On Writing by Stephen King - Book Summary, Lessons and Quotes

Screenwriting

Self-described as more of a CV than a memoir, On Writing details both Stephen King’s life story and the writer’s tool kit that has helped him sell over 350 million books worldwide.

Table of contents

TABLE OF CONTENTS

🕰️ The Book in 20 Seconds

Annoyed that ‘most books about writing are filled with bullshit’, Stephen King distilled his entire life of writing into one sacred text. The result is both a no holds barred biography of his journey to success and a step by step how to guide for aspiring writers. Anyone who reads it will leave the experience both a better writer and more aware of the innate struggle it takes to triumph in the arts.   

🤔 Who Should Read It?

If you have to write in your daily life, whether that is creatively or otherwise, then On Writing is a must read. Covering expansive topics from idea creation to the minutiae of how to use grammar and adverbs, there is something useful in On Writing for everyone. 

💬 Best Quotes

‘Write anything you want as long as you tell the truth’
'Do you need someone to make you a paper badge with the word writer on it before you can believe you are one? God, I hope not’
‘Never tell us a thing if you can show us instead’
‘To write is human, to edit is divine’
‘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’
‘The hours we spend talking about writing is time we don’t spend actually doing it’
‘I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing’
‘Don’t wait for the muse’

📔 Summary and Key Ideas

❗ The Primary Theses of the Book

On Writing presents two key ideas:

1. 'Good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of your toolbox with the right instruments'

2. 'While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one'.

Now you know the general framework the book hangs on, let’s get into the lessons you can take from it.

👁️ Start By Copying

As so often the case with creative pursuits, King supports the widely acknowledged mantra that for great artists, 'imitation precedes creation’. In King’s case, this started with his early love of reading. As his taste graduated from comic books, to Tom Swift, then to Jack London’s animal tales, he ‘at some point’ began to write his own stories. 

Creating what he calls ‘copycat hybrids’, he one day decided to show his Mother the result of his work. Initially delighted by the excellent story her young son had written, her pride was quickly quashed when she found out that in fact he had ‘copied most of it out of a funny book’. Though it wasn’t nice for Stephen to have disappointed his Mother so, it was this early copycatting that got his creative machine going. 

🪣 Be An Idea Archeologist

No screenplay or book can start without an idea, but where do they come from? Can you actively search for them? No, is the answer put forward by King. He states that ‘good story ideas seems to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky’. 

To apply this advice therefore, one must seek out ideas but ‘recognize them when they show up’, which they will, you just need to pounce on them in the moment. 

These ideas that appear may be good, bad, big or small. King writes that each is like a ‘fossil in the ground’, when you dig it up, you don’t know if it’s going to be a ‘seashell’ or a huge ‘Tyrannosaurus Rex’. What the writer must do is try to take the idea from the ground as fully formed as possible. 

‘Jackhammering’ your idea out of the soil perfectly is ‘probably impossible’ as you will suffer a few inevitable breaks and losses. Therefore one must use metaphorically more delicate tools to slowly pry your idea from the dirt.

❓ What To Write

‘Write anything you want as long as you tell the truth’. 

This idea of truth comes back again and again throughout the book. Though it can seem nebulous to beginners, a good place to start is of course writing what you know. You can then use that to 'feed into other stuff’, as King puts it. 

For example, John Grisham’s famous legal thriller, The Firm, was based in part on his previous career as a lawyer. 

King believes that with any great piece of fiction writing, ‘the situation comes first’. 

By this he means that you get a group of characters in some sort of ‘predicament’ that would be interesting to work itself out. He doesn’t worry about the end, or how they will get there, simply that the idea is interesting. Once that has been decided the rest of the work can begin.

🚪 Rejection Is Inevitable

As hard as it always is to believe, your favourite screenwriters and authors all faced rejection. In particular, no one faced more than Stephen King. 

His first rejections came young when he sent off his short stories to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Did he cry over it? No.

He ‘pounded a nail into the wall’ and began stacking the rejection slips on it. 

