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Why everyone needs to read Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing—even if you’re not a writer


Illustration by Greg Storey

Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.

I will never steer away from recommending Stephen King to someone. My favorite’s include 11/22/63, Dreamcatcher, Mr. Mercedes Trilogy—the list is never-ending. It’s more than just his memorable characters or terrifying plot twists, his writing is beautiful. Even when it’s not fiction.

Stephen King wrote On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft two decades ago, but it remains as relevant as ever. Clearly, the king of horror knows a thing or two about the craft. And his ability to write and tell an intriguing story is why this memoir is so fascinating.

I’m not one to read nonfiction. The kind of storytelling I’m drawn to typically only appears in fiction, meaning biographies and documentaries are not usually my thing. I’ve wanted to be a writer since the first grade, and while I’m always eager to learn, I don’t know if I’d read a memoir on writing had it not been written by King.  

Even if you’re not a writer, there’s a lot to gain from this book. But honestly, most people are writers, whether they recognize it or not. You write emails, items for work, texts to friends. And even if you can’t bring yourself to identify as a writer, you’re a storyteller. Our days and conversations are made up of stories—there’s no way around that one.

Now, on to the good stuff

Most of the guidance in this book is not revolutionary. He didn’t crack the code and this isn’t an outpouring of wisdom guaranteed to make you better. But, what he does so well, is articulate seemingly trivial ideas in a powerful way:

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.

It’s easy to want to show a partially finished draft to someone—whether it’s a blog post or a longer piece of fiction. It’s also easy to write with your mind on other matters. Shut the door, shut them all out. Then, when it’s time to edit, crack it back open. 

Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.

One of the worst things you can do in writing (I believe) is hand-hold your reader too much. If you don’t give your audience enough credit and instead over-explain every little thing, not only can it come off as pretentious but it leaves sparse room for the reader to imagine things and really submerge themselves in your story:

In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.

Those are a bit more writing-specific, but even other lessons he shares about the craft can apply to life in general:

And if what you hear makes sense, then make the changes. You can’t let the whole world into your story, but you can let in the ones that matter the most. And you should.

Being receptive to criticism doesn’t mean listening to every voice and every person that wants to change the way you do things. But, you should be able to identify those trustworthy sources in your life and listen earnestly when they recommend doing things differently.

This next one is one of my favorites, partially because I can identify with it a little too much. Replace the word “writing” with anything you’re passionate about, and tell me it doesn’t hit too close to home:

The hours we spend talking about writing is time we don’t spend actually doing it.

I could pluck countless other quotes from this book. As I said earlier, I think it’s a must-read for anyone. I’ll leave you with this last piece of beautiful writing:

Some of this book—perhaps too much—has been about how I learned to do it. Much of it has been about how you can do it better. The rest of it—and perhaps the best of it—is a permission slip: you can, you  should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.

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