‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’ by Stephen King is part-autobiography, part advice manual for aspiring authors. The first part of ‘On Writing’ is a personal and often very witty memoir as King recalls his journey towards becoming a published author. The second part explores what King calls the ‘writer’s toolbox’, including tips on vocabulary, grammar, elements of style and editing. The final part is where King describes the car accident in 1999 which nearly killed him halfway through writing this very book and the long recovery process afterwards. There is also a very interesting reading list at the end (along with a second one if you read the 10th anniversary edition as I did). It sounds like a slightly haphazard structure but it works because the subject of writing is always at the heart of it.
By King’s standards, ‘On Writing’ is pretty short clocking in at less than 300 pages. In the Second Foreword, he writes: “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.” He is probably right and thankfully, ‘On Writing’ is pretty much the perfect length and strikes a very good balance between the autobiographical elements and the actual advice offered.
You certainly don’t need to have read all of Stephen King’s books in order to appreciate ‘On Writing’ and get something out of it (I myself have only read two). He does make a few references to his own works when giving advice on writing good description and dialogue and it probably helps to be at least a little familiar with his style but it isn’t essential. Overall, King’s main advice for writers is solid and straightforward: read a lot, write a lot and work hard at it. This will hardly be ground-breaking news for most people. Instead, it’s the details about how language works which is the most useful and practical advice here. Even relatively experienced writers will probably learn something new or look at something differently after reading what King has to say.
I read a lot and I (attempt to) write a half-decent blog but I am not aiming to become an author. Maybe if something momentous happened in my life then I might be inspired to write a novel but right now, I don’t really think I have it in me. Still, I found ‘On Writing’ to be an inspiring read even though I am not planning to write a novel, just like I found ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’ by Haruki Murakami inspiring even though I am not planning to run a marathon. For wannabe authors or not, ‘On Writing’ is entertaining and essential reading.