‘By the time I was fourteen...the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it’

What then? 

‘I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing’. 

By age sixteen, the notes had begun to turn positive, but it was still an even longer road until his major break. Lesson: keep going. 

😳 Don't Feel Guilty For Your Genre

In all art there are certain disciplines considered ‘true art’ and the rest seen as the lesser. 

In Stephen King’s case, his passion was horror. After selling a gory short story of his around school, the Headmistress pulled him in and said he had talent but was wasting it on this ‘junk’. 

‘I have spent a good many years since—too many, I think—being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write, someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all’. 

✏️ How To Rewrite

King believes that rewriting can be taught far quicker than it often is. Having studied years of English Literature classes, ten minutes with a tutor named John Gould taught him more in ‘ten minutes’.

What was the magic lesson?

'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'

Once you’ve applied this to your first draft, ‘leave it for six weeks’, as when you go back you’ll see all the ‘huge plot holes and issues with character’ that you missed. 

Now your first draft has matured, it’s time to rewrite. King’s advice to take with you is: ‘write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open’.

Why is this? Well, initially King states that your script/book is just for you but once it enters the hands of the reader, it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or indeed, criticise it. 

Therefore, with this knowledge in hand, he advises beginners to ‘write at least two drafts’. One with the door closed and the next with it open. 

Specifically use the formula:

‘2nd draft = 1st draft - 10%’ 

🥊 Fight Against Outside Pressures

It’s easy to look at Stephen King and presume his success was always written on the wall, if you’ll pardon the pun. In fact, he had to fight a multitude of outside elements and graft tirelessly for his victories. 

One form of this was familial pressure. Though she knew from the rejection slips on the wall that Stephen wanted to be a writer, as any parent of her time would, King’s Mother suggested he qualify as a teacher for something to fall back on. 

King dutifully did so and qualified though initially he couldn’t even use the degree. He ended up working a string of dead end jobs including laundry for restaurants and hotels where he would have to wash blood and maggots off the sheets and table cloths daily. 

Though the world around him seemed to be saying ‘stop’, he pushed through into the promised land. 

💞 Writing Is Lonely - Let Your Loved Ones In

It would be near impossible to go through the challenges that writers face without the support of their loved ones. In King’s case, it was his partner Tabby. She ‘never voiced a single doubt’, giving him constant support through his journey. 

‘Whenever I see a first novel dedicated to a wife (or a husband), I smile and think, There’s someone who knows. Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough’

Not only does letting in your loved ones provide emotional support, it can be tangible. They can spot when something works. It was Tabby that pulled the first pages of what became King’s breakout success, Carrie, from the trash after he threw them away! 

💪 Fit In Reading & Writing Time

It seems obvious to say it but if you want to be a writer, you need to write, yet this is often a shocking realisation for beginner writers to get over. 

Obviously, everyone has their own responsibilities and demands on their schedule, but if possible, King recommends four to six hours of reading and writing a day. Ideally one thousand words a day, six days a week. 

Whether you want to do this at home, at work, or as Stephen did, ‘on his lunch break’, it doesn’t matter, you just need to get it done. 

To do this you need to find a process. Eliminate every distraction (King likes to work to heavy rock music!).

Building on the notion that motivation is a myth, King believes that you must ‘make sure the muse knows where you are going to be’ each day. Every day. That’s how you do the work. 

Also, use this process to get your reading in. King writes of reading's importance both because of the ideas and craft you will pick up, but also because ‘you will read terrible writers and realise you can do it’!

🗣️ Dialogue

A crucial talking point for both screenwriters and authors is of course, dialogue. 

Coming back to the line listed above in ‘Key Quotes’, a key concept for writing taught by King is that you must write truth. Your truth, to be specific. 

Following that logic, each person in your story is a characterisation of some part of your truth, or as King puts it, ‘every character you create is purely you’. 

It is your job as the writer to make sure each character tells their truth because without it there will be no ‘resonance and realism’ to their existence. 

