20 Writing Tips From Stephen King

Last week I challenged you to set a goal for yourself and set up consequences if you missed it. Did you do it?

I hit my goal of writing 5,000 words. Thanks to my friend Nathan who invited me over to do a word sprint with him. After an hour and a half of writing, whoever wrote the fewest words would have to make up the difference in push-ups.

I’m not a very fast writer. Thankfully I only had to do 350 push-ups (spread out over a few days; I’m not that fit). Could have been a lot worse.

You may have come across this before, or read the book On Writing by Stephen King. This is always a good refresher. I’ve read the book twice, and will likely read it again in a couple years.

I hope you find his expert advice helpful.


pondering

King’s Tips For Writers


 

  1. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience. “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story. Your stuff starts out being just for you, but then it goes out.”
  2. Don’t use passive voice. “Timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason that timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. The timid fellow writes “The meeting will be held at seven o’clock” because that somehow says to him, ‘Put it this way and people will believe you really know. ‘Purge this quisling thought! Don’t be a muggle! Throw back your shoulders, stick out your chin, and put that meeting in charge! Write ‘The meeting’s at seven.’ There, by God! Don’t you feel better?”
  3. Avoid adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend. Consider the sentence “He closed the door firmly.” It’s by no means a terrible sentence, but ask yourself if ‘firmly’ really has to be there. What about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before ‘He closed the door firmly’? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, then isn’t ‘firmly’ an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?”
  4. Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.” “While to write adverbs is human, to write ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ is divine.”
  5. But don’t obsess over perfect grammar. “Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes. The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story… to make him/her forget, whenever possible, that he/she is reading a story at all. “
  6. The magic is in you. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.”
  7. Read, read, read. “You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
  8. Don’t worry about making other people happy. “Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second to least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”

    Empty chairs


  9. Turn off the TV. “Most exercise facilities are now equipped with TVs, but TV—while working out or anywhere else—really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs. If you feel you must have the news analyst blowhard on CNN while you exercise, or the stock market blowhards on MSNBC, or the sports blowhards on ESPN, it’s time for you to question how serious you really are about becoming a writer. You must be prepared to do some serious turning inward toward the life of the imagination, and that means, I’m afraid, that Geraldo, Keigh Obermann, and Jay Leno must go. Reading takes time, and the glass teat takes too much of it.”
  10. You have three months. “The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”
  11. There are two secrets to success. “When I’m asked for ‘the secret of my success’ (an absurd idea, that, but impossible to get away from), I sometimes say there are two: I stayed physically healthy, and I stayed married. It’s a good answer because it makes the question go away, and because there is an element of truth in it. The combination of a healthy body and a stable relationship with a self reliant woman who takes zero shit from me or anyone else has made the continuity of my working life possible. And I believe the converse is also true: that my writing and the pleasure I take in it has contributed to the stability of my health and my home life.”
  12. Write one word at a time. “A radio talk-show host asked me how I wrote. My reply—’One word at a time’—seemingly left him without a reply. I think he was trying to decide whether or not I was joking. I wasn’t. In the end, it’s always that simple. Whether it’s a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like ‘The Lord Of The Rings,’ the work is always accomplished one word at a time.”
  13. Eliminate distraction. “There should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall.”
  14. Stick to your own style. “One cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what the writer is doing may seem. You can’t aim a book like a cruise missile, in other words. People who decide to make a fortune writing lik John Grisham or Tom Clancy produce nothing but pale imitations, by and large, because vocabulary is not the same thing as feeling and plot is light years from the truth as it is understood by the mind and the heart.”
  15. Dig. “When, during the course of an interview for The New Yorker, I told the interviewer (Mark Singer) that I believed stories are found things, like fossils in the ground, he said that he didn’t believe me. I replied that that was fine, as long as he believed that I believe it. And I do. Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or Game Boys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all the gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.”

