In today’s literary landscape, where countless guides and tutorials claim to unlock the secrets of successful writing, Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of The Craft stands out as a beacon for aspiring writers. This is a deeply personal journey into the life and lessons of one of the most prolific authors of our time.

With over two decades of experience in crafting compelling narratives, King chooses to share his wisdom in a manner that is as engaging as his fiction. His approach is not just about laying down rules but about inviting readers into the heart of the creative process.

This book is indeed a window into King’s own struggles and triumphs as a writer. In fact, Stephen acknowledged that writing such a memoir was not an easy thing . “I must tell you though” King declared, “that confidence during the actual writing of this book was a commodity in remarkably short supply. What I was long on was physical pain and self-doubt”.

In this post, I delve into the core teachings of King’s memoir, highlighting the tips and insights that resonate most profoundly. From building your writing toolbox to the indispensable habit of reading, King’s advice is both practical and inspiring, serving as a compass for those embarking on their writing journey.

Stephen King’s Writing Tips

Here are some interesting writing tips I gleaned from Stephen King’s memoir “On Writing: A Memoir of The Craft“.

Stephen King’s writing tips can be succinctly summarized as follows:

Writing Toolbox: Assemble essential tools like vocabulary and grammar for effective writing.

Vocabulary: Use simple, natural words for clarity and authenticity.

Grammar: Favor active voice for strength and engagement in writing.

Avoid Adverbs: Rely on strong narrative and dialogue instead of adverbs.

Reading: Read extensively to naturally enhance writing skills and style.

Write Regularly: Consistency is key. Develop a writing routine to hone your skills.

Edit Ruthlessly: Be prepared to revise and remove unnecessary elements for a tighter, more impactful narrative.

1. Writing toolbox

Among the different things Stephen recommended for beginner writers is the creation of a writing toolbox. He stated:

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. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work. (p. 114)

Stephen King’s concept of a ‘writing toolbox’ is a powerful metaphor for the essential skills and knowledge a writer needs. By suggesting that writers build their own toolbox, he emphasizes the importance of having a ready set of tools (like vocabulary and grammar) at your disposal.

His advice to use simple, effective words rather than unnecessarily complex ones is particularly insightful. It underlines the idea that good writing is more about clear communication than showcasing one’s vocabulary. This approach demystifies writing, making it more accessible and less intimidating, especially for beginners. This toolbox is composed of several layers:

1st layer : vocabulary
Vocabulary is an important element in Stephen’s toolbox . Here is what he said about it:

Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it (you will be doing that as you read…). One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re may be a little bit ashamed of your short ones… Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word… but it probably won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean….Why in God’s name would you want to make things worse by choosing a word which is only cousin to the one you really wanted to use? (p.118)

King’s perspective on vocabulary is refreshingly practical. He advises against the common pitfall of overcomplicating language, suggesting instead that writers should trust their natural vocabulary. This approach aligns with the idea that authenticity in writing comes from being true to oneself, rather than reaching for grandiose or unfamiliar words. It’s a reminder that powerful writing often lies in simplicity and clarity, and that the best word choices are those that come naturally and fit the context of the writing.

“I think timid writers like them {passive verbs}for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with; the subject just has to close its eyes and think of England, to paraphrase Queen Victoria. I think unsure writers also feel the passive voice somehow lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty”. (p. 123)

Besides passive voice, adverbs are the second grammatical elements Stephen cautions against. As he stated, 

“With adverbs , the writer usually tells us he/she is afraid he/she is not expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.” (p. 124)

King’s caution against adverbs is a classic piece of advice in writing circles. His belief that adverbs often indicate a lack of confidence in the writing is insightful. It suggests that writers should trust their dialogue and narrative to convey meaning, rather than relying on adverbs to do the heavy lifting. This piece of advice is particularly useful for writers who strive for precision and strength in their prose.

2. Reading 

Another thing which Stephen insisted on as being integral to the act of writing besides creating a toolbox is reading. Extensive reading is sine qua non for any writer and Stephen himself stated that he reads between 70 to 80 novels a year.

King’s emphasis on the importance of reading for writers is a cornerstone of his advice. His notion that reading widely and regularly helps in naturally forming better writing is a testament to the symbiotic relationship between reading and writing. It highlights how exposure to different styles and narratives can subconsciously shape a writer’s own style, enhancing their natural ability to construct effective prose. This idea reinforces the concept that good writers are, invariably, voracious readers.

On the importance of reading , Stephen said:

The more fiction you read and write the more you will find your paragraphs forming on their own. And that’s what you want. When composing it’s best not to think too much about  where paragraphs begin and end, the trick is to let nature take its course. If you don’t like it later on, fix it then. (p. 132)

He further added :

The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing … Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mindset) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor. (p. 150) 

Related: Gaiman’s Rules of Writing

Final thoughts

In wrapping up our exploration of Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of The Craft, it’s clear that this is a profound journey into the heart of storytelling, shared by one of the most successful writers of our time. King’s candidness about his struggles and the practical advice he offers make this book a must-read for aspiring writers.

His emphasis on the fundamental tools of writing, like vocabulary and grammar, along with the indispensable role of reading, provides a solid foundation for anyone looking to improve their craft. The book stands out as a testament to the power of perseverance, passion, and the importance of honing one’s skills. Whether you’re a novice or seasoned writer, King’s insights are invaluable, offering guidance and inspiration to navigate the often daunting but rewarding path of writing.

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