To use an example: if you have a character who would likely swear if they banged their thumb with a hammer but you, worried about decency, have them say ‘oh sugar’ instead of ‘oh shit’, you are ‘breaking the unspoken contract that exists between the writer and reader. Your promise to express the truth of how people act and talk through the medium of a made up story’.

In other more simple to use tips, King advocates the old screenwriting adage of ‘never tell us a thing if you can show us instead’ and advises listening to normal people’s conversations as a way to learn the craft of dialogue. 

🔣 Symbolism and Theme 

Usually a confusing subject for beginner writers to get their head around, King makes symbolism and theme easier by stating that he never thinks about it in the beginning. 

'Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story'

Rather than spending your time worrying about what the theme is, or whether there even is one, better to spend your time writing a good story. Invariably, if you are following the other lessons from On Writing, you will be writing a script or book with an embedded theme because you are telling some part of your truth. What you want to do is look for the ‘underlying patterns’ once the draft is completed. 

It is only in the second draft that King narrows down a theme, rewriting each page to reflect the theme that has arisen. 

Likening symbolism to the ‘fossil’ in the ground we discussed earlier, King writes that it can be dug up and honed down at a later date. For example, it was only after the first draft of Carrie that King recognised blood appears three times in the book. Once that puzzle piece had been noted, he could lean into the potential symbolism of the motif. 

Remember that symbolism is only built to ‘adorn and enrich, not to create a sense of artificial profundity’. Many less accomplished writers fall victim to this, creating a heavily ‘symbolic’ work that actually doesn’t mean anything!

🕴️ On Agents and Publishers 

The question on every new writer's lips is often “how do I get an agent?” King writes that more often than not the people asking the question are annoyed, tired and frustrated with what they perceive to be a nepotistic system. What is King's opinion on this?

‘Agents, publishers, and editors are all looking for the next hot writer'

Agents and publishers make money from great new writers = Agents and publishers want to find great writers. 

Importantly one should ‘begin as your own advocate’. No one else will! If you can’t pitch your wares confidently, how could anyone else? 

🧰  The Writer's Toolbox

If writing a script or book is like building a house, then you’ll need the tools to do it. 

A tool box can fit many tools inside it but you do not want it to become ‘too large to be portable and lose its chief virtue’. You must source your most important tools and build their muscles ‘so you can carry it with you’. 

Most of the tools you need you have already but look at them, and before you put them in your toolbox, question what problem they are solving. Are they all necessary? 

That’s enough metaphor. Let’s get to specifics. 

🧰 The Writer’s Toolbox - Part 1 - Vocabulary

The thing to pack in your box is vocabulary, or ‘the bread of writing’ as King puts it. Here you can ‘pack what you have without the slightest bit of guilt and inferiority’. In classic King colloquialism he writes:

'As the whore said to the bashful sailor, “It ain’t how much you’ve got, honey, it’s how you use it'

Not only should you pack your Oxford English Dictionary approved words but also the slang and any dialects you know. It can all go in. 

As always, King believes simplicity rules out so don’t bother trying to learn complicated words in place of ones you already know. 

‘One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed’

He writes that the basic rule of vocabulary is to use the first word that comes to your mind. 

🧰 The Writer’s Toolbox - Part 2 - Grammar

Grammar is a difficult discussion topic. While King acknowledges its importance, he is also aware of the difficulty that is presents so many people. 

King advises that most of what you need you’ll have, you just need to top it up here and there, or find a work around. For example, one can use short sentences to avoid the challenges of commas and semicolons. 

‘Must you write complete sentences each time, every time? Perish the thought. If your work consists only of fragments and floating clauses, the Grammar Police aren’t going to come and take you away’

Or a modern get around to save yourself the trouble and become a grammar warrior like Stephen King is to use something like Grammarly, an easy to use chrome extension which does all your grammar heavy lifting for you. 

