On Writing by Stephen King
September 5, 2020
In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, American author Stephen King shares his path to becoming a writer and offers advice to aspiring writers on how to write good fiction.
I'm not too interested in writing fiction (at least not at the moment), but I've collected my favorite ideas from the book that relate equally well to nonficton writing.
Writing is telepathy
Writer and reader are separated by time and space, but the reader hears the writer's voice in their head and sees what the writer describes to them.
It's a "meeting of the minds".
Naturally, telepathy is hard work. You have to be serious about it if you want to get better. Whatever your intentions, "you must not come lightly to the blank page".
Make writing a habit
There's no substitute for practice.
King recommends writing 2,000 words each day, 6 days a week. Wake up, make some coffee, shut yourself in your study, and don't come out until you're finished. Some days the words will come easy, other days they won't. The important part is that you build the habit.
If you are not an aspiring writer, but you'd still like to improve your writing, set a more achievable daily word goal. You probably have a job that occupies most of your day, so you'll have to fit in writing where you can. I'm still trying to find something that works well for me. For now, most of my writing happens on weekend mornings.
Make reading a habit too
You can't become a good writer without also becoming a good reader. Why?
"Reading is the creative center of a writer's life," says King. By reading regularly, you put yourself in a mind-set to write eagerly and without self-consciousness.
How do you fit more reading into your day? Wean yourself off of Netflix and replace that time with reading (I'm working on this myself).
Another tip is to take a book with you wherever you go and "teach yourself to read in small sips as well as long swallows".
Now, King shared this advice in 2000, well before the age of smartphones. Some folks I know have read entire novels on their smartphone. Not me. I've tried, but all too often an errant notification sends me off on something else. I prefer taking a physical book around with me.
Write for your ideal reader
Choose your ideal reader and write your story with them in mind.
As King explains, the ideal reader helps you "get outside yourself" and read your work as an audience would. As you make progress, ask yourself: Am I sticking to a coherent story? Am I spending too much time on parts of the story my ideal reader won't even care about?
Your ideal reader should be somebody you know personally, or at least someone whose tastes you know well. King writes all his stories for his wife Tabitha, who appreciates his humor but isn't afraid to call him out when his story is meandearing.
When it comes to writing nonfiction, think carefully about the target audience of your work and choose your ideal reader accordingly.
Writing an introductory blog post? Choose someone who doesn't have a strong background in the material, like a student in a related field, or a personal friend who likes to learn something new. How about an in-depth technical article in your field of study? Choose one of your peers, like a coworker or another student in your same cohort.
It's not enough to vaguely select an audience, your ideal reader must be a specific person so you can anticipate their questions and share extra details that you know they'll enjoy. This will go a long way towards makng your writing feel more engaging and genuine to all readers, not just the ideal reader you've chosen.
Stories are discovered, not invented
King believes "stories are found things, like fossils in the ground". Your goal as a writer is to get them out of the ground without too many breaks. To do so you should use delicate tools in your writer's toolbox: narration to advance the story, description to create a sensory reality, and dialogue to bring characters to life.
What about plot? Plot is "the writer's jackhammer" and "the good writer's last resort". Sure, it will get your fossil out of the ground, but you're likely to break a lot of it in the process.
How do the tools differ for nonfiction writing? I'm not sure, but I have a few thoughts.
If it makes sense to, try to weave a relevant story into your writing and then you can rely on many of the same tools that King describes. It always helps to back up abstractions with real-world examples. And be sure to lead with the why before getting into the what and how.
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