I’ve been thinking about how to write this book review for a few days now. Part of the challenge is that this isn’t really a book review- a review criticizes and compliments the author’s work, looks at the author and reader’s intentions, examines style, fluidity, and so on. This isn’t one of those. This is more a persuasive piece on why investing the time to read Stephen King: On Writing is a worthwhile investment of your time, whether or not you ever want to write fiction.
If you’ve gotten to spend any time with me in person, you know that at some point during our conversation I’m going to probably ask you, "So what are you reading?" I ask this because I’m curious how my friends spend their time. After all, reading a book is a major time commitment. Recently I’ve been reflecting on this question. I wonder if it causes people to skew their answers to the most "educated" book on their kindle versus what they’re actually reading.
I’m not sure that it’s particularly fashionable to say that you’re reading "Carrie" or "Cujo." After all, what we share about what we’re reading, we know, is a reflection about ourselves- and these mass market books might make you seem "uneducated." This is complete nonsense. Great writing can be mass-market, it can be literature, and it can be found anywhere, but especially within King’s writing.
Stephen King’s book "On Writing" is made up primarily of 3 sections: an abbreviated history of King’s life/career in writing, a section on how to compose/write, and a post-script. There are also a handful of notes afterwards, which are certainly worth reading. I’m only going to talk about the first two because the third is just too moving of a piece of writing to spoil for you.
In opening the book King lures you in with a deceptively simple and funny style of writing. The writing is concise and almost compact in nature. It leaves the reader enjoying the writing, but it also leaves the reader with a feeling that, "Something else is going on here." Something else is going on there. King is uses the style in which all his books are written to lure the reader in and demonstrate what’s coming in section two.
Section two is really filled with the toolbox of how to write- what tools go into each element of writing. If you’re like me and have no intention of writing fiction you may be tempted to skip this. Don’t do that. This is the genius of the book. King uses this section to look at his work and at the work of others to demonstrate good writing and editing. The writing on Elements of Style may start to make your eyes glaze over (or reel in horror at how poorly you did in 5th grade English), but the writing will illuminate techniques used by the authors you love to read. They’ll clue you in to details you’ve been missing, even in books considered to be "simple." They’ll show that books with mass-market appeal can be wonderful piece of writing. Literature, even.
In the end King’s book will do something that few books can claim to do- it will cause you to read differently. It will cause you to slow down and read carefully. If you’re like me, it will also cause you to begin writing more compactly. We don’t often get books that change how we consume or create information. This is one of the few, and none (that I’ve read) is more approachable than this. Well worth your investment.