On Writing: Stephen King’s writing tips to remember

Mary Good Books
8 min readSep 26, 2023

You don’t need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this or any other book on writing — Stephen King

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

In his book ‘On Writing: The Memoir of Craft’, the American author Stephen King accounts his experiences as a writer and his advice to young writers.

I’ve just finished reading this book and below are some lessons which ought to be useful to young writers:

1. The prime rule: read a lot and write a lot

The most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself, and this happens when you read and write a lot. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.

You can read both bad and good books because you will learn from each.

“One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose. Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling.”

2. Carry a book wherever you go

This is how you make sure you read a lot: by carrying a book wherever you go. You can listen to audio books in the car while you’re driving and carry a hardcopy wherever you go. You just never know when you’ll want an escape hatch.

“The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows. Waiting rooms were made for books — of course! But so are theatre lobbies before the show, long and boring checkout lines.”

3. Have a place where you do your writing

Writing is telepath, you have to have your own far-seeing place. The biggest aid to regular production is working in a serene atmosphere. Also, by the time you step into your new writing space and close the door, you should have settled on a daily writing goal.

“If possible, there should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with.”

4. Have your vocabulary at the top of your toolbox

Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. Some writers have enormous vocabularies while others use smaller, simpler vocabularies.

Don’t make any conscious effort to improve your vocabulary. You’ll learn more words as you read other books, of course.

“Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use “emolument” when you mean “tip” and you’ll never say John stopped long enough to perform an act of excretion when you mean John stopped long enough to take a shit.”

5. Watch your grammar

Steve recommends reading ‘Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition’ and ‘The Elements of Style’ by William Strunk, to polish your grammar. Bad grammar produces bad sentences, even though you can disobey some of the rules:

“It is an old observation, that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. Unless he is certain of doing well, [the writer] will probably do best to follow the rules.”- William Strunk

Must you write complete sentences each time, every time? Perish the thought. Take any noun, put it with any verb, and you have a sentence. It never fails. Rocks explode. Jane transmits. Mountains float.

6. On verbs

Verbs come in two types, active and passive. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense.

E.g. The meeting will be held at seven o’clock VS The meeting’s at seven

The rope was thrown by the writer VS The writer threw the rope

The body was carried from the kitchen and placed on the parlor sofa VS Freddy and Myra carried the body out of the kitchen and laid it on the parlor sofa

7. The adverb is not your friend

Adverbs are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly.

Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door.

8. White spaces and paragraphs

You can tell without even reading if the book you’ve chosen is apt to be easy or hard, right? Easy to read books contain lots of short paragraphs, including dialogue paragraphs which may only be a word or two long and lots of white space.

The ideal expository paragraph contains a topic sentence followed by others which explain or amplify the first.

“The more fiction you read and write, the more you’ll find your paragraphs forming on their own. When composing it’s best not to think too much about where paragraphs begin and end; the trick is to let nature take its course.”

9. Construct schedules

My own schedule is pretty clear-cut. Mornings belong to whatever is new — the current composition. Afternoons are for naps and letters. Evenings are for reading, family, Red Sox games on TV, and any revisions that just cannot wait. Basically, mornings are my prime writing time.

Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind — they begin to seem like characters instead of real people.

10. Writing is like sleeping

Like your bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream. You need the room, you need the door, and you need the determination to shut the door. You need a concrete goal, as well.

“Your schedule — in at about the same time every day, out when your thousand words are on paper or disk — exists in order to habituate yourself, to make yourself ready to dream just as you make yourself ready to sleep by going to bed at roughly the same time each night and following the same ritual as you go.”

11. What are you going to write about? Anything you damn well want.

In terms of genre, it’s probably fair to assume that you will begin by writing what you love to read. Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work. Especially work.

What you need to remember is that there’s a difference between lecturing about what you know and using it to enrich the story.

What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you know and in favor of things you believe will impress your friends, relatives, and writing-circle colleagues. What’s equally wrong is the deliberate turning toward some genre or type of fiction in order to make money.

12. On plotting

I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.

The story which results from a plot is apt to feel artificial and labored. You may as well lean more heavily on intuition. The situation comes first. Then the characters (flat and unfeatured). Once these things are fixed in your mind, you can begin to narrate. Characters will form themselves as the story goes.

I have written plotted novels, but the results, in books like Insomnia and Rose Madder, have not been particularly inspiring.

13. Good description

Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and near-sighted. Over description buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium.

A good description usually consists of a few well chosen details that will stand for everything else. Description should begin in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the readers.

If I tell you that Carrie White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can’t you? I don’t need to give you a pimple-by-pimple, skirt-by-skirt rundown.

But I think you will find that, in most cases, your first visualized details will be the truest and best.

14. Figurative stuff

The use of simile and other figurative language is one of the chief delights of fiction, reading it and writing it, as well.

Avoid the use of clichéd similes, metaphors, and images. He ran like a madman, she was pretty as a summer day, the guy was a hot ticket, Bob fought like a tiger etc.

My all-time favorite similes, by the way, come from the hardboiled-detective fiction of the forties and fifties, and the literary descendants of the dime-dreadful writers. These favourites include “It was darker than a carload of assholes” and “I lit a cigarette that tasted like a plumber’s handkerchief ”.

15. A word on dialogue

Some writers are just better in dialogue than others. Your skills in this area can be improved but it’s better you know your limitations.

The key to writing good dialogue is honesty. The job boils down to two things: paying attention to how the real people around you behave and then telling the truth about what you see.

“No kid ever ran to his mother and said that his little sister just defecated in the tub. I suppose he might say pushed or went woowoo, but took a shit is, I fear, very much in the ballpark (little pitchers have big ears, after all).”

16. Revising your work (your book)

Steve recommends two drafts and a polish. The first draft, even a long one, should take no more than three months, the length of a season. This first draft you need to write it with your door closed, that is, write like no one cares.

After your first draft, take a couple of days off, a minimum of six weeks. The idea is to prepare you to edit this first draft with fresh eyes when you come back.

The second draft you are to do it with doors open. That is taking opinions from your ideal reader. Steve’s ideal reader is his wife, Tabby. Also, try to cut the unnecessary information: Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft — 10%.

Some more quotes:

While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.

When I’m asked for “the secret of my success”, I sometimes say there are two: I stayed physically healthy and I stayed married. 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.

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.

You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.

I wish you all the best in your writing journey!