On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Summary of “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft“: Stephen King recalls the events that led him to become a writer while also offering an analysis of language and the mechanics of writing.

By Stephen King, 349 pages, 2003.

Note: This is a guest article written by Florence of florence-georgeon.com

Review and Summary of “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” by Stephen King

My Introduction

Stephen King is a best-selling author whose books are world-renowned. He has written 55 novels that have sold more than 350 million copies and have been adapted numerous times for film, television, comic books, and even theater.

If you are a fan of this iconic author, you will very much appreciate On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft as it gives you an in-depth look into his life and his greatest literary achievements.

However, On Writing is not just merely an autobiography. It is an analytical essay about writing and language, which is intended to help aspiring writers who wish to improve upon their skills.

Stephen King shares the lessons he has learned from his experiences, including his mistakes and failures, providing invaluable insight into the art of writing.

The master of horror teaches everything he knows about his craft and how to write good novels, and he does so with accessible, light, and enjoyable prose.

After reading On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, you will surely have a new perspective on the author, his works, and the writing profession in general.

Foreword 1

In 1992, Stephen King was the second guitarist in a rock band composed mainly of writers, the Rock Bottom Remainders.

Between concerts and rehearsals, they occasionally talked about their respective work. He was inspired to do a book about writing after having a discussion about language with Amy Tan, one of the band members.

The author didn’t want to write a pompous essay on the subject. He wanted to do what he does best: tell a story, his story. His goal is to explain with clarity and simplicity how he came to be in this business.

Foreword 2

According to Stephen King, most books about writing are “full of crap” because writers don’t always understand why what they write works or doesn’t. He assumes that his book will not be immune to this. Therefore, he commits to writing a short text to limit the nonsense that might be in it.

Foreword 3

This very brief passage can be summed up in one sentence: [The literary director is always right.]

This is a rather obscure dictum, which he will not refer to again in the rest of the book.


In this first part, Stephen King indulges in the difficult exercise of autobiography. He talks about his growing love for writing and meeting his wife, who would be an unfailing support throughout his career. He makes sure to mention his darkest years, his problems with alcohol and drugs.

Stephen King tells all in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, detailing his successes and his failures as well as the various experiences that allowed him to become the best-selling author whom everyone knows today.

Before beginning the summary of this chapter, you should know that the titles of the sub-sections that follow have been created to distinguish the different stages of the story. They do not exist in the original work except for the last sub-section entitled “What writing is?”

The Birth of a Passion

Abandoned by their father, young Stephen and his older brother David are raised by their mother, Nelly Ruth Pillsbury King, who worked a string of odd jobs to support her two boys.

He states that his childhood was bizarre and chaotic, marked by numerous moves and health problems that kept him bedridden for several months.

After a bout with measles, tonsil surgery, and an ear infection that led to one of the most traumatic experiences of his life with an ENT specialist who had to treat him by piercing his eardrums, he was pulled out of school for an entire year.

He was confined to his home and spent his time reading books and comics.

[I must have read a million comic books, from the adventures of Tom Swift and Dave Dawson (the heroic World War II pilot whose planes all had propellers that ‘clawed the air’ to gain altitude) to the blood-curdling animal stories of Jack London.]

These books sparked the young boy’s imagination and he quickly became interested in writing his own stories.

He began with what he called a “copycat hybrid” of a story called Combat Casey. He copied most of the textand added some descriptions of his own.

Encouraged by his mother, who was impressed by the quality of his writing, he finally created his own adventures.

His first original work was four pages long and told the story of four magical animals riding in an old car and helping little children.

He did not stop there and continued to write non-stop.

As a young teenager, he sent short stories to magazines hoping to be published. After many rejections, one of his stories was finally accepted in a horror magazine edited by Mike Garrett, who gave it the title “In A Half-World of Terror.”

