1-Sentence-Summary: On Writing details Stephen King’s journey to becoming one of the best-selling authors of all time while delivering hard-won advice on the craft to aspiring writers.
Read in: 4 minutes
Favorite quote from the author:
The Shawshank Redemption is the highest-rated movie on IMDb. When I first watched the cult classic some 15 years ago, I had no idea that it was based on a Stephen King novella. “King? Really? Doesn’t he just do horror, like Carrie, IT, and The Shining?”
Like me, you might be surprised not just how many but which stories King is behind, from The Dark Tower fantasy series to emotional dramas like The Green Mile. Even if “all” he did was horror, though, that wouldn’t stain his reputation in the slightest.
Stephen King is the epitome of making it as a writer. His over 60 books and more than 200 short stories have sold more than 400 million copies, making him one of the best-selling writers of all time. Plenty of his stories have been adapted into movies, TV shows, and more.
If you want to be a writer too, King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, offers the perfect blend of inspiration and advice. Half memoir, half tips on the craft, it is a must-read for any aspiring writer, yet still a useful book for non-artists.
Here are 3 of the most powerful lessons I learned from the book:
- Pretend rejection is a game, and then keep playing round after round until you win.
- Adverbs and passive tense make your writing sound wimpy, so avoid them where you can.
- As long as you read a lot and write a lot, eventually, your writing journey will work itself out.
Ready to put pen to paper and fingers to keys? Let’s see what it takes to make it as a writer!
Lesson 1: Treat rejection like a game, and play it until you succeed.
Stephen King’s journey is one of stubborn perseverance. Where he did get lucky was that his mother encouraged him to start writing at just six years old. She told him his first original story was good enough to be in a book, and she also paid him his first dollar for the next four ones he wrote. The early praise and earnings were pivotal in his life — but they were also the only ones he received.
For the next ten years, King hardly received positive feedback. He received blunt rejection notes on his story submissions to magazines, like “No” or “Not good enough.” To not lose his enthusiasm, King treated rejection like a game. He fixed a nail to his wall, then pinned each next rejection slip onto it, like receipts collected at a restaurant.
Each next rejection meant he was still in the game. It was an invitation to keep playing. Eventually, he racked up so many, his nail fell off the wall. He attached a bigger one and kept going. Over time, the rejections got milder. Kinder. People started giving him useful feedback, such as to use paper clips, not staples, to bind manuscripts. Lesson by lesson, he kept improving.
It was only when he was 16 that he first heard the words, “This isn’t for us, but it’s good. You have talent. Try again.” And try again he did, until, only in 1974, after 20 years of writing, he had his big breakthrough when the publishing rights to Carrie sold for $400,000.
Lesson 2: Avoid adverbs and passive tense; they make your writing sound weak.
As a budding writer, some of the easiest lessons to follow are the things you’re not supposed to do. Whatever you try might fail, but what you can avoid entirely helps a great deal. Two of King’s biggest pet peeves are adverbs and passive tense. Both weaken your writing and ultimately reveal a lack of confidence.
“Bertha timidly admitted she had eaten the candy.” The word “timidly” takes our focus away from the action. It should be clear from what we wrote before that Bertha feels guilty about eating the candy. “After shuffling her feet for a good 30 seconds, Bertha admitted she had eaten the candy.” That’s a much more vivid picture, and that’s why adverbs are often just a way of weaseling out of properly explaining what’s going on.
Similarly, “The football was thrown by Francis as hard as he could” puts the focus on the football — an object that doesn’t actually do anything. It sounds clunky and makes us wonder what’s going on. Have courage! Let Francis throw the football with force and determination! “Francis threw the football as hard as he could.” Much better, isn’t it?
Writing means committing to a path of words you think works best to accomplish a certain outcome, whether that’s to teach, to inspire, or to entertain. If you feel like treading lightly on that path, there’s usually some kind of fear at play. Dig into that fear, root it out, and then, along with your concerns, delete your passive voice and adverbs.
Lesson 3: Read a lot, write a lot, and the rest will fall into place.
The most important part of achieving anything is to keep going, especially when that “thing” is an identity. You can’t call yourself a runner if you’re not running. Sooner or later, the label will feel cheesy and start to expire.
Therefore, the main part of succeeding as a writer is to, well, keep writing! “Write a lot,” King recommends, especially if you’re just starting out. Pick a fixed location and time, and try to produce at least 1,000 words a day, six days a week. It doesn’t matter if it’s good. It matters that you produce. King doesn’t write all the time, but when he writes, he tries to hit six pages a day — that’s a novel every three months!
The other half, King says, is to study what other people write, and that requires reading. King carries a book wherever he goes. He claims to read around 80 books a year, despite being a slow reader. Studying other people’s writing will help you form your own unique taste and style. It’ll teach you what’s good writing, what’s bad writing, as well as how other writers use the tools of language and stories, from grammar and rhythm to character and plot.
Pro tip: Pretend that a book you really like is actually bad. Try to criticize it. How could you improve it? Could you write something that’s even better?
If you remember nothing else from Stephen King’s journey, make it this: Read a lot, write a lot, and eventually, your writing stars will align.
On Writing Review
On Writing is a clever book. It draws you in with King’s personal story, then whacks you over the head with great writing advice. Should we have expected anything less from a man who’s been writing for 50 years? Probably not. It’s a unique and all-too-rare way of combining story and instruction. Two thumbs up for this one, and a must-read for all writers.
Who would I recommend our On Writing summary to?
The 9-year-old who prefers creating her own worlds in her room to going to school, the 39-year-old journalist who’s halfway through his novel and on the verge of giving up, and anyone who hopes their writing might one day become a true career.