On Writing by Stephen King

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At age five, my mother was my scribe as I wrote my first book (“The Three Little Pigs”). Since then, I have wanted to be a writer.

I picked up Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, because it seems to be a commonly recommended book for aspiring writers. I’ve never read any Stephen King. I am not often drawn to best-selling authors. (By best-selling author, I mean an author who writes a book every year that ends up selling millions of copies.) I’ve heard of Stephen King, of course. Unfortunately, I found little in his memoir about writing that helps me in my personal craft. I think his memoir should have been named On Writing Best-Selling Horror Novels.

There were a few gems in On Writing, most of them obvious. For example, to improve your writing, you need to make time to write. (King suggests a goal of words, like 4,000 a day: I think “quantity” as a standard is ridiculous.) He also discusses the need to read good writing (obviously) and learn grammar so you can actually write (doubly obvious). However, for me, the most inspiring thing I learned was the realization I had every time I picked up On Writing: I don’t want to be a best-selling author.

My General Thoughts about Writing and Books

I feel that there is a big difference between writing well and writing a story. A superior novel (or short story) needs both aspects: just because an author has created a great story and written it does not mean it is good writing. Also, I feel very strongly that quality is more important than quantity. An author can write one book and be a great author; an author can write 35 novels and be mediocre (although they certainly have a great imagination and a knack for turning out books for publication). I also feel the intended audience and subject matter are important to keep in mind when approaching writing.

Stories and Writing: Many best-selling books are great stories, but not great writing. For example, I think the Harry Potter series is a great story. I am in awe of J.K. Rowling for having the imagination to conjure up such a world! I have read the series and I enjoyed it. However, I do not think J.K. Rowling is a good writer. Her writing is contrived and repetitive. (I may be unpopular among die-hard fans, but I believe it is true!) I feel many of the best-sellers also lack the good story element: they neither are good stories nor contain good writing. I read them sometimes, but I read them knowing that they are not great. Sometimes I may be pleasantly surprised.

Quantity and Quality: The more novels a popular writer publishes, and the more frequently those are being published, the less likely I am to read their books. There may be some gems, and I’d love to give those highly recommended gems a try, but overall, I can’t stand the thought of writing that has been produced in such a short time: can we really call that quality? For an analogy, I think “quality” writing is like risotto: I know I can’t rush risotto. If I do, the creaminess is missing; to produce good risotto, I must stir it constantly for 30-40 minutes. To produce good writing, I think it’s necessary to polish it again and again. (King has four drafts of each novel. Yeah.)

Audience and Subject Matter: Stephen King is obviously a horror novelist. I guess he has found his calling in life, but I found even the summaries of his novels disturbing. I have no desire to think outside the box if that is the result! I would never be proud of what I’ve written if that is what I’ve produced. Even 35 novels worth; even for millions of dollars.

For me, in my writing, I’ve determined that I want to write quality letters, stories, children’s poems, and prose. I especially want to write for my family, friends, and others whom I respect. As Stephen King described his methods to arriving at his “success,” I realized I have no desire to write the next best-seller.

The Main Reason I Didn’t Like On Writing

The biggest reason I have no respect for Stephen King’s advice in On Writing is this one comment (encapsulating the above issues):

I’ve written thirty-five [novels] … On the other hand … there is Harper Lee, who wrote only one book (the brilliant To Kill a Mockingbird) … [names other authors who wrote few books] … I always wonder two things about these folks: how long did it take them to write the books they did write, and what did they do the rest of their time? . . . I’m probably being snotty here, but I am also, believe me, honestly curious. If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it? (page 118)

Excuse me, Mr. King? Did you just compare your horror novels to Harper Lee’s novel? How dare you?!

I guess this goes back to the fact that I’m not drawn to best-sellers. I have the stereotype in my mind that best-sellers do not contain good writing and probably lack good stories. Stephen King thinks he is being snotty, but I found it painful to read his comparison of his 35 horror novels to a masterpiece like To Kill a Mockingbird.

Obviously, some best-sellers are well-written and come to be considered “masterpieces.” I’m generalizing here. However, best-sellers, in my mind, are nothing compared to real writing. In Stephen King’s case, I’m sure he may be a creative (yet disturbed) storyteller, but he is not a good writer (in my definition). With that one paragraph, I lost the little bit of respect I still held for him. He thinks he writes like Harper Lee!

I may offend people. More likely, you will think I’m being “snotty,” just like Stephen King claims he was being “snotty” to criticize Harper Lee for writing only one book. But this is what I’ve learned from Stephen King’s On Writing: popular, best-selling authors think they are also good writers. That may be true sometimes, but generally, I don’t believe it.

What do you think? Do you expect “best-sellers,” in general, to contain “good writing”? Is an author a “good writer” if they have published dozens of novels?

By reading On Writing, I learned that if I want to write and I want ideas on how to write, I should read authors I respect. I hold no respect for Stephen King, 35 horror novels or not.

