While researching a second career in writing, I stumbled upon countless pins on Pinterest telling me in no uncertain terms that if I wanted to be a writer, I need to read a particular set of books. The list included 5 books, on repeat pin after pin. Being a borderline ridiculous over-analyzer, I continued to fall into the trap each time. “If you want to be a writer, you must read these 5 books first”, so I clicked, and you guessed it, the usual suspects were always there. One of those books was On Writing, by Stephen King.
I didn’t hesitate to buy this book. I mean it’s Stephen King, the genius wordsmith who created the characters in our nightmares. Seriously, when I was a kid, I saw “It” on TV and Pennywise left an indelible mark on me. I think I cried that night because the closet in my room led up to a very creepy attic. I ended up bunking with my sister for the night. Thank goodness for big sisters
But I digress. It turns out all of those blog posts and writers were right. On Writing is required reading for any writer.
A Different Perspective
When I started reading On Writing, I thought I would look at it from a different perspective. After all, I’m not a fiction writer. I know enough to know I do not have the writing chops for that, never say never…I know.
I read On Writing from the perspective of a new writer, a freelance writer, and a non-fiction writer. It seemed to me that everyone recapped the same things and the takeaways were oddly similar. “Read a lot to write a lot”, “the road to hell is paved with adverbs”, “don’t use the passive voice”, blah blah blah. The mechanics of writing were addressed in the book. But I think what seems largely overlooked was the encouragement and the sense of “this is what every writer goes through” that gave me pause. Stephen King wrote about the universal struggles that plague every writer, himself included.
We have all experienced rejection, writer’s block, and all the other ‘stuff’ that comes with writing. It was good, and comforting in a way to know that Stephen King in his all-knowing word wizardry, has experienced all of these things too.
On Writing is filled with pearls of wisdom that are applicable to writers of all genres.
“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.”
This is so important. It’s so hard to accomplish anything when you feel like you’re alone. Sometimes we all need a little encouragement. I’m pretty lucky, I’ve had the support of my friends and family since day one.
“Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it.”
Stephen King got through three pages of Carrie before he crumpled it up and threw it in the trash. His wife fished it out and encouraged him to finish it. He went on to say that he tossed the idea because he didn’t care about the character. Carrie was his big break, what if he never finished it? It leads me to think of all the articles I have that are “unfinished.” Sometimes it’s hard to get through it and it just doesn’t seem worth it but, what if?
“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair…Come to it any way but lightly…You must not come lightly to the blank page.”
The point here is that writing is a craft and it should be treated as such. Every writer bears a responsibility for the words they choose for that blank page and we must take the responsibility seriously.
“Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.”
How often does the fear stop us from hitting “publish?” How often does fear prevent us from not sending out our work? It happens to everyone. The first piece I ever wrote weighed heavily on me. I wrote it, and then I read it about 100 times. I was worried that it wasn’t good enough, or maybe I could do better. Finally, one day I just bit the bullet and hit send. My article was published on the blog I sent it to, and it was picked up for publication on abcnews.com. What if I didn’t let go of the fear that it wasn’t good enough?
“You can tell without even reading if the book you’ve chosen is apt to be easy or hard…Easy books contain lots of short paragraphs…and lots of white space.”
No one wants to see or read a wall of text. It immediately tricks your brain into a perception of increased difficulty. White space is not only encouraged, it is necessary when writing for digital consumption.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
Ok, I know this one is on my list. But I had to include it because it is so important. Reading gives us so much more than a good story. Stephen King points out that just as reading shows us what to do, it also shows us what not to do.
“The work is always accomplished one word at a time.”
I guess this is akin to how do you eat an elephant? How do we tackle a freelance piece of 2000 words? How do we start writing a novel? One word at a time…
“When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested [in the story].”
I think this one is a great piece of advice for my niche (or genre). It is also really great advice for bloggers. If we want readers to keep coming back, or we want our story to resonate with others we must write it in a way that allows the reader to see their own reflection. I have written a few parenting/mom articles, it’s a great big world out there my story is someone else’s story too.
“You can’t please all of the readers all of the time; you can’t please even some of the readers all of the time, but you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time.”
Isn’t that the truth? Especially now with social media, writers get a consistent stream of…umm… “feedback”. People are much more likely to voice their opinions when they are hiding behind a keyboard. Sometimes it’s great and sometimes it can feel awful. I’ve been on both sides and this is something I need to remind myself of often.
“I circled the problem, again and again, beat my fists on it, knocked my head against it… and then one day when I was thinking of nothing much at all, the answer came to me. It arrived whole and complete-gift wrapped, you could say – in a single bright flash.”
Ok, so Stephen King deals with writer’s block too? I guess I just assumed that it comes so easy to him, but he’s human like the rest of us. Basically, his advice is to take your mind off of the problem and walk away. It’s the advice we always hear when it comes to writer’s block, and for good reason, it works. I wrote another post about this how this advice for writer’s block is backed by science here.
“Let your hope of success (and your fear of failure) carry you on, difficult as that can be.”
What’s the thing that motivates us to continue after every rejection? What is the thing that drives us to keep writing? There’s no right or wrong answer, it’s different for everyone. But a hope of success and a fear of failure as good as any.