Allie Cooper

Written by

Allie Cooper

9 May 2022

Books

Breaking Down the Key Lessons of Stephen King’s On Writing

Stephen King's signature over books On Writing - Signature sourced from Wikimedia commons and is in the public domain

In his seminal work on the craft of creative writing, Stephen King said, “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”

As King put it, writers are uniquely positioned to leave a lasting impact on people’s lives. Writers combine experience with empathy and imagination to build worlds people can get lost in.

As a craft, writing is simultaneously generous and self-centered. At first, writing might be about scratching an internal itch — to clarify an idea in your mind or find catharsis for a pent-up emotion. But for your inner world to mean something to someone else, you need to learn how to communicate ideas well. In short, you need to learn how to write.

Stephen King's 'On Writing' on a desk with a potted plant - Photograph by J Kelly Brito for Unsplash

No resource can better teach you the art of the craft than Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft. The famous horror author’s memoir is part autobiography, part how-to guide. King draws from his experiences in the writing industry to provide aspiring writers with practical tips on storytelling, editing, publishing, and life. For fans of his work, he breaks down certain chapters and scenes from his books and explains why he wrote as he did. For instance, he explains his reasoning behind an early chapter of The Dead Zone, and why he put protagonist Johnny Smith into a carnival backdrop.

There are plenty more pearls of wisdom to find from the king of the genre and to give you a taste of what the book has to offer, here are some of its key learning points.

Read

Only those with the time to read have the time and tools to write. That’s how King puts it.

It makes sense: reading expands your knowledge of grammar, sentence structure, storytelling, character development, and more. Additionally, through reading, you’ll discover what you like and don’t like, which can influence how your write.

Refine your writer’s toolbox

To improve your writing, turn to these three main tools: vocabulary, grammar, and style.

Vocabulary

Vocabulary refers to your word choices. According to King, it is always best to use the first word that comes to mind. If you force yourself to use words outside of your normal vocabulary, you risk diluting your authentic voice.

Don’t be ashamed of having a simple vocabulary. As King puts it, how you use your words matters more than how big your words are.

Grammar

Grammar refers to the rules of language. Brush up on things like punctuation, tense, and subject-verb agreement to ensure that your readers understand what you’re trying to say.

Style

Style refers to how you structure your sentences. According to King, the best style resource for writers is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. It contains many tips for improving the clarity and power of your sentence structure.

King, in particular, has two style pet peeves: adverbs and the passive voice. As we mentioned in our article ‘The Road To Hell Is Paved With Adverbs’, adverbs can make your writing sound lazy. Instead of showing a reader how an action plays out, adverbs tell the reader how they should perceive the action.

Passive voice, on the other hand, can make your sentences sound weak and hard to follow. If you want your readers to have a clearer idea of what’s going on, start with the noun, then the action.

Graffiti art of Jack Nicholson from The Shining - Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

Write with the door closed…

When King said “write with the door closed,” he meant, don’t take input from others before completing your first draft.

Why seek criticism for something that isn’t finished? Feedback at this stage of the writing process might interrupt that initial surge of inspiration. Worse, you might end up compromising your authentic voice to earn approval from others.

To keep your work focused, don’t think about anybody else’s opinions when writing your first draft.

…and rewrite with the door open

Only when your first draft has been completed can you seek feedback from others. Because the draft has been completed, the people reviewing your work will have a clearer idea of what you’re trying to accomplish.

Instead of intercepting your message (as they would have if you let them criticize an unfinished draft), they can instead help you find the most effective way to say what you want to say. Outside perspectives can help you identify what is unclear, what is missing, and what is unnecessary.

When Stephen King wrote On Writing, he already had about 30 years of experience in the publishing industry. And because he shared his story, readers can learn from three decades’ worth of writing knowledge in a 320-page book!

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