Surprise Winner: Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’

When I asked my writing group for recommendations of great books about writing, I was surprised to hear them say Stephen King’s On Writing. Here’s a blog post that excerpts the book, which I downloaded on to my Nook and have begun to read.

Let me start by saying that I read a lot of Stephen King when I was a teen-ager — and haven’t read much of him since. When I had children, my taste for fear declined radically. After I went to graduate school for an MFA, I started reading what most people would call literature and eschewed popular fiction. King’s little book is a reminder of how seriously every kind of writer should take his or her craft.

The part of the book that I’ve come to so far, after an hour or so of reading, is about the toolbox. He identifies four levels.

• Vocabulary and grammar go on the top shelf. “One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading, or one does not,” King writes, making me feel happy. I remember being befuddled by my English teacher’s insistence on diagramming, and still to this day when people ask me a grammar question I just say, “Well, it sounds right.”

• He also includes this wonderful paragraph: “Adverbs are not your friends. … I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day … fifty after that … and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely and profligately covered with dandelions.”

• Elements of style form the next layer of the toolbox — and King is a big fan of Strunk and White (What professional writer isn’t?). “Use no unnecessary words.”… Remember that simple rule?

• Then King waxes on about sentences and paragraphs … the latter being, he says, the basic form of composition. They are the bottom of the toolbox. “Topic sentence followed by support and description insists that the writer organize his/her thoughts, and it also provides good insurance against wandering away from the topic. … Writing is refined thinking.”


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