How to write*

*May not be an actual guide to writing.

Ok, so that title is a bit misleading. This isn’t exactly a post about how to write. That would be a bit ambitious for a single blog post. This post is reviewing two writing how-to books; “On Writing” by Stephen King and “How Not To Write” by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark.

I should start by saying I don’t buy into any books, blogs, e-books etc that say they can make you a best-selling writer in just a few easy steps. There’s no secret formula and what works for one person may not work for others. My own six-part guide to writing a book is just about what I do, shared with all of you in case it helps anyone else.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t read any various books on the subject, as I’m sure you have too. When you start writing your own stuff, it doesn’t take long for doubt to set in and for you to search for a writing magic bullet. And whilst that doesn’t exist, it doesn’t mean you can’t find writing advice worth trying as you make your way along your own writing path.

On Writing by Stephen King

Let me start with a confession – I’ve seen many Stephen King TV and film adaptations but I haven’t read a lot of his full-length books. I’ve read a number of his short stories and works like “Carrie” and “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” and personally, I think this is where he shines. When I tried his longer works, they felt too bloated.

So why did I get his guide to writing? Well, I hadn’t been writing seriously long and I was looking for my own magic bullet. This had just come out and had great reviews so I went for it and I’m glad I did. It’s actually a mash-up of an autobiography and a writing guide, aptly subtitled “A Memoir of the Craft”.

King recounts his childhood as well as his later battles with addiction and near-fatal accident in 1999. He weaves his advice about creating a writing ‘toolbox’ into his narrative. The language is very much King, conversational and simple, but intelligent, acutely observed and often humorous. On describing the man who crashed into him:

He and Bullet left the campground where they were staying, he later tells an investigator, because he wanted “some of those Marzes-bars they have up to the store”.

When I hear this little detail some weeks later, it occurs to me I have nearly been killed by a character right out of one of my own novels

He throws in a couple of short stories too, as well as a look at how he edits his own work.

I’ve read it more than once simply because it’s so well-written and entertaining. I’ve also taken on board bits and pieces of his toolbox advice as well. Whether you like King’s work or not, I still recommend this book.

How not to write a novel by Sandra Newman & Howard Mittelmark

How to stand out in the world of how-tos? Write a how-not-to. You can probably tell from the cover that this is going to be an eye-brow raising and amusing rear I think the message of the design is “don’t start your book by shooting a kitten”. At least I hope it is.

This book is a good easy read. It’s something you can pick up and browse through whenever you need to. As it says on the tin, it breakdowns all the big no-nos when writing. And as a bonus, it includes funny (if exaggerated) examples of each tit-bit of advice.

I got this book after I’d been writing more seriously for a while and thought I was beyond the novice stage. But I had made a few of these errors myself. This book helped me identify them and hopefully, has improved my work greatly. Of course, nothing is set in stone and there’s nothing wrong with occasionally breaking the rules. Even top writers will do it if they find it serves their story and characters better. But a lot of what’s in here is still valuable and will at least make you think more critically about your own work.

So my fellow writers, what about you? Do you have a well-worn guide you always come back to?

Related reads

Writing a Book part 1 – Research

Is “The Elements of Style” The Only Book About Writing you Need?

9 Tools Every Writer Needs


Want to know what I write? Find out more about my books


21 thoughts on “How to write*

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    1. In my own work I’ve found ‘What Colour Am I?’ – a character passes a mirror and pauses to describe themselves in great detail. In the real world people notice mussed up hair or a wrongly buttoned shirt, not their eye colour! There’s more too but I don’t want to give away too much of the book!


    1. I think the most interesting thing was about editing. King is ruthless in cutting words and concentrating on active over passive. I think that’s why his short pieces work so well. I’m a natural editor, but it’s definitely a lesson for all writers! Thanks for your comment.


  1. I’m a big fan of King’s book and have read it a couple of times, and ‘dipped into it’ several times more. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is one that I’ve gone back to more than once. She’s very funny, and her advice is sound. Her chapter on the Shitty First Draft is worth the price of the book. “One of Lamott’s writing tools is always at my desk—the one-inch picture frame. Lamott says, ‘It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.'”


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