t apply:

We all look pretty much the same when we puke in the gutter.

– p. 110, paperback edition