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Stephen King began composing On Writing in 1997. After completing the "C.V." and "Toolbox" sections, King set aside the manuscript in February or March 1998, explaining in the final section of On Writing that he was uncertain on how or whether he should proceed with the book. In June 1999, King reread the uncompleted draft and became determined to finish it. However, on June 19, King was hit by a van while walking along Maine State Route 5. Following the incident, King struggled to return to writing, uncertain whether he would be able to publish another novel. In an interview with NBC, King stated, "After the accident, I was totally incapable of writing. At first it was as if I'd never done this in my life. ... It was like starting over again from square one." In January 2000, King wrote on his website that he had finished On Writing and was more optimistic about his career: "My endurance is much less than it was and my output has been cut in half, but I am working." The final section of the book is titled "On Living: A Postscript", and it reflects on the accident and details his return to writing, stating "things have continued to get better." On Writing was the first book King published following his accident.

In 2008, Entertainment Weekly listed On Writing 21st on their list of "The New Classics: Books The 100 best reads from 1983 to 2008", making it King's only entry. Sharon Johnson, in a review published by The Patriot-News, wrote that King survived his car accident "with his skill intact", calling King's advice "solid" and "an unexpected gift to writers and readers." Julie Woo for the Associated Press also called King's advice "solid", specifically about dialogue and plot. However, Woo also observed that "many other books about writing offer such advice and some are more inspirational and ambitious," noting how "King cannot replicate a formula for his success so he does the next best thing by describing his work habits and environment urging that consistency in those areas can be conducive to good writing." Peter Sobczynski, a correspondent for the Post-Tribune, called the book "a fun, incisive read", specifically highlighting its emotional power: "In writing candidly and honestly about his recovery from a trauma that should have killed him, King has never been more affecting. Obviously, it is a good thing he was able to survive and get back into shape on a physical and emotional level." John Mark Eberhart wrote a mixed review in the Sunday Free Lance-Star. Criticizing King's recommendations on writing, Eberhart remarked that they were "so pedestrian that I can't remember when I first ran across any of them." On the other hand, Eberhart praised On Writing's discussion of King's personal life, stating that "King's writing about his own alcoholism and cocaine abuse is among the best and most honest prose of his career." Eberhart ultimately characterized the book as "a slight but transitionally important work that should lead [King] to better things."

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