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Book Review: On Writing

This is a guest post from Tatiana Lensky.  I think most books about writing are a waste of time that could be better spent, well…writing.  If you are a writer or a wannabe, Stephen King’s book On Writing is a wonderful exception.  Josh

By Tatiana Lensky

Emotional truthfulness that transcends time and trends:

Stephen King On Writing–


“This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with BS.  Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do – not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less the BS.

One notable exception to the BS rule is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr and E. B. White. there is little or no detectable BS in that book (of course it’s short; at eighty-five pages its much shorter than this one. )

I’ll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style. Rule 17 in the chapter titled Principles of composition is “Omit needless words”. I will try to do that here.”

The above excerpt is the second forward (three in total) of this most excellent book.  I wanted to tell you straight away that I loved it. And is now a staple of my bag contents.  Oh, it’s not that short.  351 pages of King-isms.

A short story by Garrett Addams, whom King chose because of his raw, “punky” style provides the denouement.  I don’t share his excitement about this writer. But hey, that’s just me.

Back to the main body of the book:

A Writer’s Life

Book in hand, eyes on the pages, full-body immersion is immediate and as comforting as soaking in a hot tub.  An adventure in life. An adventure of a writer’s life.

“I lived an odd, herky-jerky childhood, raised by a single parent who moved around a lot in my earliest years and who – I am not completely sure of this – may have farmed my brother and me out to one of her sisters for awhile because she was economically or emotionally unable to cope with us for a time”

The first part, C.V., throws open the doors and windows and sheds light on his social and cultural reality.  A prologue, similar in its function to Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.  A love story without the pathos.  Stephen King is a humble guy who loves what he does. Simple.


“Toolbox”, the second part of the book, is pretty self-explanatory.  Using the analogy of a carpenter’s toolbox, credited to a lesson he learned from his Uncle Oren, he tells us what writing tools are required– i.e. the practical stuff we need inside our brains at all times.  Convenient, since we carry it around anyway.  The box just has to be filled with the right tools.

“It’s best to have your tools with you. If you don’t, you’re apt to find something you didn’t expect and get discouraged”.

The writers tools are vocabulary, grammar and style, which, we all hope, will morph into something magical.

“Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe. Imagine,  if you like, Frankenstein’s monster on its slab. Here comes the lightning, not from the sky but from a humble paragraph of English words”

Stephen King doesn’t tread the path of snark nor soapbox preachiness. He understands the difficulties we all face as writers, actively seeking or patiently waiting for that bolt of lightening.

Read And Write A Lot

The last part of the book is “On Writing”.   If I had to sum up the entire book in a neat little package, it’d be this:  “read a lot and write a lot.”

I connected with his story. This is the first book I have read “on writing”.  As a writer, I try to avoid all the how tos, do this, don’t do that.  Which ensued more from instinct than anything else.  And I think its the pitfall of many a budding writer to spend too much time on how instead of do.

Mr. King’s advice: just do it.  Just write. And read. Which he considers equally important. He doesn’t lead us to believe its the golden ticket to success. During the course of the book, he points that out with sotto voce reasoning.  His advice, his thoughts are never lackluster or banal. Instead,  succinct and altruistic, pithy and cogent.

King’s philosophy is to believe in the capacity of your own certitude.  And if you are really lucky, you have a partner who lifts you up when you are down.

With this book, we are blessed with the obvious.  We write because we love to write.  It’s a creative process, the logical conclusion: we are artists. As an artist, one suffers all kinds of malaise.  Life is hard.  And Stephen King’s story is well worth the quiet steady inspiration it provides.

It’s simply for the love of words and putting them in an order that makes you, the writer,  happy. That is the foundation needed to eventually make your readers happy.

About The Author: Tatiana Lensky does most things backwards,  so she is back at school, going for her BA in English and American Literature. She is a single mom. Her son, Max, is 17 years old.  Her first book, “Challenge Venus or Advance Your Worth” , a contemporary novel, will be published next year.  She is currently working on her second book, an historical novel.  You can also follow her on Twitter.

Want to write a book review for WSL? Let me know.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Laura Cococcia December 19, 2009, 7:17 am

    Tatiana! Great review – and so timely. my creative coach keeps asking me – have you read King’s “On Writing” yet? He asked me that again on Tuesday. I haven’t, and I’m embarrassed to say so. I truly like the summary you’ve put forth – and I think your review is a sign that I need to get cracking on this one in the next few days. Great to see you on here!

  • Heather December 19, 2009, 9:40 am

    Tatiana and Josh,

    Thanks for the brilliant review! This is one I haven’t read yet, but must now get my hands on IMMEDIATELY (fingers credit card, opens Amazon in new tab). Tatiana, I look forward to reading your book. Josh, I love your blog. Stephen King is a total writing hottie, and so is his wife! Thanks, you two! Y’all are brilliant! 🙂

    • Tatiana Lensky December 20, 2009, 3:16 pm

      Heather – thanks so much. Lemme know what you think of the book : )

  • Andrew Frenette December 19, 2009, 9:42 am

    I count Stephen King’s “On Writing” as one of the best in this subject area, right next to William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well,” and of course the aforementioned “Elements of Style.” The first focuses on fiction, the second on non-fiction, the third on any writing; that being said, none of the books really fits into a pigeon-hole. Regardless, each book is filled with wisdom and straight-forward writing philosophies that aspiring and practicing writers will find valuable. Thank you, Tatiana, for introducing Mr. King’s work to more people.

