How Stephen King’s On Writing Can Make You a Better Author
An in-depth examination of King’s essential 2000 craft book!
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.
King never uses the word “schedule” in On Writing, but in essence he is telling the aspiring fiction writer to keep to a strict schedule if he ever has intentions of finishing his manuscript. Whether a non-fiction or academic writer is writing a novel-length manuscript, an academic journal article, or a short essay for a graduate school class, he can use King’s advice, too, but modify the word count length for each day. If the writer’s intention is to produce a 5,000-word academic journal article, he might want to attempt 250 words a day, each day, until he finishes the first draft.
The importance of a writing schedule is at the heart of the academic writing book How to Write a Lot, by Paul J. Silvia, PhD. This author, who is a psychologist, gives practical advice about how to produce more writing, particularly to students and professors who may not be able to find the time. While his entire book is useful, it is the advice he gives in the early chapters that can make a difference in a writer’s life, whether he writes fiction or non-fiction.
After discussing specious barriers, like not having the time to write, or not feeling inspired, Silvia discusses the importance of a writer having a daily schedule: “You must ruthlessly defend your writing time. Remember, you’re allocating time to write, not finding time to write … your writing time is not the time to meet with colleagues, students, or graduate advisers; it isn’t the time to grade papers or develop lectures; and it certainly isn’t the time to check e-mail, read the newspaper, or catch the weather report … close your Internet access, turn off your phone and shut the door” (15).
Silvia discusses multiple ways throughout his book about how one can produce more writing, but he goes back to the importance of the schedule time and time again. Ultimately allowing time each day for writing is the number one tool to produce more work. If one sticks to a writing schedule every day, whether the time allotted is two hours or just thirty minutes, at the end of the week, and the month, and the year, that writer will have produced more material than those colleagues of his who didn’t stick to a schedule.
King would agree with Silvia’s belief in a schedule, and he goes further to suggest that a writer who is serious about composing fiction should write not just five days a week, or even six, but every single day. He says, “The truth is that when I’m writing, I write every day, workaholic dweeb or not … that includes Christmas, the Fourth, and my birthday,” and in regards to his daily writing goals, he says, “I like to get ten pages a day … that’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book — something in which the reader can get happily lost” (154).
The beauty of King’s and Silvia’s advice concerning keeping a schedule is that it teaches the writer to not think of a project as a three-month long challenge, but as a daily appointment, as simple as one’s everyday trip to the gym. When I stopped thinking about writing a novel as producing a work of 100,000 words, and simply looked at it as 2,000 words a day, the process came easily and naturally. And for all writers like me who are drawn to the craft every day, there are no truer words than what King says: “For me, not working is the real work … when I’m writing, it’s all the playground, and the worst three hours I ever spent there were still pretty damned good” (154). Creating a schedule for one’s writing practices should not be looked at as a drag, but as a model to find more time to do what writers love to do: write.
The Perfect Space, and Avoiding the Morally Wonky
One important writing practice King discusses is finding the right writing space. It seems like it should be an afterthought — where someone writes — but ultimately where and how one writes plays a major role in the process. I have written my fiction in my room, in coffeehouses, on airplanes, even in London and Paris hostels. Each environment provides a different experience for the writer, and he has to learn where he will do his best work. While I enjoy the quiet of my bedroom to write, I find it much easier to distract myself on the Internet, or play with my cat for half an hour if I can’t figure out the next line of dialogue. My favorite environment is a coffeehouse, where there is no Wi-Fi, and where the chatter of other people stays to a minimum. King believes in a writing space at home, with, “a door which you are willing to shut … the closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business” (155). King is right when he says that a writer has to close the door; he has to turn away from the outside world so he can focus on his work with zero distractions.
The other practice he suggests is one of an artist staying true to himself, and not focusing too much on the marketplace: “What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you know and love, in favor of things you believe will impress your friends, relatives, and writing-circle colleagues … what’s equally wrong is the deliberate turning toward some genre or type of fiction in order to make money … it’s morally wonky, for one thing — the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies, not commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck” (159).
It may seem obvious for a writer to write what he is interested in, but there can be temptation to write the kind of fiction that “sells.” As a gay person, I have been drawn to stories about the LGBT experience, particularly when it comes to my young adult fiction. However, many people I talk to tell me that when I write books with homosexual protagonists, I’m limiting my audience, therefore limiting my chance to make any real money. However, as King makes clear, making money the main priority, and not being true to oneself, simply doesn’t work; such practices will only make the writer a pale imitator of others.
Clear Seeing and Clear Writing
Although King spends a considerable amount of time discussing theme, revision, and that classic conundrum — how to get a literary agent — he also discusses the importance of showing versus telling, particularly when it comes to descriptions. Once one sets out to write his story, with his toolbox his hand, and with active voice his new best friend, the other major element that makes for good writing is showing the reader details. King says, “The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary” (179). He discusses the writers who have come before him who have taught him about the important practice of showing.