King should have considered this event a success. Yet he devotes only a few lines to it. He is much prouder of a short story he wrote after that one, which he considers his first truly original story idea, even though it was rejected by the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

Why is it so special? For once, he got it entirely from his own imagination without relying on references to the works he loved to read. The idea came to him when he saw his mother covering notebooks with Green Stamps H&S to give a lamp to his Aunt Molly.

He invented a story called “Happy Stamps” where the hero wanted to buy his mother a house by forging enough Happy Stamps.

He would nail the rejection letter from Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine to a wall in his room. This was the first of many before he had his first major success.

However, the author never let himself become discouraged and his failures have always been a source of learning that have allowed him to build the career he has today.

Write with the Door Closed, Rewrite with the Door Open

Write with the Door Closed, Rewrite with the Door Open

As a teenager, Stephen King learned a valuable lesson by working as a sportswriter for The Lisbon, his town’s weekly newspaper.

Despite his talent for writing, the young man was never attracted to the journalistic profession. He got the job after editing a parody newspaper in his high school filled with made-up gossip about his teachers, whose real identities he hid behind the nicknames the students gave them.

Although his classmates received his work with enthusiasm, the prank got him into serious trouble and a few hours of detention.

His work did not go unnoticed by the guidance council either, which summoned him to direct his “turbulent pen” towards a more constructive path. That’s how he landed his job at Lisbon, whose editor was John Gould.

He received advice that he would never forget: “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”

In other words, you must first write a story by telling it to yourself without worrying about details and sentence structure. Once this first step is complete, you can re-read your text to remove anything that doesn’t fit, anything that shouldn’t be there. When everything is in place, you can open the door, and your story belongs to anyone who wants to read or critique it.

His First Major Success

Stephen King went to college where he met his wife, Tabitha Spruce.

He met her in 1969 and fell in love with her during a poetry workshop.

She agreed with him that a beautiful text can be supported by an idea without needing to be a collection of beautiful sentences without any meaning, captured on the fly in a sudden outpouring of the mind.

They understood each other and shared the same values in areas that were essential to both of them, namely language and writing.

Tabitha supported him wholeheartedly, and he confides that the strength of their marriage is probably what has enabled him to have such a stable and prolific career.

[Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a world of difference. That someone doesn’t have to make speeches, just believing is usually enough.]

King does indeed owe her a lot, because without her, Carrie might never have seen the light of day.

Stephen King never liked the character of Carrie White. She seemed to him like a deadbeat. He had no sympathy for her and could not be moved by the harassment she went through.

He also found it very difficult to write a story with a majority of women in it, and he felt that the story would only work if it was long, and his goal was to publish it in a short magazine format.

Considering the project a waste of time, he decided to throw his manuscript in the trash.

Fortunately, Tabitha retrieved the pages and immediately realized that the story had potential. She asked her husband to write the ending, and she also offered to help him with anything related to the girls’ high school habits.

[… I realized that stopping writing just because it’s hard, emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to keep going even when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you do a good job while you feel like you’re sitting there stupidly shoveling shit with your ass in a chair.]

His wife’s intuition would prove to be right, as On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft would be the work that would get his career off the ground.5

The Dark Years

Like the protagonist of The Shining, Stephen King fell into alcoholism. He was in denial about the problem, preferring to tell himself that he simply had a strong affinity for alcohol. When the state of Maine enforces a law requiring him to collect bottles and cans, he realizes when he sees the empty bottles that he has a real problem with drinking.

[‘Holy crap, I’m an alcoholic,’ I thought to myself. There was no alternative answer in my head, after all, I was the one who had written Shining, right? Who had written it without realizing, at least until that night, that it was me the book was about.]

In addition to alcohol, the author also used drugs. He was terrified of not being able to live and work without them, so he couldn’t get off them. His problem was such that he didn’t even remember writing Cujo.

Once again, Tabitha was there to help him and give him the jolt he needed.

[She told me I had a choice: I could either get treatment in a specialized center or get the hell out of the house. She also said that she and the kids loved me and that was precisely why they had no desire to witness my suicide.]

He made the necessary efforts to get sober without ever stopping writing. Little by little, he found a regular rhythm of work, and then again the joy of exercising his profession.