    Girl holding a book


  16. Take a break. “If you’ve never done it before, you’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience. It’s yours, you’ll recognize it as yours, even be able to remember what tune was on the stereo when you wrote certain lines, and yet it will also be like reading the work of someone else, a soul-twin, perhaps. This is the way it should be, the reason you waited. It’s always easier to kill someone else’s darlings that it is to kill your own.”
  17. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings. “Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your ecgocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.)”
  18. The research shouldn’t overshadow the story. “If you do need to do research because parts of your story deal with things about which you know little or nothing, remember that word back. That’s where research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it. You may be entranced with what you’re learning about the flesh-eating bacteria, the sewer system of New York, or the I.Q. potential of collie pups, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.”
  19. You become a writer simply by reading and writing. “You don’t need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this or any other book on writing. Faulkner learned his trade while working in the Oxford, Mississippi post office. Other writers have learned the basics while serving in the Navy, working in steel mills or doing time in America’s finer crossbar hotels. I learned the most valuable (and commercial) part of my life’s work while washing motel sheets and restaurant tablecloths at the New Franklin Laundry in Bangor. You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”
  20. Writing is about getting happy. “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”

Yes, he breaks his own rules occasionally, but he knows what he’s doing. He’s Stephen King. These tips are found in the book On Writing, and was originally shared here.


Question(s) of the day: What point stood out to you most and why? Did you take my challenge last week? If so, how’d it go?

 

15 Comments

  1. Great post. I have read this book and find it invaluable. Point 9 really resonates with me. I can’t stand having the television on when I’m writing – or reading, for that matter. It’s just too distracting. Thanks for putting these 20 great tips back out there.

    • bdschmitt

      July 27, 2015 at 12:01 pm

      Hi Redemberglow, that point stood out to me as well! Whether it’s TV, music, or even a noisy room, I’ve found that I really have to choose my surroundings wisely if I’m going to be productive.

  2. It’s funny reading some of those because I had two very distinct reactions. Either, hell yes I agree with that, or no no no, that’s not my writing style. Number 19 stood out the most, because that’s always been my belief. I do think there are always things other people can teach you, but you should teach yourself how to write the stories you need to tell. Then again, I’m also a very stubborn and independent person. 🙂

    Regarding last weeks challenge, I sort of failed. I technically did write the the amount of words I set for myself, but not all in the same story. Oops.

    • bdschmitt

      July 27, 2015 at 1:30 pm

      Hi Laura, I liked #19 as well. What book are you reading now?

      Was it your goal to have all your writing revolve around one story? If not, then you reached your goal if it was only a number of words.

      • Trying to decide what my next book to read will be, actually. Most likely And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini.

        My goal was to hit my word count in my novel, so I did actually fail at that. First time that’s happened. :/

        • bdschmitt

          July 27, 2015 at 1:59 pm

          Well, at least you did write – it’s better than not writing at all. Short stories are a great way to exercise the creative muscles.

          • I’m really enjoying writing short stories. It’s quite the challenge. 🙂

            • bdschmitt

              July 27, 2015 at 2:31 pm

              I just started one the other week. Are you circulating yours in writing contests?

              • I haven’t entered any into a writing contest yet. Mostly my short stories are just from writing prompts, although I have two short stories in the works that are sort of inspired by songs. Anything that keeps me writing. 🙂

                • bdschmitt

                  July 27, 2015 at 2:35 pm

                  You should send it into some contests, even if it’s from a writing prompt. If you like it, the worst that can happen is you never hear from them again. The best is that you have a short story published!

  3. Great post! I like the idea that stories are relics and we need to dig to find them. That really resonated with me! I want to pick up Stephen King’s “On Writing”, but until I am able this list should help me out with my writing.

    I didn’t do your word goal challenge, but I DID beat my Camp NaNoWriMo goal of 10,000 words last week!

    • bdschmitt

      July 27, 2015 at 2:33 pm

      Hi Katy, good call, it’s the best book about writing I’ve ever read. // And 10,000 words in a week is impressive! Great job — what are you writing?

  4. There are some excellent pearls of wisdom from Stephen King here, thanks for sharing.

    I like point #6 about Dumbo having the magic within him. It was definitely an inspirational movie to me as a kid. It’s a good analogy.

    Regarding point #10 (‘you have 3 months’), that seems quite short. Does he reveal the length of the typical process from first draft to publication?

    • bdschmitt

      July 30, 2015 at 9:37 am

      Hi Hannah, I’m glad you found the tips useful! King recommends that once you’re done with the first draft, put it away long enough to stop thinking about it, and long enough to become immersed in your next story idea. Once that’s happened, pull it out and read it over. A second draft is this formula: Second draft = First Draft -10%. King doesn’t say a specific amount of time (ie 1 month) but he’s a fast writer, I’d be surprised if his editing phase lasted longer than 2 months.

      It is fast, but one of the nice things about it is maintaining your original fascination with the idea. The longer you sit with your story, the less excited you become – naturally. So to get it all out while ideas are still coming is powerful.

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