On Writing – Stephen King

By Paul Holper

Despite being written 20 years ago, Stephen King’s book, ‘On writing: A memoir of the craft’, is an entertaining read and a great source of information. Someone who has sold more than 350 million books must know a thing or two about the subject matter.

About half of the book is a biography of the author; and given how much time has elapsed, it must be time for another. The rest is tips with well-illustrated examples, primarily for writing fiction. But there are plenty of lessons that apply to non-fiction story-telling.

King writes, ‘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 … Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use “emolument” when you mean “tip”.’

The prodigious writer aims to turn out 2,000 words per day. Once he finishes the first draft of a novel, King likes to put it away for a minimum of six weeks. Only then does he feel sufficiently objective to review his work. Most of us don’t have the luxury of such a long deadline, but I can’t satisfactorily review my own writing until at least a day has passed. During review, King aims to prune his writing by at least 10 per cent. The more time that has elapsed, the less tied you will feel to phrases that you agonised over. The ‘delete’ key is your friend in this process.

Once you have edited your own work, King says, ideally give it to someone else to edit for you. Scientell policy is that nothing leaves the building until a colleague has reviewed it. Before we even get to this point, if we are writing about researchers and their work, we always get them to check our text for accuracy.

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