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Stephen King Describes His Craft: On Writing

Updated on October 21, 2014

Stephen King


Stephen King is one of America's great novelists. How's that for a non-controversial statement?

As much as I enjoy his works, I had long resisted reading his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It's not a novel, of course, it's a memoir of exactly what the title says it is. I resisted the book because I figured that a great writer would have little to tell me. Who wants to read war stories of a man at the top of his game. Interesting, maybe, but what could he tell the average writer?

I'm glad I stopped resisting this book, and you should too.

It was published in 2000, a year after King was in a horrific car accident. Always the story teller, King writes about his accident, how he was struck by an inattentive driver as King was taking his daily walk on a country road in Maine, how he almost died.

As he was healing from his injuries, he wrestled with this book. As prolific as he is, he had a hard time telling the story of his craft. I'm glad he overcame his block.

This is not a book about how you too can be another Stephen King...or Tom Clancy, Nelson DeMille, Barbara Kingsolver or any other novelist. It's about how you can be the best writer that you can be. I know that sounds like an Army recruiting poster, but it's true. This book is written for writers.


The Categories of Writers

King takes a realistic look at the "writing community," and, with his typical directness, breaks it down into categories. There are bad writers, competent writers, good writers and great writers.

It's refreshing to read that he has no hope for bad writers. He thinks they're beyond salvation, and I think he's right. There's a difference between singing in the shower and writing. Singing in the shower is an activity for the singer. Writing is an activity for the reader. Bad writers don't know that. "Hey look at me. I'm talented, witty, erudite and wise." Then why does your stuff suck? It sucks because bad writers entertain themselves. Good writers entertain readers. Unless you're willing to learn some basics, fold up your keyboard and do something else. Record your shower songs, maybe.

If there is a target audience for this book, it's competent writers. He shows you how to go from competent to good, by following some rules and honing your craft. Can you be great? King won't say no, but hits you in the face with the obvious. Just as supermodels are born, not made, great writers are possessed of rare gifts. I think of a super athlete. Say you're a competent basketball player, maybe even a good one. No coach, no training camp, no extra effort is going to turn you into Michael Jordan. Not going to happen.

But what can happen is that you get better, maybe even good. This book aims at that sweet spot, the large group of writers who are pretty decent at what they do.


The Basics

Master Stephen goes to the heart of writing, and it begins with tools, the basics.

Vocabulary. King calls this the "bread of writing." (I read this book on my Kindle, so I can't give you a page reference - Sorry). Vocabulary should be at the top of your toolbox, and "don't make any conscious effort to improve it." In other words, don't look for words that make you look smart, look for words that do the job. Quoting the prostitute talking to a bashful sailor, King says, "It ain't how much you've got, honey, it's how you use it."

Grammar. It also belongs on the top shelf of your writer's toolbox. There's no excuse for bad grammar. King suggests you buy a used copy of Warriner's English Grammar and Composition, the same book many of us used in elementary school. I would add that a simple Google search can bring you to some excellent websites on grammar, such as Don't insult your reader, or he won't be a reader for long.

Elements of Style

Sometimes the best has been said already. King recommends the venerable The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. He picks a few Strunk classics prohibitions, including phrases like "the fact that," and "along these lines." To these King adds some personal gripes, such as "at this point in time," or "at the end of the day."

Avoid needless words. This is one of Strunk and White's most important dictums, and Stephen King heartily agrees. I love King's formula for rewriting: "2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%." Getting rid of useless words can make your manuscript more compact and powerful.

Adverbs. "Adverbs," says Master Stephen, "are not your friends." Bless him. Nothing pegs a piss poor writer like an explosion of adverbs. King likens them to dandelions. Ignore one or two and before you know it they cover your lawn. To this I would add, to paraphrase Zuzu in It's a Wonderful Life, Every time you write an adverb, you should hear a

Outline a Novel or Go Organic

If there is one criticism I would make of King's book it's this: He opts for organic writing rather than outlining. Well fine, but King is a creative genius, or, as he says of Hemingway, "a fucking genius." When his creativity flows, it comes from a rare place, the place of genius. I don't know about you, but I need a little structure when I write fiction. I need an outline, even if I keep changing it as I go along. Yes, my juices flow when I start writing, but I need a place to start. He gives us a great analogy to hunting for fossils, believing that a writer's words are there somewhere, they just need to be dug up. I got it. I just need a place to start digging. But then, I'm not Stephen King.

Story Versus Plot

King sees a big difference between a story and a plot, the latter being somewhat contrived. "Story," says King, "is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest."

Bad writing infests the Internet, including sites like HubPages. It also infests the dens of self publishing. Because there's no friction between writing something and publishing it, crap proliferates. King doesn't go into Internet writing in the book - remember it was published in 2000, an age when Google was an infant. Nor does he even mention self publishing, a phenomenon that has taken hold since he wrote the book. I would love to see an update, addressing this new age of writing, an age where Search Engine Optimization, not the creative use of words, rules.

I end with a simple point. If you're a writer, buy this book.

Russ Moran, the writer of this article, is the author of three novels in the Time Magnet Series, The Gray Ship, The Thanksgiving Gang, and A Time of Fear.

I thank Stephen King for his guiding light on fiction writing.

Copyright © 2014 by Russell F. Moran


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    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 22 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Can't say "Amen" enough. I think the main thing we can learn from his book is the three drafts for anything we want to publish. It is that discipline that so many writers often lack.

    • FatBoyThin profile image

      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      I read Steve's book On Writing a few months back and totally loved it. However, I didn't particularly learn anything from it (in terms of writing techniques), as all he does is remind us of all the common sense stuff we should all know anyway. What I liked about the book was that it was Steven King telling us this, and having him remind me of it was what I needed to hear. Great Hub, voted up.