Have any good writers compiled their thoughts on writing? No, probably not. They have better things to do.

I was more inspired to write a few months ago when I read a masterpiece. I guess I’ll stick to reading masterpieces for my inspiration.

Reviewed on July 14, 2008

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I think some best-selling novels can contain good writing. I have never read a Stephen King book, but he certainly has had a lot of influence. I actually bought this book but haven’t read it yet.

    I generally like to keep as open a mind as possible when approaching a book. I do agree that the quality of the writing diminishes the more books you are cranking out.

    Some writers are better story-tellers than craftsmen, and some have both.

    In all fairness to Stephen King why didn’t Harper Lee write more novels is a fairly popular question. 🙂

  • @Amy:

    Yes, I can understand the question. We’d all love to see another masterpiece by Harper Lee! What bothered me was Stephen King putting himself in the same category.

    If you respect the influence Stephen King has, then you may enjoy his writing reminders in this book! Most writers seem inspired by it. Just not me…

  • @Kelsey:

    I have heard of Bird by Bird, and I have looked for it, but it is not to be found in Australia. When I return to the States in a few months, I’ll look it up. At least, I will if the sour taste of this particular “self-help” writing book has diminished…

  • […] come back to this blog for a week. I couldn’t bring myself to even think about writing. Read my review on my book blog to read my thoughts on […]

  • I’m a lot like you. It’s difficult for me to trust any bestselling author or list of bestsellers because, as terrible as this may sound, I don’t trust people. I feel like reading to the vast majority of people has become a trend they follow.

    I, too, want to be a writer (ever since I was in the 2nd grade and wrote a copy of that fairy-tale about the girl in the pumpkin…so our stories are kinda sorta similar!). Over the years, I’ve been given stacks of ‘How To’ books. Some that look promising, others that don’t. But I haven’t read one. It’s hard for me to pick up a book that intends to tell me how to do something as personal as write. I think every writer has to find their own path. I firmly believe this.

    One, however, that has been recommended to me numerous times and one I really DO intend to read, is Bird by Bird by Annie Lamott. I have it on my bookshelf at school and even though I haven’t actually read it yet, I do find the ‘thesis’ of it to be inspiring….

  • I’ve heard this book was good, but I’ve never read it, and I tend to be leery of best-sellers as well. A friend of mine said he wouldn’t consider himself a writer until his books were displayed in an airport bookstore, and to me, the idea was horrifying. I frankly don’t want to be lumped in with that category!

    And, I must say, as a die-hard Harry Potter fan, I’m still with you: JK Rowling told a really good story, and her skills definitely needed to be improved. There’s a difference between good writing and good storytelling. Unfortunately, the reverse is true in a lot of current literary writing – you end up with authors who have crap stories and really good skill, and those books are frankly less interesting than the Harry Potter books of the world. It’s important to have both good writing and a good story, in my opinion.


  • Wow. This is a very insightful post. I’ve heard everyone rave about On Writing. However, I tend to agree with your assessment that really good writers have better things to do than write books on writing. (I also can’t believe the quote from King about Harper Lee!!) I generally love to read about writing, though, so I might pick this one up just to see.

    Also, I agree with your assessment that the more books an author publishes and the faster the individual books are published, the less enthralled I’m going to be. Admittedly, I’m a Harry Potter fan and a Twilight fan, but I don’t think those books are well-written. In fact, a few of the Harry Potter books and Eclipse are just down-right terribly written.

    In the end, I need both a good story and good writing to have the book be one of my favorites.

  • @Amanda: Yikes! If airport bookstores are the epitome of “success” then I don’t want it! @Jessica: I likewise have heard people rave about On Writing and I suppose that is why I was disappointed. There were some good reminders about the craft of writing, so it may be useful to read for an aspiring writer. Just keep in mind the author….Overall, I was simply shocked that King considers himself so “good.”

  • Rebecca,
    “I have never read anything by Stephen King.” Your words! You can not then critique his works! How dare he? How dare You! I am not saying he is the greatest living writer, but he is good. Do yourself a favor and read, say, The Shining. If you still think he is not a good writer, THEN you are entitled to an opinion. How would you care for someone who has “heard of you” but has never actually read you making assumptions about your talent as a writer?

  • Goodness! What a ridiculous reply! Let me guess, you must be a Sarah Palin fan because for an author and a book lover, you argue like a book banner. Don’t bother replying to this, I am removing this site from my bookmarks.

  • This is the most moronic blog I’ve ever read.  How on Earth can you consistently assert that Stephen King is a bad writer whom you hold no respect for, when you admit to never having read his work?  You are not a discerning literary scholar–you’re a snob, plain and simple.  I’m less offended by your words than I am sorry that you will truly miss out on a lot of great writing due to your prejudice. 
    Best of luck on your poetry, letters and poems.  I’m sure you’ll have much success never getting published and therefore proving yourself to be a worthwhile writer of substance–which will have no effect on the general public as it will never be read.  But I realize that this is what you and most of the other authors–not writers, who possess a real live work ethic–hope for:  To never be judged, and thus, always be perfect in your own minds.

