What Stephen King Can Teach Us about Teaching Composition

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316702_Daniel Lambert.jpgToday's guest blogger is Daniel Lambert‌, an educator, writer, editor, proofreader, and photographer. He teaches English courses at California State University, Los Angeles and East Los Angeles College as well as an online Literature course for Colorado Technical University. He was nominated for the Distinguished Faculty of the Year Award in 2017 from CTU and is the recipient of The Shakespeare Award for poetry from the City of Torrance, California."

“Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.”

This quotation is from Stephen King’s 1999 book, On Writing:  A Memoir of the Craft. I recommend On Writing to my composition students, despite the fact that it is written by a fiction writer. Throughout their educational and professional careers, my students will be called upon to write essays, memoranda, and reports: all examples of nonfiction writing. So, what can students learn from a fiction writer? What can writers like King teach us about writing nonfiction?


The answer is simple: “plenty.” Concepts such as process, structure, tone, style, and description are as important (if not more important) to fiction writers as they are to nonfiction writers. King covers these concepts (and more) in On Writing. Even better, he uses examples from his vast library of published novels. These novels are widely-available sources that students can use as examples when reading King’s book.


Have I ever assigned On Writing in a composition class? The answer is “not yet.” However, I often refer to King’s book in my lectures. In fact, King’s quotation from the beginning of this post appears at the beginning of my freshman composition syllabus. I routinely ask students on the first day of class to interpret this quote. Their answers vary, but they always lead us to a discussion of the importance of writing. New college students need to reflect on the everyday presence of writing as a communications tool: they already use writing to communicate on a daily basis before they set foot in my class.


King likens a writer’s skills – essentials like grammar and style – to the contents of a toolbox. By way of an analogy, he recalls as a boy accompanying his uncle to fix a broken screen. King’s uncle brought a giant of a toolbox with him to do the job. King asked why his uncle would lug such a heavy toolbox to complete a simple screen-mending: “It’s best to have your tools with you,” King’s uncle replied. “If you don’t, you’re apt to find something you didn’t expect and get discouraged.” This is a useful analogy for composition instructors to ponder: one of our tasks as instructors is to provide our students with the tools they require to write college-level essays. 


On Writing is a breath of fresh air in a sea of writing manuals that students often struggle with. This book proves what King’s readers have known for years: the man is about much more than horror fiction. On Writing not only helped me hone my craft, but caused me to reflect upon the writing tools I share with my students.


Do you have any writers that have inspired you as you teach? Or any go-to writers or advice on writing you share with students?