Book Review: On Writing
By George T. Parker
I had a problem a few years ago.
I came home from town with a book on writing. Another book on writing.
Patsy said, “Do you think it would help if you spent more time writing instead of reading about writing all the time?”
She had a point.
I cut down on the amount of writing book purchases I made and sat down to write. It helped. I’ve been writing a lot more ever since.
However, there is substantial value in reading books about writing. Writing is a craft in which natural talent can only take most of us so far. Stephen King, in his book On Writing, said:
“…while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”
We read books on writing to improve our craft. We look for good advice from more experienced people with the goal of improving our own writing. I believe that I can write better now because of many things I learned from those writing books through the years.
I would like to pass on to you some of the best writing books that I discovered along my writing life. Some books are far better than others as far as passing on the craft. Maybe I can point somebody in a good direction to make the most of their limited reading time and book budget.
And with that, I would like to start off with the book I’ve already quoted, Stephen King’s On Writing.
On Writing is a fascinating book because even though it is filled with nuts and bolts information on writing, it is also probably the closest thing we will ever have to a memoir by Stephen King. King opens On Writing by complimenting Mary Karr’s fantastic memory of her childhood in Liar’s Club, and then contrasts her detailed memories with his much more vague and spotty recollections. The first section of the book then becomes King’s short 90-page memoir of his early years, through the writing of Misery. Along the way, King shares what influenced him to write and about his early writing days. We learn about his grade-school days ‘underground’ self-published newsletter, complete with mimeographing process and marketing to his friends. We see his high school and college days. We see King in his first teaching job, writing Carrie crammed into the ‘laundry closet’ with a typewriter balanced carefully on his knees because that’s the only space he had available to write. We get to see a master learning the rudimentary tools of his trade.
Then King moves on to the second section of the book, The Toolbox. King builds the metaphor on his grandpa’s carpenter toolbox. Grandpa’s toolbox was not a Craftsman off-the-shelf model. Grandpa built it himself. Grandpa had a tool for every job. Every tool had its unique place in the toolbox. Grandpa’s toolbox was also heavy. A person could build muscle just by carrying it. King suggests “that to write to the best of your abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build enough muscle to carry it with you. Then instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.”
King says that his grandpa’s toolbox “had three levels,” but he thinks “yours should have at least four.” He says that “common tools go on top,” such as vocabulary and grammar. Under the top layer, go “elements of style,” and we learn the value King sees in Strunk and White’s marvelous little book. King goes on to outline what he thinks a writer should have in each layer of your toolbox.
The last part of the book is a lengthy postscript. King had started the rough draft of On Writing when he was hit by a van while he was walking down a country road one day. The postscript talks about the accident and the aftermath, and about how picking the pen up for On Writing again helped his recovery.
On Writing is a valuable writing book by one of our time’s premier authors. Whether you like his books or not, King has millions of published words to his credit, which gives him a unique perspective on what makes writing and story work. This one is definitely worth a look.
What books on writing have helped you learn your craft? We would love to hear from you. You could share some short answers on our Facebook page, or you could write a review of your favorite writing books to share on the blog. Send your reviews to firstname.lastname@example.org .
I look forward to hearing from you all!
George is a fish farmer by day, and a word wrangler by night (and weekends). He has been working on a memoir of his life in the California Conservation Corps and Backcountry trail crews since…well…for a long time. It is now 50,000 words closer to completion and the end is in sight. You can see some of this project at http://grinningdwarf.com/ . He is crazy enough to try and simultaneously write a blog on the CCC at https://ccchardcorps.wordpress.com/ . George has been the Writers Forum newsletter editor since 2015.