On Writing is a semi-autobiographical as well as a “how-to write well” book written by Stephen King, the writer of many horror books. On the web you come across the name of this book so many times that it is hard to miss it. Recommending this book has become a fad. Since I don’t like self-help books, especially on writing, I resisted buying On Writing but when I seriously started working on a book I thought, well, no harm in getting advice from an author who has written so many books, although in a genre I am not a big fan of.
The semi-autobiographical part gives you the right context and it also gives you a glimpse into what hardships and difficulties an average writer has to go through before he or she becomes famous and people begin to think that he or she is “lucky”. Before becoming successful, Stephen King was living a hand-to-mouth existence and he used to work in the laundry where he needed to take salt pills due to excessive sweating. There is a very touching incident; his baby daughter is very sick, burning with fever and they cannot afford the medicine that can provide her comfort. They live in a trailer. Totally dejected and ready to give up, when they reach home, he finds a check of $500 sent from a magazine where he had submitted one of his stories. Although he hasn’t directly mentioned it, but I am sure it must be the most valuable check he has ever received.
More than 30% of the book is covered with the description of his struggle as a writer and as a citizen trying to make a decent living despite poverty and hardship. Then when he is done with the “on writing” part he describes how once he got hit by a blue van and almost died. This, again, he does extremely well.
The only problem with the book is with the kernel – when he deals with the real subject. Frankly, it sounds clichéd. And when you think that there is some advice that you can actually use, you can find this advice in The Elements of Style. Whether you decide to read On Writing or not is your own prerogative, but I definitely advise you to go through The Elements of Style. Even Stephen King says that.
Please bear in mind that when I say most of his advice seems clichéd, I write as an experienced writer. I may have not been published as a fiction writer, I have been providing professional writing services for more than a decade now and I know how to structure sentences and how NOT to get carried away by esoteric words and expressions.
There is one advise though that the immediately started implementing after reading the book, and that is, keep your sentences short. This makes your writing crisp and easy to read. I use shorter, crisper sentences when I’m writing business content for my clients, but when it comes to fiction, one tends to get carried away by the beauty of the words. This is not the point. Long and complex sentences may bore your readers.
Another good advise is to strike a balance between describing less and describing more. For instance, one of your characters enters a restaurant. How much detail are you going to provide? Are you going to tell how many chairs are there and how many customers are sitting? Are you going to talk about the material used to lay down the floor? Are you going to use one or two sentences to describe the lighting ambience? Attention to details is good, but it should not be overdone. Classical novels like Moby Dick tend to go overboard and end up boring the reader.
Then Stephen King asks, do you write for money or for the sheer pleasure of writing? He provides a very clichéd answer. He says that no good writer writes for money. I don’t think this is true. Although you should love your craft and you should work on it for the love of it, eventually earning money matters. Many famous authors like JK Rowling, and even Stephen Hawking, desperately needed money when they started working on their books and making money was a big reason why they were writing.
Why do many writers say that you shouldn’t write for money? There is a logic behind it. Writing is easier. Becoming a successful writer can be grueling. If you’re constantly obsessing about money, creativity takes a backseat. There are many artists who say do what you love, and if you also get paid for it, well, it’s a bonus. What I know is, Vincent van Gogh blew his head off because no one was buying his paintings and he was desperately poor and dejected. “Starving artist” is a common term.
So money matters? Yes it does. Write for money, or for whatever reason. What matters is, you should know your craft, you should be ready to work your ass off, and you should have confidence in yourself.
On Writing is a good read, one of the very few help books that I have actually read to the last. The last book I remember was The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.