He also says the amount of description an author shows is equally important to the showing itself: “It’s not just a question of how-to, you see; it’s also a question of how much to … reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help with the how” (173). A writer, however, may take this advice that showing is always better than telling, and ultimately show too much in his descriptions. If he discusses every flaw on a character’s face, every color presented in her day’s wardrobe, and every little eyebrow raise and flick of the finger, the reader will become overwhelmed. On the other hand, if the writer includes little to no detail, showing only that the newly introduced character is female and that she has blonde hair, and nothing else, the reader may not properly be able to imagine the scene.
Helen Sword, in her book Stylish Academic Writing, discusses the benefits of showing as well, explaining how it gives the reader more a visual experience when he is reading: “The “show and tell” principle can be adapted to suit any academic context or disciplinary style. At the sentence level, a single concrete verb — sweep, illuminate, forge — helps lift a phrase into the realm of livid experience … each of these techniques relies on a breathtakingly simple formula: abstract concepts become more memorable and accessible the moment we ground them in the material world” (108.
While Sword is discussing academic writing, her words give inspiration to a writer in any discipline. A fiction writer understands that the right verb can make or break a sentence, and that abstract and dry moments can always be strengthened through showing.
The other chapter worth mentioning in On Writing is about revisions, which is arguably the most important writing practice of all. No writer produces a perfect first draft, and revision allows for the real work to get done. King offers smart advice about revision, like insisting a writer keep the door shut while writing the first draft and propping the door open during the revision process. He suggests two drafts and a polish.
The most significant writing practice that he discusses, however, is the time allotted to allow the first draft of a manuscript to breathe. When I was younger, I often finished the first draft of a short story and then revised it that very same day. King taught me to finish a first draft of a writing project and then let it sit for awhile. He says, “How long you let your book rest is up to you, but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks … during this time your manuscript will be safely shut away in a desk drawer, aging and mellowing” (211). Coming back to a long work of fiction a month or two later, without having peeked at it once, allows the writer to become a reader of his own work. Revision is a long and difficult process, but this six-week layoff allows the writer to come fresh to the material.
Writing is Magic
The last section of King’s book — “On Living: A Postscript” — details the 1999 car crash that nearly took his life, and it offers some last minute wisdom and inspiration for the writer. One of King’s most famous writing practices before his accident was taking a long walk every day as he sorted through his thoughts about the recent writing project he was working on. Taking walks allows the writer to free his mind and let ideas in that might never have appeared in the darkness of an office. On June 19, a driver of a van didn’t see him walking on the shoulder of the highway and accidentally struck him. King spent weeks in the hospital recovering, with the strong possibility that he might not ever walk again. Here was King in the most painful, dire predicament of his life, but did this stop him from writing? He explains, “There was no miraculous breakthrough that afternoon, unless it was the ordinary miracle that comes with any attempt to create something. All I know is that the words starting coming a little faster after awhile, then a little faster still … writing did not save my life, but it has continued to do what it always has done: it makes my life a brighter and more pleasant place” (269).
In the nineteen years since his accident, King has been more prolific than ever, and in a career that has lasted nearly fifty years, King keeps going, pursuing new stories, finding new ways to reinvent himself. And he would not want to be doing anything else. As he says in the last paragraph of On Writing, “writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art … the water is free … drink and be filled up” (270).
When in sickness, or in health, writing brightens the life of Stephen King, as it does for all those who make writing a daily practice, and a lifelong pursuit. Looking at and studying King’s writing practices in On Writing, as well as the works of Kolln, Gray, Silvia, and Sword, is essential for anyone who wants to better his writing and produce more material. Good writing advice is good writing advice, no matter if the author’s book focuses on fiction writing, or if it focuses on academic or non-fiction writing. Fiction writers can learn tricks and techniques from non-fiction writers, and academic writers can learn new rules and strategies from fiction writers. Whichever genre one is most interested in, King’s work is a great place to start for every aspiring author. He is one of the masters, and he will continue to act as an inspiration for me, as he does for so many writers, young and old, all around the world.
Gray, Loretta; Kolln, Martha. Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects. New York: Longman, 2010. Print.
King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner, 2000. Print.
Silvia, Paul J. How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. Washington, DC: APA LifeTools, 2010. Print.
Sword, Helen. Stylish Academic Writing. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012. Print.
Brian Rowe is an author, teacher, book devotee, and film fanatic. He received his MFA in Creative Writing and MA in English from the University of Nevada, Reno, and his BA in Film Production from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He writes young adult and middle grade suspense novels, and is represented by Kortney Price of the Corvisiero Agency.