On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King accomplishes what few books on writing have done before - it levels the playing field, so to speak, so that all would-be authors understand the rules of the game and their own potential in the field. Even as King simplifies writing so that it seems something just about anyone could do, he never gives the impression that writing creatively or even journalistically is an easy task and is careful to warn that good writing requires a certain amount of talent and the ability/willingness to read well. In fact, giving examples from his own career and featuring tidbits from the published works of others, King shows that even so-called experts may flub their task a bit if they forget certain rules and grow lazy in their writing.
Central to King's task here is his own experience as an evolving author. Sharing his past, telling of his earliest days in writing - from the days he copied verbatim the words of his favorite comics to those days when he self-published a satirical newspaper lampooning his high school administration to these days when he is a celebrated popular author - King engages his audience and proves that some people have a calling to write. Early in On Writing, King says, "The equipment comes with the original package." While this statement seems to challenge the notion that writing is a learned or teachable skill, King further asserts that a "large number of people have some talent as writers and storytellers, and that those talents can be strengthened and sharpened." Indeed, it seems that King knows his stuff as he gives both creative and practical advice to his readers who would be writers. His advice comes in the form of what he might call the "writer's toolbox."
Always the storyteller, King models his toolbox, the very one he would have his readers build, after his grandfather's toolbox. A carpenter, Fazza had a grand hand-constructed toolbox comprised of three levels. Using this as the prototype, King suggests, "yours should have at least four." Keeping the tools of writing simple, King fills the toolbox logically, placing the most commonly used tools at the top in clear order. King contends that the tools, and nuts, and bolts of writing are vocabulary, grammar, style and – finally - thematic thinking.
What the reader gets from King that she gets from few other authors is an honest sense of growth. As King describes the toolbox level by level, he also explains how to use the tools within the box. His wit and charm shine through in such passages, and the reader finds herself smiling rather than grimacing as she might while reading a traditional textbook on writing. For instance, choosing the works of noted authors such as H.P. Lovecraft and Tom Wolfe, King exploits the power of vocabulary. His example from Lovecraft sends his reader searching for a dictionary, while luckily the example from Wolfe needs no further explanation as no translation would be available. King's point is well made - language and presentation go hand-in-hand and the writer must present himself in a way that is readable and embraceable by an audience.
Although King is not yet taught on campuses nationwide, On Writing may be the world's most effective modern writing textbook as it engages the audience through poignant, expressive storytelling and introduces or reiterates notions of writing that must be in every writer's toolbox. King, a fiction author himself, has constructed a career based on the tools he suggests to his readers, and the readership he has garnered speaks volumes for his expertise in his field.