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      You will be happy to read it Brandon. It's also worth rereading. Thanks for your comment.

    • BrandonWalker profile image

      Brandon Walker 4 years ago from Virginia

      I've added this to my list of books I need to pick up, thanks so much for the recommendation. Really seems like it will be beneficial to my writing.

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks for your comments Kathryn. Yes, Master Steve is a beacon for all of us. This is probably the most useful memoir/how to book I've read.

    • Kathryn Stratford profile image

      Kathryn 4 years ago from Manchester, Connecticut

      I already have this book, and I love it! Even when I had to leave almost everything I had behind, this was one of my treasured possessions. I have read it several times, and it always gives me a motivational boost. I enjoy how he weaves information that is useful to writers into his story. And when you read his story, you realize he started out just like us. He worked and worked, got rejected again and again. He was a teacher (or a professor?), just a humble man. I love it! He rose from rags to riches, and he still seems like a very down to earth guy.

      Thanks for sharing this review with us.

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Elias. This book is definitely worth the investment. It's a resource you'll use over and over again. You're a good writer - I'm now following you. With King's advice you will become even better.

    • Elias Zanetti profile image

      Elias Zanetti 4 years ago from Athens, Greece

      Nice hub and very useful suggestions. I have heard for King's book and after reading your hub I'm now convinced that it worths its money.

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Missolive. Yes, King's book is one to return to regularly, just to read or listen to the master at work.

    • missolive profile image

      Marisa Hammond Olivares 4 years ago from Texas

      I have this book in both print and audio. It is a must have for any writer and I have found it to be beneficial. I especially like the audio version as it is narrated by King himself. I am hoping to reread it again this summer. Thanks for the useful hub and interpretation.

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Shining. Yes, King/s book is on for regular reference

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 4 years ago from Upstate, New York

      Excellent write on the individual and his craft. This book was purchased by me, read and now sits on my shelf with some others I can not part with. I often revisit it and am glad you did so here.

      Great write

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Hi Nicole. Yes, a lot of the book was autobiographical. His story about his accident was frightening as it was beautifully executed. Like you, I shall read this book over and over.

    • Nicole Winter profile image

      Nicole A. Winter 4 years ago from Chicago, IL

      rfmoran: I love Stephen King's book, "On Writing..." and have read it several times after picking my copy up at a garage sale for a pittance. Within a few moves across Chicago and onwards to California then back to Chicago again I lost my precious copy of his book, but went out and paid full price to own it once again! Not to speak for the great writer, but I do feel like, (and it's been awhile since I've read it, so pardon my paraphrasing,) a great deal of the "purpose" of his book was recuperating from his accident, he was in a great deal of pain and on medications that dulled him. Getting back "into" writing as his full-time job, (this man reads more than he writes, you know?,) became nearly impossible while he was still recovering from his injuries. The personal backstory that he recounts throughout the book is absolutely fascinating. For anyone who's ever been a true fan of an author, you would have to go through numerous interviews, television appearances and possibly even read a memoir without gaining the depth of knowledge about his writing background & childhood that S.K. manages to impart within mere paragraphs. His advice on writing can be summed up in one phrase: dead-on. A lot of it *is* elementary, yes, but it is gifted to the reader in such a way that it becomes as entertaining as his fiction! I don't know if you've read Douglas Adam's work, (he's now passed on,) the author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but King's tone reminds me a great deal of Adams' succinctness.

    • ytsenoh profile image

      Cathy 4 years ago from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri

      Really good hub. I totally agree with "get rid of useless words." Years ago when I would read King's work, I had to stop at "Cujo" because it creeped me out. I could read this memoir without hesitation or, uh, fear. I definitely think all writers who are reaching should also read a lot. I like the categories of writers. For bad writers, I refer to them as the wanna-be-writers. Thanks much for this book reference.

    • poetforlife profile image

      Marie Williams 4 years ago from Dallas, Texas.

      Thank you for this article rfmoran. I am presently reading this book and I have found it quite informative so far. I am halfway through, but I am encouraged to complete it.

    • nighthag profile image

      K.A.E Grove 4 years ago from Australia

      I too have avoided reading this book of his but I think you have just changed my mind, like him I cannot stick to a hard plot and I actually grow bored if I know where my story will end. thanks for a great review

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Lisa. Like you, I am working on a novel.

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks for stopping by cryptid. I, like you, am lost without an outline. I think King has one, he just has it in his head.

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Mac. I had a great English teacher in High School. I never forgot his words. "If you want to write, read."

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Bill. Nothing like learning from a master.

    • LisaKoski profile image

      Lisa 4 years ago from WA

      Great tips! I especially loved the point you made that "bad writers entertain themselves. Good writers entertain readers." I'd like to hope that I'm a good writer, since my dream is to publish my own fiction novel one day, and not one of those who aren't ever really going to make the cut in the publishing world. I will definitely look into purchasing this book soon. Thanks for sharing!

    • cryptid profile image

      cryptid 4 years ago from Earth

      IMO, this is one of the best books out there for aspiring novelists. I also agree with your statement about organic writing, and I suspect even King, genius or not, would have saved himself a lot of time by doing proper outlines. For myself, I'm lost without an outline! Well, maybe not lost, but definitely frustrated. Great Hub!

    • mactavers profile image

      mactavers 4 years ago

      Great Hub, thank you. When I was teaching basic writing courses at a local community college in 1981, I would always have students fill out a form asking questions about where they received reliable information and what writers they enjoyed reading because I believe that good writers stem from being good readers. For the next decade of teaching, Stephen King was usually listed as a favorite author.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I've watched his videos about writing and I like his tips. Nice job on this, Russ. Very helpful.