You’ve seen the header image. I know what you’re thinking. Why would I say that a book by Stephen King is “unexpectedly approachable”?
To be completely honest, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is the first and likely last book I will read by Stephen King. I just don’t do thrillers or horror. Not the book versions, not the movie versions, not the freaking previews. Nightmares? Oh yes, I have them.
But I’d heard some pretty high praise for this craft book, so I thought I’d give it a go. Five years later, it is still one of the most memorable, down-to-earth works of professional writing advice I’ve ever read. And now I really wish I did like thrillers, because Stephen King has an easy-going, almost seductive storytelling voice that just pulls me right in… even when he’s only talking about the art of writing.
So what makes this book so appealing? It’s personal. It’s honest. And it’s easy to read.
The first half is a series of memoir vignettes from Mr. King’s early life. I thought I’d want to skip through these, that I’d get bored or my attention would wander off. Not so. The more I read, the more I wanted to know about him, where he came from, the obscure little pieces of his life that no one really knows, how he went from a nobody a household name—and that’s all in there. But beyond all that, I just wanted to spend more time with him. His writing voice is almost hypnotic. It’s so approachable and simply phrased, yet so powerfully crafted.
The second half talks about the tools of the trade—grammar, verbs, how he agrees with and diverges from established standards (like Strunk and White’s widely adopted The Elements of Style). Take this excerpt, for example:
Messrs. Strunk and White don’t speculate as to why many readers are attracted to passive verbs, but I’m willing to; I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with; the subject just has to close its eyes and think of England, to paraphrase Queen Victoria. I think unsure writers also feel the passive voice also lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty. If you find instruction manuals and lawyers’ torts majestic, I guess it does.
King makes learning about boring topics like passive voice interesting. I don’t agree with all of his beliefs and writing practices, but that’s okay. He doesn’t stand by all of Strunk and White’s rules, and no two people in the world—especially not creatives—are ever going to agree on everything.
So if you’re looking for an easy read that will boost your skills, no matter how experienced you are, I highly recommend reading On Writing and spending some virtual one-on-one time with Stephen King. You can snag a copy here*.
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