What Writing Is?

This question is the only real title that Stephen King gives to this part, which is plainly titled “CV.”

The answer can be summed up in one word: telepathy.

For King, writing is a form of magic where the writer transmits messages to his audience through time and space.

He demonstrates this in a simple way by asking the reader to imagine a red carpeted table with a cage the size of an aquarium on top. In this cage, there is a white rabbit with a pink nose and eyes also lined with pink. He is nibbling on a piece of carrot that he is holding between his paws and the number 8 is written on his back in blue ink.

If you play the game and do the required work of imagination, you will notice that transmission of thought takes place between the author who wrote these lines in 1997 and you who have just deciphered them. You visualize everything he tells you to visualize without any of these elements existing elsewhere than in his mind and in yours.

[Not for a moment have I opened my mouth and not for a moment have you opened yours. We are not even together in the same year, let alone in the same room… Except that we are together and close.]

Writing is a powerful art that anyone who wants to practice it must take seriously.

[If you can take writing seriously, we can do business. If you’re not able to, or if you don’t want to, it’s time for you to close this book and do something else.]

This first part is truly inspirational for writers who come for writing advice. Stephen King was a passionate writer from an early age who never let adversity, rejection, or criticism get him down. He never stopped writing and his perseverance eventually paid off.

However, he doesn’t claim that anyone can become like him. He just wants to teach writers who are serious about writing to become better versions of themselves and to be able to make magic – to take their readers on an emotional and sensory journey.

To do so, they will need a number of tools, which the author provides in the next chapter.


Stephen King’s grandfather and uncle were both carpenters. Fazza, his grandfather, had handcrafted a toolbox that weighed about thirty-five kilos.

toolbox for writing

It contained all kinds of tools for tinkering.

The author makes an analogy between this carpenter’s toolbox and the toolbox that the writer must always carry with him/her to do a good job and overcome any difficulty.

It has at least four levels, and like Fazza’s, the most common tools are placed in the top compartments.

He regularly refers to William Strunk’s The Elements of Style, from which he probably drew inspiration for this list.


It begins with vocabulary being placed in the top compartment.

Some authors have a broad and complex vocabulary while others have a narrower and simpler one. However, the important thing is not the quality or quantity of vocabulary possessed, but the way it is used.

Writing is the art of applying the most appropriate word to a certain situation. The best way to do this is to be simple and direct. Stephen King recommends that you don’t try to use complicated words that don’t fit with what you are describing. He recommends using the first word that comes to mind because it will always be the most appropriate and expressive.

[If you hesitate and start cogitating, you’ll eventually come up with another word – there’s always one – but it probably won’t be as good as the first and won’t convey what you really meant.]

Still, if you’re worried that you don’t have enough vocabulary, the author explains that it’s a tool that is acquired naturally, through reading.


Writing cannot do without grammar because it is the very foundation of language. Stephen King considers it to be the second most important element to be placed on the toolbox’s top shelf. Without it, sentences are awkward, and the point is confused.

[Grammar isn’t just a pain-in-the-ass thing; it’s the stick you lean on to get your thoughts on their feet and walking forward.]

If your grammar is rusty, it can be resharpened with a quality grammar book.

The Passive Voice

Also on the top shelf of the toolbox, Stephen King refers to the passive voice as enemy number one. For insecure writers, the passive voice is a safety net that gives them a false sense of authority, but you have to learn to do without it.

It weighs down the sentence, making it complicated to decipher when the goal is to make things easier for the reader.

[The reader must be your primary concern; without your Constant Reader, you are just a voice quacking in the void.]


[The adverb is not a friend] is the last piece of advice the author places on the top shelf of the toolbox.

Adverbs are used to modify an adjective, verb, or other adverbs. They are usually words that end in -ly.

As with the passive voice, the adverb is a safeguard for timid writers.  [When using the passive voice, the writer is usually betraying a fear of not being taken seriously… With the adverb, the writer betrays the fact that he or she fears not having expressed himself or herself clearly…]

Stephen King advises you to avoid using them when they are not needed. Context is supposed to give the reader enough insight to understand the situation.

