The King of horror’s “On Writing” proves a surprisingly insightful read

The King of horror has an impressive resume. He is an award-winning author and has more than 50 published novels and story collections– many made into major motion pictures. Movies based upon his works, “Carrie”, “Stand by Me”, “The Green Mile” and “The Shawshank Redemption”, have been nominated and won Golden Globes and Oscars.

Stephen King’s “On Writing,” is written as a memoir, style-book hybrid. It contains three forwards, three postscripts and four main sections titled: C.V., What Writing Is, Toolbox and On Writing. The C.V. acts as a “Part One” and contains the memoir of how he became a writer. The remaining three sections act as a “Part Two,” and contain the style-book. Even after the C.V., King uses wonderful examples and personal anecdotes to illustrate his points in the style-book.

He also references Strunk and White numerous times throughout the book. The first time is in the second forward.

“This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit,” King wrote. “One notable exception to this bullshit rule is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. There is little or no detectable bullshit in that book. I’ll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style. Rule 17 in the chapter titled Principles of Composition is ‘Omit needless words.” I will try to do that here.”

Though many of his points simply reiterate Strunk and White, the commentary and anecdotes around them provide any aspiring writer and editor with an enjoyable and insightful rant on writing and editing practices. He consistently stresses the importance of editing and editors.

“No writer will take all of his or her editor’s advice; for all have sinned and fallen short of editorial perfection,” King wrote. “Put another way, to write is human, to edit is divine.”

On this note, the most beneficial section for an aspiring copy editor is in his second postscript. Here, he includes: the original draft of his short story “1408” devoid of editing marks, with editing marks, and commentary on the editing marks. The finished text can be found in his three-story collection, “Blood and Smoke.”

A particularly insightful moment was when King reflects on his job as a sports reporter.

“When he [the editor] finished marking up my copy in the manner indicated above, he looked up and saw something on my face,” King wrote. “I think he must have mistaken it for horror. It wasn’t; it was pure revelation. Why, I wondered, didn’t English teachers ever do this?”

The King of horror is not only practical. He is inspiring as he attempts to comfort and eliminate the horrors felt by any aspiring writer and editor. He is convinced that the root of most bad writing, and editing, is fear. Once one can eliminate their fear, their craft will exponentially improve.

He wrote that the method to eliminate fear is to understand how English works structurally.

“I want to suggest you to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you,” King wrote. “Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.”

From there, one can build a writing toolbox. The chapter titled “Toolbox” explains the tools necessary for being a writer by relating them to a toolbox. King wrote, “Common tools go on top. The commonest of all, the bread of writing, is vocabulary.”

For those concerned that King’s book may not apply to them, he is not simply a horror and fiction writer. King has worked as a high school English teacher and a college professor. Prior to these positions, he worked at his school’s paper as editor and city’s paper as a sports reporter.

One original tip particularly useful for journalists is the use of “said” in dialogue attribution.

King wrote, “The best form of dialogue attribution is said, as in he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said…. the reader will know how he said it—fast or slowly, happily or sadly.”

The book reads like one of his novels. While his books may frighten the reader, they are easy to read. His language is typically simple and conversational in tone and structure. His books also have a lot of white space. This book is no different.

Stephen King wrote, “You can tell without even reading if the book you’ve chosen is apt to be easy or hard, right? Easy books contain lots of short paragraphs—including dialogue paragraphs which may only be a word or two long—and lots of white space.”

The book, published in 2000, was written in a two-year span. It has received awards and been placed on bestselling lists. As is written in the inside flap, “On Writing” is “Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, On Writing will empower–and entertain–everyone who reads it.”

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