  • Well, Samantha, having read one book by Stephen King, I don’t feel inclined to read any others. It didn’t inspire me at all. If that makes me a snob, so be it. I feel every reader is a snob in some ways because we all have to choose which of the millions of published books we want to spend our limited reading time reading. By turning up your nose at _[fill in the blank with a book I read that you haven’t]_, for example, you would yourself be a snob by your definition. (In my mind, you would be missing out on a lot of great writing.) You don’t need to feel “sorry” for me for missing “good writing.” I love what I read and I feel I experience wonderful writers with most of the books I pick up.

    I suppose part of my point is that being published should not be the standard by which we judge good writing. It seems we disagree.

    I certainly don’t think I will be perfect in any part of my life and by putting my blog out in the world, I obviously know I will be judged, as you have done. I wish you the best of luck finding a blog that better matches your reading preferences and that is less “moronic”!

  • lol .. i can’t believe King thinks quantity is greater than quality. He’s a good writer, he’s awesome at creating atmosphere but he’s nowhere near the best. a lot of his plots are sloppy..
    And implying that he’s superior to the author of Mockingbird is just laughable.

  • I have not read On Writing, but I have read a great deal of Stephen King, particularly his Forewards and Afterwards, in which he often discusses writing, so I feel qualified to respond. I think you’re reading a great deal into the above quotation, particularly the perceived insult to Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird. King often writes of his drive, his need to write, to tell a story. He knows–and admits–that what he writes isn’t considered Art, but that doesn’t matter to him. It doesn’t matter because a) some people do enjoy his work, finding it highly entertaining, and b) because that need to write will not let him stop. In mentioning Harper Lee and others who wrote A great book, but nothing else (or very little else), he is pondering the difference between people who apparently only have the one story and those who have many. What is that difference? It isn’t at all a comment on the quality of said works, or even a comparison. Perhaps you would have been less offended if he had mentioned Dickens, who was after all paid by the word?

  • Schatzi, I see your point: some people have lots of stories in side of them and feel the urge to share! Apparently Harper Lee wasn’t one of them. I do think her one story was pretty darn good, though.

    What are you suggesting he would have said about Dickens? I’m not sure I see the extension, as Dickens wrote many books.

    I’m a lot less angry about Stephen King’s book this many months after the fact. I’ve moved on.

  • “a creative (yet disturbed) story teller, but he is not a good writer (in my definitions) [sic]”

    You seem to look down on King for two reasons: his prose (understandable) and his genre. If you genuinely believe that great writing is only possible with some subject matter and not with others, I don’t know what to tell you. It’s prudish and wrong.

    But aside from that you’re quite right, “On Writing” was useless. Good luck!

  • I’ve never read anything you’ve written and honestly I have zero intention of doing so. You are an awful writer.

  • I don’t think he was saying he was as good as Lee. King has always been somewhat self-deprecating (as he once said, he “writes salami”). I think he was just pointing out that he simply does not get writers who only write one book. He feels that way because, as far as his own writing goes, he feels as if he can’t stop. I don’t think it’s a slap in the face to Harper Lee to wonder aloud why she hasn’t published more work.

    Also, he wasn’t comparing the content of the books, but, rather, the volumes published, and the work actually created.

    Who knows? Maybe Harper Lee has a vault of unpublished work somewhere. If that were the case, it would probably make more sense to King.

  • I’m with Leslie.

    Also, this weird aversion to quantity seems bogglingly stupid if you want to become a good writer. As with everything in life, improvement comes with practice. Otherwise how are you supposed to learn? If a guy writes one novel and spends his whole life trying to get that novel perfect, chances are he’ll learn less and improve to a much smaller degree than a guy who writes dozens or scores of stories in the same period. If you approach quantity-over-quality in the right way, you have an opportunity to experiment — you can find different ways of telling different stories; you’ll find your strengths and weaknesses.

    I’d rather write ten stories and hope ONE of them is great, than write a SINGLE story and put all my faith in it only to realise, after months of head-banging, that it’s never going to be good enough. Perfection is death to the creative process.

  • While your review makes sense, it is not a very fair one. You said that you have never read any of his works aside from “On Writing”, so why did you judge him on his writing in his novels by reading a memoir? What is your idea of “great writing?” Besides, “On Writing” is a memoir, so the author might have not intended it to write it in the same style as his novel.

    Like Leslie, I believe Stephen King just cannot understand why some people do not continue writing their entire lives when they can. You have to admit, it is understandable when it’s asked by a man who wrote 35 published stories.

    I do not think you are being “snotty”, but biased and unfair. I suggest you read at least three of his novels, not just a memoir, if you want to write a review on him.

  • I’m coming late to this discussion so you have probably already discovered this, but there are plenty of other craft books written by writers you might consider “great.” John Gardner’s “On Fiction” comes to mind, as does Francine Proses “Reading Like a Writer.”

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