For example: [‘He closed the door firmly.’ Shouldn’t we already know how the character is going to close the door? If the preceding text is any indication, isn’t ‘firmly’ too much? Isn’t it redundant?]

He urges writers to ask themselves questions and to be careful about using adverbs excessively, especially in dialogue.

Adverbs tend to encumber the sentence, making it weaker or more ridiculous than it is.


With style, Stephen King addresses the second compartment of the toolbox.

Style is primarily a matter of paragraph layout. When you open a book, the paragraphs tell you about the author’s intentions. Short paragraphs suggest that the text will be easy and light reading. On the contrary, long paragraphs indicate a book that will be difficult, filled with ideas, descriptions, and dense narrative passages.

Paragraphs give readers a sense of rhythm, and like a musician, the author must learn to play it. All it takes is a lot of reading and a lot of writing because it’s something that should come naturally, without needing to think about it.


To finish with the toolbox, the author talks about the thickness of the book, which tells the reader about the commitment the writer made to create the story.

Stephen King does not say that one should write a lot or, on the contrary, that one should be concise because length does not guarantee the quality of a book. He reuses the metaphor of the carpenter to explain that you have to start building your novel paragraph by paragraph using your tools, your vocabulary, your grammar, and your stylistic know-how.

[Good texts are those for which you made the right choice when it came to defining the tools you planned to work with.]


The Different Types of Writers

In the section called “Toolbox,” Stephen King addresses serious writers. In this next section, he addresses serious but competent writers.

He lists the different types of writers in the form of a pyramid. The bad writers are at the bottom. Above them are the competent writers. At the next level we find the really good writers who actually have talent, and at the very top are [geniuses, intellectual freaks of nature, endowed with gifts beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain.]

The Different Types of Writers

Through this book, the author wants to make sure that competent writers become really good writers.

Anyone who is not willing to make the effort and sacrifice to improve is encouraged to stop reading here.

The Importance of Reading and Writing

Stephen King says, [If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.] In other words, you’ll get better by watching what others do and by practicing.

Reading will push you to work harder by unconsciously learning a number of mechanisms, both in terms of storytelling and language.  Writing, on the other hand, will enable you to put your observations into practice, develop your style, and gain clarity and simplicity.

This is work to be taken seriously. You need to read and write a little every day to make real progress.

Write with the Door Closed

would seem that the advice here should be taken literally. Indeed, Stephen King recommends writing in a place with a door you can close. The door serves to cut you off from the outside world so that you can focus on your task.

Ban anything that might be a distraction from that room and set a daily goal, forbidding yourself to open the door until it is achieved.

Tell the Truth

For Stephen King, this is the writer’s greatest mission. To bring the reader into the story, you have to be honest and talk about what you know.

It’s not about lecturing on a specific subject, but about writing what you know about life and people, from your heart and your imagination.

[What you yourself know is what makes you unique in your own way.]

A good writer must talk about what he or she has seen, his or her feelings, and emotions in an open-minded way and always get to the point.

The Plot

The author explains that the three components of a story are:

  • the narration that moves the story forward
  • the description that immerses the reader in the sensory reality of the novel
  • the dialogue that gives voice to the characters

The situation comes first, then the narration. Finally, it’s the characters who end up doing things their own way.

Plot is not on the list, as he believes it detracts from the spontaneity of the story. You have to let the story tell itself, leave room for the unexpected, and make the plot emerge naturally during the writing process.

In fact, Stephen King compares the writer to a paleontologist who discovers a fossil and must extract it from the ground little by little with his tools. He has no idea what he will find once his work is completed.

[I sometimes have my own idea of how everything will end, but I have never required that a set of characters adhere to my guidelines; instead, I want them to do things their own way.]


Description draws the reader in as a sensory participant in the story. In order for the reader to successfully picture your world, you need to have a clear idea of what they need to have in mind.

