Book It: Stephen King’s On Writing


For those looking to improve their writing (or just looking for a heckuva great read), look no further than Stephen King’s On Writing. There are many writing guides that peel back the curtain and demystify the writing process, but I don’t think there are any better than this one by Uncle Stevie—mostly because he works piece by piece to expose the workman-like craft of writing rather than treating it as a mystical experience (a little ironic given King’s love of writing the fantastical: here he strips away fantasy, leaving only unvarnished truths that writing is, indeed, work).

The book is part memoir—largely dealing with King’s journey in discovering writing and then discovering how to be a writer and then learning how to be a writer (a k a someone who writes for a living). This section is vintage, hilarious Stephen King. When I teach vivid, sensory-based writing to students, I always use his passage about a procedure to have his ear punctured when he was a child, which partly starts with:

There was a sharp smell of alcohol. A clank as the ear doctor opened his sterilizer. I saw the needle in his hand – it looked as long as the ruler in my school pencil-box – and tensed. The ear doctor smiled reassuringly and spoke the lie for which doctors should be immediately jailed (time of incarceration to be doubled when the lie is told to a child): ‘Relax, Stevie, this won’t hurt.’ I believed him.

See what I mean? Really you-are-there, evocative stuff.

The other part of the book—the “toolbox,” as he calls it—is a concrete, blow-by-blow explanation of how to write well. Layer by layer, piece by piece, King peels open the craft of writing and pulls every piece out. His wonderful, apt metaphor is that in science we get to dissect things to examine them; he is trying to do the same with writing: what is that semicolon and why is it used? what is an adverb and why do they generally weaken your writing? etc.

Thank you, Uncle Stevie, for laying it all out on the dissecting table and so skillfully exposing and naming each part for those of us playing along at home. Brilliant.