Ideally though, King believes you must, as always, know the rules before you break them. On the matter, he quotes William Strunk:

‘The best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric…[but] Unless he is certain of doing well, [the writer] will probably do best to follow the rules'

Ultimately, any writer must accept that grammar is a part of the discipline, and given its unavoidability, you might as well swat up because:

‘Grammar is not just a pain in the ass; it’s the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking’.

🧰 The Writer’s Toolbox - Part 3 - Verbs

Verbs come in two types - active and passive. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. Stephen King vehemently dislikes the passive tense because it is ‘weak’ and thus, feeble writers will use it. Don’t be that writer.  

It’s best explained with an example from King: 

‘The timid fellow writes “The meeting will be held at seven o’clock” because that somehow says to him, “Put it this way and people will believe you really know.” Purge this quisling thought! Don’t be a muggle! Throw back your shoulders, stick out your chin, and put that meeting in charge! Write “The meeting’s at seven”. There, by God! Don’t you feel better?’ 

King’s other piece of verb usage advice is perhaps his most passionately held opinion: ‘the adverb is not your friend’. 

But what is an adverb? An adverb is a word that modifies verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. To simply it, they usually end in -ly. 

Like passive verbs, King believes adverbs were also created with weak writers in mind. Let’s use another example to demonstrate why: 

‘'He closed the door firmly”. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there’

You may read that and think, ‘yes, it does need to be there in certain circumstances’. King argues it doesn’t due to context. 

Every moment in a screenplay or novel happens in the context of what comes before and after it. It is with this that you can infer how things go down. For example, in this instance, if a couple were having a huge argument before the closing of the door, you know how that door got closed! 

Will you use these the passive tense sometimes? Of course. Every King admits he does - ‘I’m just another ordinary sinner’. 

🧰 The Writer’s Toolbox - Part 4 - Paragraphs

‘I would argue that the paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing—the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words. If the moment of quickening is to come, it comes at the level of the paragraph. It is a marvellous and flexible instrument that can be a single word long or run on for pages’

Yes, it's advice more specific to novelists than screenwriters, but it's still good information for both. For example, King writes that if you take any novel (i.e. or script) and open it to a random page, you can easily see whether it’s going to be a difficult read or not. 

Easy books = short paragraphs. And vice versa. The same goes for film and TV scripts. Now you understand why that Exec wanted more white space on the page! 

Paragraphs therefore do not (and should not) be dense. Ideally they would be ‘neat and utilitarian. The ideal expository paragraph contains a topic sentence followed by others which explain or amplify the first’. 

If you’re writing an essay, topic sentence, then support and description, reigns supreme but in fiction it can be looser. Fiction is more free-form. ‘Paragraphs form on their own’. 

Each paragraph is a beat and ‘when composing it’s best not to think too much about where paragraphs begin and end; the trick is to let nature take its course’. 

It’s all about flow. Make sure the ‘turns and rhythms’ float into one another. This of course stands true for any form of writing. 

🧰 The Writer’s Toolbox - End Note - The Magic of Words

The fifth and final piece of King’s toolbox is simply recognising the value of what you are doing. The power that words carry and the commitment that goes into getting them onto the page.

‘Whether a book is good or bad, a failure or a success. Words have weight’ 

With writing you can build worlds, mythical creatures, anything you can imagine. King cites Tolkein’s The Lord of The Rings as the ultimate example of this (side note: if you’d like to hear about the making of the films you can listen to our interviews with the LOTR costume designer and set designer). 

‘A thousand pages of hobbits hasn’t been enough for three generations of post–World War II fantasy fans’

So notice that power. What you are doing has worth. On Writing is not just a book about words and style, it is about ‘magic’. 

📖 Other Recommended Reading

Throughout On Writing, King refers to a multitude of other books for writers to read.

The crucial one being : The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White.

🤔 What To Learn Next? 

I hope this summary of Stephen King's On Writing was helpful to you! If you’re interested in learning more about writing, check out our podcast interview with Oscar nominated screenwriter of Pixar's Inside Out and Captain Marvel here.