I’m not exactly what you would call a big Stephen King fan. Yeah, I’ve read a few of his novels over the years — most notably 11/22/63, his fantastic 860-pager about the JFK assassination — but the types of horror and science fiction books he’s best known for generally don’t blow my skirt up. Still, when a friend encouraged me to check out one of his nonfiction pieces called “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” I was intrigued.
I was interested mostly because of the sheer volume of content that King has been able to produce. No matter what your view of him or his writing may be, you’ve got to admit it, the man is prolific. He has written 56 novels to date, as well as dozens of other pieces, including short stories, works of nonfiction, plays, and even comic books. Surely anyone who is an aspiring writer, a communications professional, or a content marketer (all of which I am) could stand to learn a thing or two from the guy. Ok, so you maybe you and I aren’t writing about vampires and psychopaths. But don’t we still face the same challenges of producing large amounts of content day in and day out and trying to tell compelling stories with it?
If nothing else, I figured it had to be more interesting — and certainly better written — than many of the bone dry books on content marketing being peddled around these days. I’ve looked in vain to several of them for insights and inspiration only to be disappointed with what I found.
What I enjoyed about “On Writing,” by contrast, was not just the practical tips that King offers, but also the candid autobiographical bits he shares. About a third of the book is a memoir of various stages of the author’s life, from his childhood and earliest attempts at writing, to his years of battling drug and alcohol addictions, and the accident that nearly killed him in 1999 (he was hit by a van). I found it particularly interesting to learn how some of the ideas for his books like “Carrie” and “Misery” came about and the process he went through to bring them to life.
Beyond serving as a memoir, the book is full of practical tips — some new to me, others just helpful reminders — that are worth noting. Here are just a few:
- The key to good writing is keeping it simple. Duh, but how quickly we forget this! King stresses the importance of not overloading the reader with unnecessary details or back story. He explains, for example, how the second drafts of his manuscripts are always at least 10 percent shorter than their predecessors after he’s done trimming out the fat.
- You’ve got to read and write every day. While producing the hundreds of pages that go into one of King’s novels may seem daunting to most of us, he suggests simply setting a much smaller and attainable daily goal. For King, it’s 2,000 words. He notes that having that discipline and getting that much practice is what will help you to improve your skills most. Similarly, he proposes that you spend as much time as possible reading — he devours between 70 and 80 books a year — so that you can absorb and learn from what other authors are doing. This is something I suspect a lot of us fail to do. I certainly didn’t clock that many books last year.
- Make sure that you’ve got the right tools. King suggests that every writer needs to have his or her own tool box, complete with all of the implements necessary for good writing. These include not only a healthy vocabulary and strong grasp of grammar (he despises adverbs and passive voice), but also the far more difficult to procure understanding of form and style. He goes into length about developing the latter, talking about themes, character development, pace, and dialogue.
- Don’t fall in love with your own stuff. It can be easy to think some of your passages are real gems, says King, but that doesn’t mean that your audience will agree. Be prepared to kill anything, no matter how much you love it, that doesn’t ultimately help the overall piece you are creating.
This is a superficial list at best of some of the takeaways I got from the book. Nevertheless I’d submit that it’s not only worth checking out, but that Stephen King should be your new content hero. Why? Because he’s a fascinating writer who has compiled some really useful suggestions and tips as well as a talented content marketer. After reading about his writing, and the origins of several of his books, I’m now really curious to go out and read them.
Well played, Stephen.
With one book you’ve not only given me the information that I was looking for, thus earning my trust and respect, you also sold me on the idea of buying a bunch of your other books. If that’s not content marketing at it’s best, I don’t know what is.