Book Review — On Writing by Stephen King

'Tosin Adeoti
6 min readFeb 13, 2024

On Saturday, I finished “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” by Stephen King. Stephen King needs no introduction. King is the King of Horror, whose novels, encompassing horror, science fiction, and fantasy, have sold over 400 million copies, and many have been adapted into films, television series, miniseries, and comic books. If you have watched outstanding movies like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, you have this 76-year-old to thank.

So, does one of the bestselling authors of all time, with over 65 novels/novellas under his belt, have anything to teach the rest of us mortals about the art of writing (fiction)? You bet. But advice is not how the book, published in 2000, starts; King first takes us through his childhood. He recounts his gory experience in the hands of an ear doctor and still manages to make you laugh. I almost felt guilty about it but managed to shrug it off as I saw more and more humor in the rest of the book.

He takes us through what it means to be a struggling writer sending stories and manuscripts to media and publishing houses. But how did he even get started? His mother. At some point, he began to write his own stories. Imitation preceded creation; he would copy comics word for word, sometimes adding his own descriptions where they seemed appropriate. Eventually, he showed one of these copycat hybrids to his mother, and she was charmed. He had never seen that look on her face before. She then asked him if he had made the story up himself, and he was forced to admit that he had copied most of it out of a funny book. She seemed disappointed, and that drained away much of his pleasure. At last, she handed back his tablet. “Write one of your own, Stevie,” she said. “Those Combat Casey funny books are just junk — he’s always knocking someone’s teeth out. I bet you could do better. Write one of your own.”

And that encouragement was all he needed to start writing his own originals. But to succeed, he would need more than that. Once he was out of his mother’s shield, he was fortunate to get a partner who did not tire of him being alone and writing. While he was struggling to balance teaching creative writing to kids and a second job washing sheets with writing and submitting his stories, if his wife Tabby had as much as said he was wasting his time and he needed to concentrate on what brought home the money, he said he would have given up. I guess the lesson here is to choose your partner wisely.

But even he admits that all the encouragement in the world will not help some people. If you’re a bad writer, that is, if you have no writing talent, no one can help you become a good one. And if you are a good writer and want to be great, you should forget about it. He, however, says that if you are a good writer, through efforts, you can become competent. It is for the last category of writers, he wrote the book, full of lots of useful advice.

Perhaps the first and best is that 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 he is aware of, no shortcut. If you do not like to read as an aspiring writer, he says to forget about writing because that is how learning is done. That is how you become a competent writer. Every time you read and write, there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its lesson or lessons. It doesn’t even matter if you think a book is bad because quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones. He says to take a book to read everywhere — in the waiting room, in the kitchen, while eating, while doing your business. If you are already repulsed by that, then just forget being a competent writer. King himself gets through seventy or eighty books a year.

“Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.”

WIL — There is a successful writer who wrote over 500 novels under 10 different names, and there is one who wrote only one.
And he says that when you start to write, you will be anxious. And that fear is at the root of most bad writing. You will know because when you are writing for your pleasure — a diary, for example — you do not care about how you appear; you flow. However, when one is working under deadline — a school paper, a newspaper article, an SOP writing sample — that fear may be intense. The courage to write and expose oneself to the critique of others despite that fear is what writing legends are made up of.

This book has tons of tips. One of the most memorable is about vocabulary. He is of the opinion that 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 maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. To him, this is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed. Never use “emolument” when you mean “tip”. The trick to impressing in writing is not trying to be impressive.

The aspiring writer will love the section on the “Toolbox,” which discusses English mechanics and the importance of vocabulary, grammar, and style in writing. The fourth section, “On Writing,” details King’s advice on the art of writing. When I announced I was reading this book, someone asked me to find out why King would build a story to be so good and then ruin the ending. Well, he says he always write to get the best ending possible, but he doesn’t really care what you think as long as his wife, Tabby, whom he married in 1971, is cool with it. So, there.

But I find a couple of his advice controversial. For instance, King abhors outlines. How great is this advice when I see that most of the bad stories out there are as a result of the authors not planning nearly enough. Many authors say they get “stuck” or have writer’s block. I don’t recognize that problem, probably because I always have an outline to guide me. If I want to write, I just find time to create an outline and the words flow. Without an outline, I am lost. Outlines and story development prior to the first draft are good methods — but not for Mr. King. If you say who the heck am I to disagree with King, I will accept without conceding, knowing you just pulled a fallacy.

He ends the book by recounting his accident on one of his walks. I just could not help wondering how fortunate he was to have been in a developed country. In a developing country like Nigeria, that would probably have been the end of him.

In all, the book is a useful one. Imagine all the questions you ever had about what it means to be a writer and how to do it. How do you write a novel? What system or method should you follow? How many words should you write per day? What skills do I need to write a good book? Where should you write? What should your environment look like? How many drafts should you have? Who is the best person to review your draft? All these questions are answered in this book, in a straightforward, no-bullshit way. I loved it, even more for the humour.