Stephen King on Writing

A few years ago, my student Nick Martinez recommended Stephen King’s book On Writing to our legal writing class. I read the book cover to cover in almost one sitting, and since then I have read passages out loud to anyone who will listen. Nick and I discuss here what we learned about writing from the master of horror. 

NM: Stephen King wrote On Writing as a tool for budding writers to use in their exploits in constructing fiction, but the book’s wisdom translates to all forms of writing. I first read this book for fun, hoping just a little that it would also bolster my creative talents.

It wasn’t until I was fully immersed in the world of legal writing that I discovered myself using the very same fiction writing tricks set forth by King. King takes time to describe the most common and fundamental ingredients in all types of writing, such as proper word choice and sentence structure. By mixing in the anecdotal flavor of his own life, King succeeds in conveying these techniques in a clear and practical manner rarely seen in writing guides. King shares an entire “toolbox” of useful tricks.

MLG: My favorite trick from King’s toolbox is “The adverb is not your friend.”

[T]hey’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.

NM: One of the things I learned over the course of my first year of law school is that good legal writers are also good storytellers: a writer must know how to organize a complex series of facts to illustrate a particular event for a particular audience. I also discovered that success as a storyteller flows out of the ability to filter through an overabundance of information and pinpoint the most significant facts.

MLG: I always wondered about what goes on in Stephen King’s brain when he writes. This book gave me those insights, and one is about how King’s characters develop. Here’s a snippet of King’s thoughts on his characters: “For me, what happens to characters as a story progresses depends solely on what I discover about them as I go along—how they grow, in other words. Sometimes they grow a little. If they grow a lot, they begin to influence the course of the story instead of the other way around.” Take Annie Wilkes:

Annie Wilkes, the nurse who holds Paul Sheldon prisoner in Misery, may seem psychopathic to us, but it’s important to remember that she seems perfectly sane and reasonable to herself . . . . If I have to tell you [that], I lose. If, on the other hand, I can show you a silent, dirty-haired woman who compulsively gobbles cake and candy, then have you draw the conclusion that Annie is in the depressive part of a manic-depressive cycle, I win. And if I am able, even briefly, to give you a Wilkes’-eye-view of the world . . . [s]he’s more frightening than ever, because she’s close to real.

NM: I remember very clearly that the first draft of legal writing I ever completed for law school was almost twice the acceptable page limit. Twelve pages instead of six; talk about too much information. At first, I had no idea how I was going to cut anything out.

Stephen King confronts this challenge constantly. He calls it “diarrhea of the pen.” He chalks it up to an overactive imagination. But knowing this unavoidable truth about himself, he developed a very simple, creation/revision process centering on these words: “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

MLG: I like King’s formula for revising. His formula is from a message handwritten on one of his rejection notes. He taped the formula up on the wall next to his typewriter. The note said “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft=1st Draft-10%. Good luck.”

NM: King’s one thousand page tome, The Stand, was originally an extra five hundred pages. But after his first draft, Stephen King didn’t fret because he had a system to follow.

And I didn’t fret over my double-the-length draft, because I was lucky enough to have read On Writing. Instead of getting overwhelmed, I remembered King’s words and realized that even though I needed twice as many pages to understand for myself the true extent of the issue at hand, my audience did not. And so, I had immediate direction to begin filtering out all the unnecessary information.

MLG: As King says, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. David Papke

    I won’t live to see it, but it will be intriguing to learn if Stephen King is ultimately included in the canon of “great” American writers. Some say he just writes popular horror stories. Others claim he pitches his work to lowbrow tastes. Similar things were said about Edgar Allan Poe in his era, but over the years his reputation as a writer has risen dramatically. The line between art and popular culture is uncertain, especially over time.

  2. Melissa Greipp

    Speaking of Edgar Allan Poe and the law, it’s interesting to read “The Tell Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado” from a legal perspective. Both stories evoke themes of crime, motive, state of mind, and insanity.

  3. Joseph Hylton

    While David Papke is correct that you never know about these things, I doubt that Stephen King will be remembered as one of the canonical writers of the late 20th and early 21st century.

    I suspect that his fate will more resemble that of George Thompson (1823-1873) rather than Edgar Allan Poe. Thompson was a very popular writer of gruesome tales of the macabre in antebellum America.

    In his book Beneath the American Renaissance, literary historian David Reynolds describes Thompson as a writer who “represented a fusion of radical-democratic social militancy and hyperbolic sensationalism.” (Reynolds also describes Thompson as “the most sexually explicit and most purely disgusting novelist of the 1840’s.”)

    Although Thompson’s novels were best sellers in his own time, and even though one of his books, Venus in Boston (1849), is apparently still in print, his name is known only to historians, whereas his more-or-less contemporary, Poe, remains a household name.

    I’m betting that King turns out to be the George Thompson of our era.

    Also, Melissa Greipp’s observation about reading Poe as a commentator on legal themes is quite intriguing. I suspect that this aspect of Poe’s work has been overlooked. Brook Thomas’ Cross-Examinations of Law and Literature (1991) uses the lens of legal thought and law practices to examine the works of major writers in antebellum America, but the book pays no attention to Poe whatsoever.

  4. Club Stephen King

    ON WRITING is definitely a must read, both for Stephen King fans, but also for people that are working on books !

  5. Melissa Greipp

    Here is a WSJ article on Stephen King and adverbs, forwarded by Jonathan Koenig. The article discusses the continued use of adverbs in legal writing, despite the movement away from adverbs in other forms of writing.

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