I made the mistake of believing that I understood his principles because he has been quoted so many times. “Kill adjectives! Kill adverbs! Kill your darlings!” He said. It made sense to me. Quoting E.B. White he said “Eliminate unnecessary words.” And so on. I thought I understood.
I bought “On Writing” expecting to find lists of dos and don’ts. I felt I had purchased a text book and my mindset was academic when I broke the spine. What happened next transformed my view of Mr. King. Over the first hundred or so pages, I got to know the man behind the legend. There is no talk of dangling participles or reflexive verbs, just King’s resume, written with great clarity and honesty. I didn’t know the extent of his drinking problem. I didn’t realize that he may have been operating outside of his faculties at the time when the world first embraced him as a favourite son. I didn’t know how hard he worked.
In the second half of “On Writing” King delivers on his promise to provide some guidance to would-be authors but there are no lists and no short cuts. The only formula that works for King is hard work and he’s very clear in his belief that there are no substitutes for talent and effort. Unlike lists, this full-length discussion of style gives him time to explain why and how his approach to writing produces superior work. It doesn’t feel like a lecture. It feels like the kind of conversation you might have with a successful but modest Uncle over lunch or a round of golf. But this Uncle is very clear about one thing: If you aren’t prepared to read and write a lot, you can probably find better things to do than writing novels or trying to become a professional content writer.
Should you read “On Writing”?
If you’re a fan of Stephen King, yes, of course. This is a humble and honest biography. You’re likely to put it down and be a bigger fan than you were. If you’re a reader, “On Writing” will help you become a more discerning one. If your job requires you to communicate with people in writing (most of us), it’s almost guaranteed that your style could be improved and your effectiveness quadrupled as a result. If your job is to create content in any form (video, web copy, editorial, social media, print) than you absolutely need to read it. If none of these apply to you, take a pass and rent the movies. You don’t have to read “On Writing” to love the work of Stephen King. But if you do, you’ll probably love him a little more.
If you can’t afford Stephen King, or he isn’t interested in the kind of content you need, you can always hire John the Writer.