Truly, though, it’s more than a memoir.
Strictly speaking, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft isn’t merely a book about writing; it’s also a tasty little memoir. But, hey, what’s a smidgen of stylistic difference between friends? Stephen King’s On Writing is both entertaining and informative … besides which, it’s a pretty quick read.
Divided into three parts, the first section is the memoir, which gives the reader a basis from which to absorb the information in the second portion, the writing advice. And what about the third section? That’s a less-than-20-page recounting of the June 1999 crash that left King (quite literally) crushed by the side of a road in rural Maine, the victim of—as he described it—“a character right out of one of my own novels.”
It’s helpful that King starts off with the memoir portion, because it’ll give you, the perhaps-otherwise unsuspecting reader, a bit of insight into why he says some of the things he says later on in the book.
Building Your Writing Toolbox
On Writing features a “Toolbox” section, in which King outlines the tools (or skills, if you prefer) every good writer should amass before beginning to write.
As with every good toolbox, he says, the most commonly used implements go on top, where they’re readily accessible. First and foremost, of course, is vocabulary. And if you don’t have a broad vocabulary, you would do well to expand it. Read voraciously. As King reiterates throughout the book, you can’t be a serious writer unless you’re an avid reader. Read everything you can get your hands on—most especially works in your particular genre. Read to develop an understanding and an appreciation of good writing … and lousy writing. Learn to differentiate between phenomenal wordsmiths and those who rely on clichés and old saws to deliver trite, hackneyed messages. [Insert hearty yawn here.]
Included in his discussion of the vocabulary tool is a bit about the vocabulary you aren’t likely to find in any dictionary … because people sometimes have a tendency to speak words that really aren’t. Words, that is. Like “Blech!” (what you’d probably say when plunging your arm into a bucket of goop). Or “shmedlap” (defined by its originator as “anything less than wonderful”). Or “Gaah,” a communication of mild exasperation in a recent chapter of my latest work in progress.
The Second Important Tool
The second item King places squarely in the top compartment of the writer’s toolbox is grammar.
King says, “Communication composed of these parts of speech must be organized by rules of grammar upon which we agree. When these rules break down, confusion and misunderstanding result. Bad grammar produces bad sentences.” (On Writing, p. 120)
Then he adds—for which I might have to travel to Maine for the sole purpose of planting a big ol’ kiss on his forehead, “Grammar is not just a pain in the ass; it’s the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking.” (On Writing, p. 121)
King rails against adverbs, likening them to dandelions. A few in a yard create visual interest and may even look pretty … but an entire field of them (unless you’re my grandfather and are planning to cook and devour the greens with a lovely chunk of Italian bread) might just send you, shrieking, toward the gardening shed for the industrial-strength adverb—er, weed—killer.
Third Tool in the Arsenal
The third tool he cites is style—and the elements thereof, courtesy of Strunk & White. King discusses in some detail the merits of the slim volume he feels should grace every writer’s bookshelf.
In writing fiction, King reminds us, language doesn’t need to be formal; nor must it always be perfectly structured, in “a tie and lace-up shoes.” Much as it pains my editor self to admit this, I think he’s right when he says, “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.” (On Writing, p. 134)
He contends it is not the sentence but the paragraph that comprises the basic unit of writing. Interesting prospect, that. King describes the paragraph as “a marvelous and flexible instrument that can be a single word long or run on for pages” (On Writing, p. 134) He insists writers must learn to use paragraphs well if they expect to write well.
In Medias Res … or not to In Medias Res—That is the Question
One of the little gems we’ve all no doubt heard sings the praises of “in medias res”—in other words, starting in the middle of things. It took me aback a wee bit when King decried the concept as hogwash. After all, everything I’ve ever read about writing exhorts plopping the reader smack in the middle of the action for the greatest reader impact.
Throughout On Writing, King provides giggle-worthy examples to support statements—for instance, he introduces a bevy of simple sentences made up solely of a noun and its verb. So as not to spoil the fun (other than to amusedly say, “Plums deify!”), I’ll let you know you can find the beginnings of his discussion of simple sentences on page 121.
All in all, On Writing is studded with underlineable thoughts and notable writing concepts. You would do well to read this one with a pen in your dominant hand. But however you do it, read this book.
Rita M. Reali is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in Reminisce magazine, the S.H.A.R.E. pregnancy-loss newsletter, and newspapers across Connecticut and Tennessee. She’s spoken about editing at writers’ conferences and delivered presentations on proofreading to several professional groups. Rita also runs an editing and proofreading business, The Persnickety Proofreader, and blogs under the same moniker: https://persnicketyproofreader.wordpress.com. Her debut novel, Diagnosis: Love, was published in 2015; she published her second novel, Glimpse of Emerald, in 2017.