Over the last week, I’ve devoured two books on writing: Stephen King’s ‘On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft’, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story’. Both are excellent, and I would highly recommend both books to anyone looking for inspiration and practical tips on how to become a better writer.
Reading them back to back was interesting. Because the books King and Le Guin write are so different, I thought these two authors might have radically different approaches to writing. Instead, it turns out they actually have a lot in common. Both are big proponents of cutting and editing your material mercilessly. Neither is a big fan of “plot”, preferring to talk about the importance of “story”. Both stress that writing is a craft: King often refers to it as “the work” – not in a derogatory way, but only to emphasize that it’s something you learn by doing, rather than being granted from somewhere mysteriously on-high. And both stress the importance of writing, writing, and more writing, as well as reading, reading, and more reading.
Both books contain excerpts and examples of good (and bad) writing, exercises to hone your writing skills (Le Guin’s book is laid out like a workbook of sorts, with exercises included in each chapter), and plenty of advice and tips for writers on editing, grammar, developing your own voice and style, and much more.
Le Guin is one of my all-time favourite authors, and reading her thoughts on the importance of listening to how your writing sounds, and how to use different points of view in a story was inspiring. I’m not as big a fan of King’s (though I love several of his books), but ‘On Writing’ gave me a deeper appreciation for him as a writer: his no nonsense approach to the struggles in his own life, his thoughts on “the work”, and what it takes to make it as a writer are insightful and often hilarious.
Finally, some of my favourite bits from both books:
From On Writing:
“…stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”
“We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style … but as we move along, you’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic.”
“The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary.”
From ‘Steering The Craft’:
“An awareness of what your own writing sounds like is an essential skill for a writer. — Narrative writers need to train their mind’s ear to listen to their own prose, to hear as they write.”
“Plot is a marvelous device. But it’s not superior to story, and not even necessary to it.”
“We don’t have to have the rigid structure of a plot to tell a story, but we do need a focus. What is it about? Who is it about?”
Get the books at Amazon:
- On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft, by Stephen King
- Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, by Ursula K. Le Guin
- You might also want to pick up The Elements of Style, by Strunk & White