Book Review: ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King

This book review series seeks to investigate those books on the market which promise to help you write, with an emphasis on writing within the crime/thriller/mystery genres.

I’m kicking off this new book review series with perhaps the most widely praised book about thriller writing, Stephen King’s ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’.

This is consistently recommended as the best starting point for writers in King’s genre, and I hope you’ll see from this review that I completely agree with the hype and would certainly encourage other newbies like me to read this: particularly those of you who don’t have a background in writing already e.g. a creative writing degree, journalism background or previous experience publishing.

This book is completely accessible – King’s writing style is easy and chatty, a real joy to read. King’s wit is woven throughout each chapter and he happily shares intimate details about his life in order to help other writers start out, and to learn from his own pitfalls and successes. What struck me most is how normal King is. He had a very modest upbringing and young adult life, not finding his break through until later on – this gives me hope that anyone can find success in writing!

Anyhow, let’s get on with the review.


The blurb on the back:

“Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King’s advice is grounded in the vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported, near-fatal accident in 1999 – and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery.”


£7.69 (paperback) on Amazon

£7.49 (kindle) on Amazon

My rating:



3 good reasons you should read this:

1. Don’t worry about your vocab!

‘One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones’ (p129)

I was pretty relieved to hear this advice from King, because it is something that has been holding me back from starting to write short stories. I wouldn’t say my written English is terrible at all, but I guess after texting, tweeting and lol’ing for the past 10 years or so, my language is definitely lacking some pizzazz.

One of the running themes I’ve been reading about from established authors is to simply pick the first word that comes into your head, as long as it vaguely fits, and come back to edit it later on once you’re all done. Otherwise you can get hung up on sounding intelligent and lose your sort of writing ‘flow’.

King does have some strong views on the use of clichés, similes and metaphors however – try to avoid lazy writing!


2. What should I write about?

‘Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. Anything at all…as long as you tell the truth’ (p181)

Arguably one of the most common debates I’ve seen about the basics of writing is whether you should ‘stick to what you know’ or whether research is enough to blag it. King’s stance on this is that ‘what you know’ isn’t restricted to specific subjects as you may first think, it accounts for so much more than that. ‘What you know’ is what you know in your heart, in your imagination, from your life experiences, through your relationships, past jobs, the skills you have. What you know to be true from these things can be applied to a story about aliens even if you have no experience of alien encounters.

Additionally, ‘what we know’ is more than ever before thanks to the internet. Consider for example that you really want to write a story set in New York but can’t afford to travel there: Google Earth gives us instant, free access to those streets and enables us to ‘know’ more about the city without even going there.

So when King speaks about ‘truth’, he is telling you that you need to be true to yourself when you write – don’t dress up your vocab, don’t sugarcoat the way people really speak, don’t pretend to know about a subject without researching it.


3. Don’t be afraid to add a bit of yourself to your story.

‘Book-buyers aren’t attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel: book-buyers want a good story…something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning the pages. This happens, I think, when readers recognize the people in a book, their behaviours, their surroundings, and their talk’ (p184)

 If a reader wants to see something of themselves in your story in order to be invested, you need to make sure your story has elements that are common between you, the writer, and your audience. What you have in common is your humanity. Going back to the point I explored in number 2, ‘what you know’ is an awful lot! You know about friendships, love, hate, jealousy. You know what it’s like to be scared. You know what it’s like to keep a secret. Don’t be afraid to share your insights into the world you live in, because chances are your reader shares some of your thoughts, hopes and fears too.


There is a ton more I could chat about after reading this fantastic book, but really I think it makes much more sense for you to just buy it yourself or check it out of your local library. After all, the more you read, the more you know.


Over to you

Have you read King’s book? What did you think, and do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments!

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