However, you don’t want to drown them in a flood of superfluous details. Whether you’re describing a place or a character, you should only give the most relevant details. Your reader’s imagination will do the rest.

To perfect your skills in this area, Stephen King once again advises applying the number one dictum of all writers, which is to read a lot and write a lot.


The way your characters behave and speak tells the reader about their personality. They need to have their own voice, their own way of speaking, to make the dialogue sound natural and to make it easier to tell them apart.

The words and phrases you use will depend on their personality. You should not hesitate to use vulgar words if you think they reflect the character’s nature and state of mind.

[If you say “Oh, boy!” instead of “Oh, shit!” for fear of being criticized by right-thinking people, you are breaking the unspoken contract between the writer and his or her readers: you promised to tell the truth about the way people behave and talk through a made-up story.]


For Stephen King, the author’s intentions are of little importance. It is the characters that come to life and influence the story.

It is the characters who will eventually tell you the story by encountering difficulties, making decisions, and taking initiatives that will pull the adventure in a certain direction.

Just as with the plot, the personality of the characters comes naturally. Nothing is premeditated, everything is revealed as it happens, like a paleontologist uncovering a fossil.

Theme and Symbolism

For Stephen King, the first thing to focus on is the story. The theme will appear spontaneously during the rereading. There is no need to make a conscious effort for it.

The same goes for symbolism. Your story may be full of symbols and references that you didn’t see right away, but that will become clear when you reread.

He uses the example of The Green Line, saying that he didn’t notice that John Coffey had the same initials as Jesus Christ until he reread his text. In Carrie, he had not noticed that blood was omnipresent in the key moments of the book.

Symbolism helps to create a unified work that is enjoyable to read, while theme helps to focus one’s ideas and answer the question: what message do you want to get across?

Proofreading and Rewriting

After completing the first draft, Stephen King advises staying away from the text for at least six weeks. This time allows you to step back from the story and dive back in with fresh eyes.

Rewriting is necessary to remove anything that is wrong with the text, to identify weaknesses, to correct inconsistencies, and to get rid of unnecessary material. In order to do this properly, the author explains that the story must be cut by 10%. In other words, if a text contains 350,000 words, you should do your best to reduce it to about 315,000. That way, you’ll keep only the absolute essential.

The Ideal Reader

The author explains that you should always write for a specific person you trust. You should pay attention to their opinion and imagine what they would think of what you are writing.

By thinking about what they might like or dislike, you will have a concrete idea of how the events should flow.


You should write about what you know, but if you are not familiar with the subject you are writing about, you need to do some research.

Research is critical to making your story compelling and plausible.

Writing Workshops

Stephen King is skeptical about the value of writing seminars or courses. He doesn’t think they’re particularly beneficial since critics force you to write with the door open all the time and you’re constantly pressed to explain yourself.

However, he understands why writers may find them helpful.

[Writing classes and seminars have at least one undeniable advantage: they take seriously the desire to write fiction or poetry.]

Agents and Publishers

The publishing world in the United States is different from the French system. In Uncle Sam’s country, getting published is virtually impossible without going through a literary agent. Stephen King, therefore, directs his recommendations by taking into account this particular market.

That said, this chapter contains relevant advice that can be applied to France as well.

For example, he recommends finding out about publishing houses that publish the same kind of books you are writing. You should also carefully write the cover letter and synopsis that you will send with your manuscript. You need to convince them to like your story before they’ve even read it.

Write for the Right Reasons

This is Stephen King’s final piece of advice: write for the fun and excitement of it. Never write for money, success, or fame.

You will never be fulfilled if you write for the wrong reasons.

On Living: A Postscript

Stephen King details an accident he had in June 1999. On his daily walk, he was hit by a light blue Dodge van. He miraculously escaped the worst of it, but the injuries were significant. His leg was broken in nine places, his knee was cracked, the acetabulum of his right hip was fractured, he had a femoral intertrochanteric fracture, four ribs were broken, and his spine was chipped in eight different places.

