Discover our guide with the top writing tips from Stephen King to begin your writing journey.
Over the last 50 years, Stephen King has published more than 80 novels. Thirty of them have made the New York Times best-seller list, and dozens became movies. He is the gold standard of American fiction writers and almost single-handedly breathed new life into horror in the 80s and 90s. Before all of that literary success, however, he was an English teacher, beloved by his students and dedicated to inspiring generations of new writers.
King no longer teaches writing classes, but lucky for us, he has published On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, a funny, intimate look at both his successes and failures as an author, as well as his best advice for those of us looking to improve our writing skills. The writing advice in Stephen King’s book is practical, irreverent, friendly, and sure to encourage anyone interested in learning the craft from a master.
- 1. Avoid Adverbs
- 2. Steer Clear of the Passive Voice
- 3. Consider it a Conversation
- 4. Get to the Point
- 5. Read, Read, and Read Some More
- 6. Edit Ruthlessly
- 7. Keep a Clear Head
- 8. Be Fearless
- 9. Be Unapologetically You
- 10. Eliminate Distraction
- 11. Love What You Do
- 12. Take a Break
- 13. Start Writing and Keep Writing
- 14. Don’t Let Critics Get You Down
- 15. Listen to Feedback
1. Avoid Adverbs
King famously quipped that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” He explains that they are often unnecessary, and if they are left unchecked, they will take over your writing like weeds. The best way to eliminate adverbs is to replace them with a more descriptive metaphor or a simile. Instead of saying that she wrote timidly, for example, say that she wrote as if any one of the keys might be a detonator.
2. Steer Clear of the Passive Voice
The passive voice occurs when the object of the action becomes the sentence’s subject. “The dog chased the ball” is written in the active voice, while “the ball was chased by the dog” is a passive voice construction.
King argues that many writers “feel the passive voice somehow lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty.” However, the result often sounds stiff and pretentious. “The book signing was poorly attended” sounds like something your English professor might say, peering over his glasses, but “only a few people went to the book signing” comes across as far more conversational. You might also be interested in our post detailing what’s going on with Stephen King on Twitter.
3. Consider it a Conversation
As a master storyteller, King contends that writing fiction isn’t just about putting words on a page. It’s about inviting your reader into the action and making them feel like they are a part of the story. He suggests remembering that “description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” To become a good writer, be a good reader. Pause, change roles, and reread what you have written from the audience’s perspective.
4. Get to the Point
Fiction writers can quickly get bogged down when they must include the entire life history of each of their characters. King shares that you should only write what is necessary to the tale, saying, “the most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.” When describing your character’s background and physical characteristics, ask yourself if it is truly necessary. Does it add to the story? Does it help the audience understand why your character thinks, feels, and behaves as they do? If not, take it out.
5. Read, Read, and Read Some More
Professional writers, especially those who are just building their careers, often believe they must stay laser-focused on writing. Still, King insists that making time to read is essential to a writer’s ultimate success.” If you don’t have time to read,” he says, “you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
Read the writers that you love, and study what they do. Notice how they develop their characters, pace the action, and create their settings. When you read, you visit new worlds, meet new people, and gain new insight. You learn new words and discover new truths, which will undoubtedly make you a better writer. Read to learn, but don’t forget to read just for the joy of it too. Reading for reading’s sake is the surest way to remember why you want to write.
6. Edit Ruthlessly
King promises that eliminating needless words and extraneous parts of the story, even when attached to them, will make your writing more powerful. “Kill your darlings,” he pleads. “Kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
Writers often labor over finding the right word, making the setting come to life, or perfecting dialogue. In the process, they sometimes grow invested in passages that don’t serve the story. When it comes to editing, put your feelings aside and take the knife to anything extraneous. It might hurt, but your writing will be better for it.
7. Keep a Clear Head
We’ve all heard the stereotypical stories of famous writers whose creative energies and imaginations were unleashed, even multiplied, by alcohol and drugs. We imagine the likes of Hemingway, Poe, Fitzgerald, and Dylan Thomas clacking away on their typewriters or scribbling in their journals with a cut crystal decanter of something strong at their sides. King, however, says the opposite was true for him.
Early in his career, Stephen King wrote in a haze of everything from beer and Nyquil, to Valium and Xanax, until finally, his family staged an intervention. Reflecting on how his addictions affected his writing, he says that his book The Tommyknockers is “just awful” and about twice as long as it should be. “There’s really a good book in [t]here” he laments, “underneath all the sort of spurious energy that cocaine provides.”
8. Be Fearless
“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing,” King contends. The best writers can set aside all their worries and doubts and face the blank page with courage. Those who are caught up in thinking about whether or not they are “doing it right” or if they will ever be published often lose their nerve or alter their writing so much that they lose their unique voice. Don’t worry about what you think will sell, or what today’s audiences want; write for yourself, and you will have won half the battle.
9. Be Unapologetically You
You can’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Some readers are going to love your work, and others will dismiss you out of hand. If you develop your style, you must develop a thick skin and trust your instincts. King suggests that you not worry too much about what people think of you because “if you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”
10. Eliminate Distraction
One of King’s simplest and best pieces of advice is to rid yourself of distractions. “There’s should be no telephone in your writing room,” he says, and “certainly no TV or video games for you to fool around with.” He says he feels lucky to have been one of the last successful writers to have grown up without a steady diet of relentless distractions.
One has to wonder if Thoreau, Dickinson, and Twain would have contributed what they did to American literature if they had been forced to contend with emails and text messages. If you want to succeed, take a page from their books, and weed out all of the things that stand between you and your work so that you can focus on perfecting your craft.
11. Love What You Do
It can be so easy to get caught up in the writing business, to spend long hours learning the ropes of the publishing world, marketing yourself, and looking for an editor and an agent, that you forget why you’re doing it in the first place. As King insists, “writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends.
Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.” It’s important, of course, for you to educate yourself on becoming a professional writer, but don’t let that become your focus. Write for fun sometimes, without thinking about it will amount to.
12. Take a Break
Writing should add to your life, not become it. You can’t tell a good story, inspire and move, and speak to the heart of humanity if you are locked away in your writing room and calling that a life. Nurture your other hobbies. Spend time with loved ones. Travel. Eat. Read. Remember, “life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
13. Start Writing and Keep Writing
The hardest part of the writing process is often just getting started. New writers sometimes believe that to start, they need to have their stories all planned, their characters completely mapped out, and their ideas fully formed, so they make endless notes and charts and never actually create the first draft. King says, “amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” Don’t get stalled out in the planning stage or spend a lot of time stressing about perfection. That’s why second drafts were invented.
14. Don’t Let Critics Get You Down
Stephen King was only 26 when he published his first novel, Carrie, but he was no stranger to rejection. “By the time I was fourteen” he recalls, “the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” It’s good to remember that even the most successful writers have had their share of disappointment.
15. Listen to Feedback
King suggests that novelists “write with the door closed, [but] rewrite with the door open.” He means that fear and rejection can hinder the writing process, but that doesn’t mean that readers’ reactions and the advice of editors and critics should be dismissed. If you want to improve as a writer, put aside your pride and listen to and evaluate what people say about your writing. Not all of it will be helpful, but some can offer insight you might have missed.
Learning how to tell stories isn’t always easy. If you’re looking for a course, check out our review of Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass.
If you still need help, read our storytelling guide.