Stephen King “On Writing”: A Review

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Pocket Books, 2000. 288 pages. $14.95.

Stephen King 1947—

According to King’s own words, he had so peopled The Stand with a host of characters, that he had to explode them. He expunged them with a bomb planted in a closet. That work of fiction gave him fits. The complexity overwhelmed him. The solution grabbed him in a quiet moment after months of struggle and doubt. Not much unlike the difficulty with this book interrupted by the well publicized accident on a back road in Maine in 1999.

He considers that On Writing took the most out of him and was even more difficult to write. Not least of which can be attributed to the speeding van which broke the crest of the hill only to find King’s face—his crumpled glasses found inside on Bryan Smith’s dashboard.

King was writing a book on the craft that would not be merely informational. Writers did not need a text book. A memoir appealed more to him. Perhaps it is the way it not only tells but shows. After all, every writer or writing student knows the adage: Show don’t tell! King has shown not so much how to write as how he writes. And HOW he writes—38 novels, scores of short stories and poems, articles and now a book on the craft. His is a writing career spanning 40 years. These credentials make it clear that he has something to say and he says it well.

King has given us a fresh and helpful look at the craft of writing. How? Consider. He has arranged the book in three parts: Memoir (show), Craft (tell), and Postscript (show & tell again). Or . . .  tell them what you’re going to say; say it; tell them what you’ve said.

For the first 101 pages he shows us what good writing is. The images of his life come alive for us. We see what is in back of the writer. Excellent characterization. He has sprinkled important nuggets, principles, and axioms throughout, unfortunately they are few. He is not preachy. He shows.  Present, real, and honest—very honest best describes his writing. He shows those snapshots which he considers made him the writer he is. As one critic wrote, he whets our appetite for a full length autobiography. Such an accolade proves that his showing works. Granted in some places he throws scraps of over-cute, but we come away willing to overlook the litter for the grand view.

The second section begins at page 103, in three movements as well. First his narrative on what writing is. Second he goes over the tools of the craft in a fresh light and voice, followed by the “heart of this book,” entitled On Writing. Here he presents the book’s two theses: First, “that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals,” and that while it is impossible to make a good writer out of a bad writer and a great writer out of a good writer, it is possible “to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”

He goes on to show, tell, and encourage the reader/writer.

The final section of the book is a page-turner. He shows us in vivid detail and full technical vocabulary how much damage the van did to not only his body but the progress on the book. The writing of On Writing halted for almost a year while King healed. He attributes the completion to his love of writing and his wife, Tabby. Both were there for him when even sitting was too painful to face, never mind concentrating on a challenging work of non-fiction.

King’s motive in this book (as in much of his writing) is to encourage transformation—to leave the reader a more enriched person—in On Writing’s case to encourage, equip, and empower writers, young and old.

I, for one, am thankful for King’s admonishment on page 148 regarding TV watching for writers. It was a Godsend. He prescribed an antidote—a six-hour program for reading and writing. King says that writing is discovery. I’ve picked up a novel. I read each night.

I am brushing the dirt from around the fossil of my second novel (the first is in my desk drawer). Granted I am working with a toothbrush in terms of hours I can give, but the bones still show. I’m seeing more bone every day. Thanks Stephen.

©2012, David C Alves

5 responses

  1. I read that work when it first came out and fell in love with it–both for its simplicity and its depth. I’ve used the “What Writing Is” chapter several times in my creative and standard writing classes to explain both what writing entails and also to show students how a piece should be structured. It’s both a guide and an example all wrapped up in one piece….with a rabbit bearing a mysterious blue eight.

    Great review of a great read!


    1. Thanks Jamie. Agree about both guide & example. Gotta love the rabbit.


  2. King’s On Writing was one of the first books on writing I read after retirement a few years ago. Surprisingly, I’m not a King fan, but then neither was this a standard King work. I fell in love with his writing style in this book, and you’ve done a great job of reviewing it. I keep it on my shelf and refer to it often when I’m stumbling through my writing hours.


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