Review of On Writing

On Writing

By Stephen King

In all likelihood, the average American has heard of Stephen King and many have read his many works. But read his autobiography/writing manual, On Writing, and you’ll find that he’s more than just a writer of dark fiction.

King writes in a conversational tone and his personality shines right through the pages. Despite hissuccess, King never seems arrogant. He talks to the reader as one writer to another, even admitting that his methods may not work for all.

The book is short for a writing guide, considering that fully half of it discusses his life. This latter portion is a far cry from the standard, dry autobiography. King uses many elements of fiction as he conveys the story of his life, such as narration and flashbacks. Humorous incidents, such as the time King and his brother blew out the fuse of their apartment building, alternate with serious topics like his struggle with addiction.

The autobiographical section is filled with useful tidbits of advice and lessons that every writer can appreciate. King reveals how early stints as a janitor and a laundry cleaner inspired his writing. He says every character he creates is some part of himself, and that there is no magic formula for good writing. King also believes that writers can only be born, not made. But this shouldn’t discourage anyone because he also believes that almost everyone has adequate talent. The rest is a matter of hard work.

His advice on writing comes in the middle of the book, the “Toolbox”, as King calls it. His advice is simple, his tone is straightforward, and he makes it clear the Toolbox is a rough guide rather than an in-depth explanation.

The toolbox metaphor is particularly apt for King’s down to earth approach to writing. On the top shelf of the toolbox should be the common tools such as vocabulary and grammar. On the next level, he places style and paragraph structure. At the very bottom is the synthesis of all these aspects along with more technical skills developed over time.

He reveals that he “writes the first draft with the door closed and writes the second with the door open,” that “a story is a fossil you must uncover slowly,” and that he avoids plotting a novel. Instead, he puts his characters into a situation and sits back, allowing them to struggle through on their own. Of course, as King himself states, this will not work for everyone. It is simply the way he writes. But his most important commandment is that you read and write a lot. Only through reading will you be able to develop a feel for the language and only through writing and applying what you learned will you improve.

The last section is yet another look into King’s life but he talks no more about his childhood or battles with drugs. Instead, he discusses a battle of a different kind: his fight to live and write again after being hit by a car.

King chronicles the excruciating process of recovery and how writing helped him to move on with his life. In the end, this story of perseverance, pain, and success is less about the writing process and more about the will to pick up a pen despite all adversity. In King’s story, struggling writers may find inspiration but failing that, they will still find an entertaining read that just might stick with them.


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