The adverb is not your friend. – Stephen King, On Writing
Much to my critique partners’ chagrin, I took this bit of advice to heart the first time I read On Writing. In fact, I took it to heart with a vengeance. My stance on adverbs has mellowed a bit since then – I think they’re fine in moderation, but should be avoided almost entirely in the first 10-20 pages of a book (at least for those of us who are non-agented/non-published at this point).
It’s been two years since my first reading of the book, so I decided now would be a good time to revisit it in light of my writing and editing experiences since then. My first observation was that nearly half the book is biographical rather than writing-based. The first 100 or so pages are stories from King’s childhood and early writing career. As a Stephen King fan, appreciate being able to identify specific episodes that led to short stories or novels he wrote later on. The last 35 pages contain the story of King’s near-fatal accident while writing On Writing, and the role of writing in his recovery and his return to regular life.
I didn’t find a great deal of specific writing advice in the book. In addition to a distaste for adverbs, I came away with a greater appreciation for the importance of making writing a habit and the value of learning the writing craft through constant repetition. A couple of things that shocked me were that King typically goes through only 2-3 drafts on his books, and that he never outlines. I have a feeling that the prior is something only King is capable of managing, and while many writers are pantsers, few are able to replicate King’s results.
One final thing that I found amusing was King’s instructions on how to find a literary agent. His advice was to get several short stories published before querying. King himself didn’t have an agent until after his books had produced over $1 million in sales, so it shouldn’t be surprising that his experience in looking for an agent doesn’t follow the norm. On Writing was published in the late 90s/early 2000s, before email all but eliminated the use of snail-mail submissions and self-addressed envelopes for responses, so that’s something that could be updated for future printings.
I found On Writing to still be worth reading, with down to earth advice from one of the most successful and prolific writers ever.