Writing Tips From Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’

I’m way behind the times with reading Stephen King’s memoir on the craft of writing, On Writing. Like, so behind the times that in the book he makes repeated references to floppy discs and the future, 2001.

Yeah, I’m like 10 years overdue to read this, but I think if I had read it at any other point in my writing life, I wouldn’t have been ready. Or maybe that’s not true; ready is a myth, right?

I think if I’d read it five years ago, I would have found it valuable but maybe not as poignant as I do now. And when I read it again in ten years, I’m sure it will ring true in new ways.

The tips that stuck out to me are listed below. I chose them for reasons I can’t really articulate, but overall they’re just lines or passages that make a lot of damn sense right now. I’ve scribbled them down on a small paper bag (because the three notebooks I always have on hand weren’t suitable?) like a true weirdo. Tell me which ones hit home for you!

  • “One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose– one [bad] novel…is worth a semester at a good writing school, even with the superstar guest lecturers thrown in.” (146)
  • “Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing–of being flattened, in fact– is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.” (146)
  • “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out.” (57)
  • “You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair– the sense that you can never completely put on the page that’s in your mind and heart.You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.” (106)
  • “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 ashamed of your short ones. 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. Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use ’emolument’ when you mean ‘tip.'” (117)
  • “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day…fifty the day after that…and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions.” (125)
  • “Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affection. Affection itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as ‘good’ and other sorts as ‘bad,’ is fearful behavior. Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with.” (128)
  • “The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story… to make him/her forget, whenever possible, that he/she is reading a story at all.” (134)
  • “The writer’s original perception of a character or characters may be as erroneous as the reader’s. Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.” (78)
  • “I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.” (163)
  • “Formula: 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%.” (222)
  • “The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest. Long life stories are best recieved in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying.” (227)
  • The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.” (269)
  • “You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.” (270)
Have you read On Writing? What are your favorite writing tips, from a book or from experience?



5 thoughts on “Writing Tips From Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’”

  1. Thank you SO much for this Kristin! I still really need to read it and it’s been suggested to me by so many people. Loved reading these excerpts!!!


  2. Kristin – Great Review.
    I’m about halfway through On Writing now so my comments must wait.
    I love King’s writer’s toolbox analogy. I like where he talks about breaking the rules in fiction. This has been a hangup of mine.

    I’ll get back to you when I’ve finished the book.

    I’ve come to admire King now that I’ve read the bio at the beginning… seems to have been through a lot and learned from it. He is a great teacher.

    Thank You,
    Rich Weatherly


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