    • Josh Hanagarne December 19, 2009, 9:44 am

      Have any of you guys read Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird or Ray Bradbury’s Zen And The Art of Writing? Those are my other two favorite books about writing.

      • Laura Cococcia December 19, 2009, 9:45 am

        I love Bird by Bird and I also love Writing Down The Bones (Natalie Goldberg). My two writing faves.

      • Andrew Frenette December 19, 2009, 10:18 am

        I like just about everything by Bradbury I’ve ever read, but I can’t say I’ve read that one (although I have heard of it). I’ve never heard of Anne Lamott’s book. Thanks for the recommendations, Josh, I’ll be checking out both of these in the near future. (P.S. I love your blog, please keep up the great work.)

      • Heather December 19, 2009, 3:35 pm

        Totally dig the Bradbury, but the other one is a new title to me. I’ll have to find it and give it a test-run. Thanks, Josh! Laura, ibid on Nat Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones!

      • Professor Beej December 20, 2009, 11:45 am

        No, I haven’t. I actually didn’t know Ray Bradbury had written a book on writing, but I’ll definitely have to check it out.

        “On Writing” is one of my favorite books. I read it on a whim after I dropped an English course in college that used it as a text. I had already bought the books before I realized my schedule was unsalvageable, so I dug into “On Writing” anyway.

        I was hooked immediately, and I have to say that it’s one of the prominent reasons I still aspire to write fiction. It was simply inspirational because it wasn’t full of BS and filler. It was just one man’s idea on what good writing is. And I appreciated that.

        Thanks for the review. It brought back good memories. And the realization that I need to reread “On Writing” again.

        • Tatiana Lensky December 20, 2009, 1:54 pm

          your welcome! Thanks for reading it. And you summed up perfectly why I loved it..well, love it still. No bs. No easy ride. For the love of the words…..

  • Andrew Frenette December 19, 2009, 10:30 am

    Oh, and I added Writing Down the Bones to my reading list, too. Thank you, Laura

  • Jim Lochner December 19, 2009, 11:57 am

    Thanks for the great review, Tatiana. It’s always nice to see someone praise this book. My first reading came upon its publication and I’ve re-read it a couple of times since (a rarity with me). Not only does King offer some wonderful advice, but it’s one of the few books on writing that actually inspires me to write. (Josh, I’d add Lamott’s Bird By Bird to that as well. Great book! I hadn’t heard of Bradbury’s book. I’ll definitely check it out.)

    I’ve written more words this year than probably all of my 46 previous years combined. And that counts school, work, emails, everything from before. I did it by doing what King taught me: by reading the words of others (a process I’ve always done) and by sitting down and just writing. It works.

  • Tatiana Lensky December 19, 2009, 2:41 pm

    Everyone – thanks so much! Josh, a big thanks to you for letting me do a guest blog. I really appreciate all your comments, for taking the time to read it and well, its just awesome!

    thank you….again.

  • Boris Bachmann December 20, 2009, 12:15 am

    On Writing is a great, great book. I haven’t read Ray Bradbury’s, but I will – thank you for the recommendation.

  • pjnoir December 20, 2009, 5:52 am

    I got an advance copy of King’s Under the Dome- comes in at a whopping 1074 pages- about 4 lbs of book. Nothing short with that one.

    • Josh Hanagarne December 20, 2009, 8:32 am

      I read it Under The Dome over the Thanksgiving holiday. You’ve got that right. What a monster.

      • Professor Beej December 20, 2009, 11:46 am

        I’m reading it right now, and I’m roughly halfway through it. I love it, but the overall length is daunting and puts me off from sitting down to read because if I have limited time, I feel as though I’m making no progress.

        • pjnoir December 26, 2009, 4:16 pm

          Im in a very lucky position to get copies of books from the newspaper i work for. We only review the final hard cover edition- not preview gallery editions and of course publishers send multi copies hoping for a review. I can’t imagine how anyone without a ‘name’ gets a review published as their are several hundred books sent a week to us. Anywauy- Dome lies in front of me, waiting but not until i finish a few more GM Ford books found on the ‘free table.’

  • Rocky | R O C K O N O V A.COM December 23, 2009, 10:54 pm

    This was the book that taught me that in order to be a better writer, i just gotta keep writing. Best advice ever !

  • Beth L. Gainer December 24, 2009, 11:14 pm

    Tatiana, this is an excellent review!! I LOVED this book. I don’t generally like books on how to write because they are usually all about BS as King states, but his book is spot on, right on the mark and terrifically wonderful.

    • Tatiana Lensky December 25, 2009, 2:14 am

      Beth, thanks sooo much. My thoughts exactly. I am following your blog and may I say: excellent job there. ; )