Casey Grisez

August 6, 2022

On Stephen King's On Writing

Stephen King is one of the most accomplished writers of all time, with 64 novels, five nonfiction books, and more than 200 short stories to his name. He has sold 350,000,000 (to repeat: three hundred and fifty million) copies of his books. Any writing advice he shares is worth reading.

One of his nonfiction books is On Writing, published in 2000. On Writing is part memoir, part how-to writing guide. While the how-to part is directed at professional authors, almost all professions today involve some kind of writing. Whether emailing the boss to request funding, penning a thank you note to a client, or writing a memo to an asynchronous team, writing plays a part in daily life for most knowledge workers.

And that's not even considering the texts to try to convince the Tinder match to go out with you. Or so I'm told. My last first date was 12 years ago.

Although the book is old enough to buy its own beer, King's insights are timeless. I've outlined some of my favorites here in the hopes of helping your writing and mine.

Writing is telepathy
King says that via writing, an author can communicate what he is thinking to the reader, no matter how great the gap between writing and reading. In reading The Odyssey, Homer can transmit his thoughts from the 8th century BC to us today. Although you and I aren't actually speaking right now, you know what I'm thinking about. If I write, "Think about Clifford the Big Red Dog," I bet you picture a big red dog.

A few months back, I found an old Blackberry in my closet. In addition to really making me miss physical keyboards on phones, it was a snapshot in time. Through the stored emails, texts, and notes, I can communicate with myself from the fall of 2011. Whether through journaling, reviewing old texts and emails, or reading a book, reader and writer can communicate through any span of space and time.

Humans are terrible at remembering history but you can use telepathy to your advantage. If you're struggling with a decision, journal your thoughts and return in the future to see how the decision played out. If there's rationale for a business pivot, write it down instead of trying to remember at year-end. One of my favorites (stolen from Jim O'Shaughnessy) is to write letters to your kids as they're growing up then share with them in the future. This will give them the ability to teleport back to their own childhood through your eyes.

Construct your toolbox
If there's one thing I've learned as a homeowner, it's the value of having the right tool. My basement tool chest has thousands of dollars of tools, many of which I'll only use a handful of times. But when you need that one tool, you need it (looking at you, socket wrench that I bought only after two hours of an attempted car repair).

King believes that filling your technical toolbox with both fundamental tools like screwdrivers and more advanced tools like socket wrenches is critical to writing success. He also believes in the importance of carrying that toolbox enough to build the muscle to carry it with ease. If you can't take the whole toolbox to a job site, what's the point of having all the tools?

What are the screwdrivers in your world? What are the socket wrenches? Get enough reps to carry a variety of tools so they're ready when you need them.

My dad coached many of my little league teams. He was (and still is) nuts about nailing the fundamentals. Making contact with the pitch rather than trying to mash dingers. Catching fly balls with two hands rather than "hot-doggin" and catching one-handed. Always knowing what to do if the ball is hit your way in the field. If you dared to forget the fundamentals during a game, he had no problem yelling "FUNDAMENTALS!" from the dugout.

A sentence I never thought I'd write, but my dad has something in common with Stephen King. King believes in the value of the topic-sentence-followed-by-support-and-description paragraph structure we were taught in school. It forces the writer to organize her thoughts and helps prevent wandering from the topic.

Every profession has its fundamentals. Maybe it's customer service, build quality, or environmental friendliness. Or maybe it's like McDonalds, where a burger (somehow) tastes the same in Shanghai as it does in Sheboygan. Whatever fundamentals your profession rests on, know what they are and use them as guardrails to stay focused. Trust me when I say it's embarrassing to have someone yell "FUNDAMENTALS!" at you from 200 feet away.

Don't wait for the muse
King believes that all you need to write are
  • a room
  • a door
  • the determination to shut that door
  • a concrete goal

How often do we overcomplicate something because we don't want to go the direct route? I'll research blog software for hours instead of sitting down and writing. I'll download multiple to-do list apps instead of using the sticky notes and pen in front of me. I'll try to formulate the perfect workout plan instead of going to the basement and picking up the weights.

While the muse may occasionally join you, don't expect it. Figure out your concrete goal, shut the door, and get to work.

Jurassic Park
King says stories are like fossils. The story already exists, and it's the writer's job to uncover the fossil using the tools in the toolbox to extract it as intact as possible. You may need to use a jackhammer, but if that's all you can use, you will destroy the fossil. A good writer knows when to use a jackhammer, a shovel, a pick, or a toothbrush to extract the story. In other words, you can't force out a story or a plot.

Where could you benefit by doing less? To quote Khe Hy, What if it were easy? Instead of trying to force it, where would you be better off if you helped the fossil reveal itself? This most resonates with me in parenting. I know how I want my kids to turn out, but I know I can't force it. And the more I force it, the more I'll destroy the fossil. Sometimes I need to use the parenting equivalent of a shovel. Sometimes I need to use a toothbrush. No matter what I do, my kids will be who they will be. My job is to help bring out the fossil as intact as possible.

Kill your darlings
Maybe a jarring section title after talking about my kids. Anyway, King's quote is, "Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even if it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlings." He means you must make hard decisions about what to keep and what to cut in the editing process. An early editor gave him this formula: second draft = first draft - 10%. This is such a powerful concept, that he still uses this formula in his writing.

What positions do you hold as truths that are holding you back? If there is a position at work you hold out of stubbornness or idealism, kill your darlings. If you're fighting for your kid to be the next prodigy and it's not working out, kill your darlings (figuratively, not literally). If there is a frequent fight you have because of your spouse's perceived personality flaw, kill your darlings (again, figuratively).

King's simple guidance on how much backstory to include is this: a) everyone has a history, and b) most of it isn't very interesting. While the writer may be entranced by the history of the Electoral College, the evolution of Goldendoodles, or the genealogy of Rodney Dangerfield, the reader is mostly concerned with the story and characters.
My takeaway here is to keep it simple, stupid. If you're giving a conference presentation or telling someone about yourself at a cocktail party, remember that your audience likely doesn't care about the backstory as much as you do. Keep it to a minimum and include only the essential details.

Otherwise, you may hear someone from the audience yell out, "FUNDAMENTALS!"