Stephen King underwent multiple operations and spent three whole weeks in the hospital where he recovered as best he could.

Getting back to writing after such a trauma and taking the time to write as before was not easy. Fortunately, Tabitha was there to support him, without pressure and with kindness.

He then resumed the manuscript on writing that he had put aside in 1997, determined to finish it. In the past, writing had allowed him to overcome difficulties, and it would be the case again this time around. If it had saved his life, it could also be of great benefit to others.

[Writing has nothing to do with making money, becoming famous, picking up girls, or making friends. Ultimately, writing is about enriching the lives of those who read your work as well as your own.]

On Living: A Postscript

And Furthermore, Part 1: Door Shut, Door Open

Here, the author puts into practice the advice he gave earlier by presenting a raw text that he will then rework and edit to make the story more vivid.

And Furthermore, Part 1: Door Shut, Door Open

Stephen King says it several times throughout the book: an author must read a lot and write a lot. He gives a list of books, explaining that each of them has an influence on what he writes and that by reading them, writers could benefit from a new way of doing their job.

Conclusion on “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”

I’ve read a lot of Stephen King’s books. While I’m not an avid fan of the author, I do enjoy his writing and recognize that he has an undeniable talent for telling stories and transporting his readers into crazy, goosebump-inducing worlds.

I have always loved writing. So, I bought this book thinking that a writer of his stature would certainly have some interesting things to say about the craft, and I was not disappointed.

I really like the way he talks about his work, with great perspective and humility. And, I was also surprised to learn about his background. I had never been interested in his life, but ‘On Writing‘ provided me with more insight into his work and references. As I read, I began to perceive Carrie, Shining, or Misery in a whole new way.

This is also a book about language, and the advice the author gives is relevant. I especially like when he explains that the writer’s job is to tell the truth. How can you be authentic when you’re talking about fiction? It’s just a matter of writing what you know, what you’ve seen, and what you feel.

It takes honesty and a certain kind of vulnerability to put down on paper everything that is in your heart and in your imagination. It is this fragility and sensitivity of the writer that I found particularly touching and well transcribed in this book.

Each book helps us grow, rescues us in some sense, and enables us to learn something about ourselves. By doing this work seriously and for the right reasons, writing can become a source of strength not only for the writer but also for the reader. ‘Ultimately, writing is about enriching the lives of those who will read your work and enriching your own life.’

Strong points:    

  • An accessible and easy-to-read book.
  • The author is careful to make his point as clear and simple as possible with numerous examples and comparisons.
  • It is an inspiring text that makes you want to go and write.

Weak points:

  • Personally, I didn’t find any, but some readers might find his mix of slice-of-life and technical advice disconcerting.

My rating :

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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The handy guide to Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

What are the three elements of a story according to the author?

  • the narration that moves the story forward
  • the description that immerses the reader in the sensory reality of the novel
  • the dialogue that gives voice to the characters

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) concerning On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

1. How has the public received Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft?

This book, published by Le Livre de Poche (France) on December 1, 2003, has been an incredible success. It is highly placed on Amazon’s bestseller list and has an average rating of more than 4.5 stars in reviews.

2. What has been the impact of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft?

In this book, Stephen King recalls the events that led him to become a writer, but he also gives us an analysis of language and the mechanisms of writing.

3. For whom is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft intended?

This book is for all those who are passionate about writing.

4. What does writing mean to the author?

For Stephen King, writing is a form of magic where the writer transmits messages to his audience through time and space.

5. What are the different types of writers?

  • Geniuses/great writers
  • Really good writers
  • Competent writers
  • Bad writers

Who is Stephen King?

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Born in 1947 in Portland (Maine), Stephen King had his first success in 1974 with Carrie. In forty years, he has written more than fifty novels and as many short stories, some under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman. He has received numerous literary awards, including the prestigious Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his entire career in 2007. His work has been widely adapted for film and television.

He is the recipient of the 2003 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He lives in Bangor, Maine, with his wife, novelist Tabitha King.

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