Over his decades-spanning career, Stephen King has written an astounding 54 novels that have sold over 350 million copies. His work has been adapted into films, miniseries, television shows, comic books, video games, and more. It is no wonder Stephen King's writing advice is so frequently sought after.
King has the unique ability to make readers feel every emotion on the spectrum: love, joy, rage, terror, disappointment, and sorrow. When he talks about writing, aspiring authors should sit up and pay attention.
As writers, we want to make people cry, laugh, and wipe their sweaty palms on their shirts so they can better grip their books. Stephen King has mastered this.
Though he’s an incredibly gifted writer, King shed blood, sweat, and tears to get where he is today, and was gracious enough to share his advice in his book, On Writing—a must-read for aspiring and established authors — as well as multiple interviews and appearances throughout the years.
His advice is the no-bullshit version of all those rejection letters writers receive, probably because King got a truckload himself. As he put it, “By the time I was fourteen 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.”
In his own words, here is Stephen King's greatest writing advice:
On the Writing Process
4. The Best Advice He Ever Got
5. Avoiding Distractions
6. Starting the Day Writing
7. The Process
8. Write Like Yourself
9. Go Where the Story Leads You
10. Make Stories About People
11. Break Up Thoughts
12. Kill Your Darlings
13. Avoid Too Much Backstory
14. The Purpose of Symbolism
31. Amateurs Vs. Professionals
32. On New Ideas
33. Love it
36. Take Risks!
37. Getting Happy
38. A Way Back to Life
30. Your Job is to Show Up
40. A Support System
41. Talent Renders Rehearsal Meaningless
42. Don’t Wait for the Muse
"You don't always have to take the editor's advice. Sometimes the way you see it is the way it should be. I assume that every writer was a lot smarter and a lot craftier than I was. That turned out not to be the truth."
"The novel is a quagmire that a lot of younger writers stumble into before they’re ready to go there. I started with short stories when I was 18, sold my first one when I was about 20 and produced nothing much but – well I wrote a couple of novels but they were not accepted and a lot of them were so bad that I didn’t even bother to revise them, but the short stories were making money and I got very comfortable in that format. And I’ve never wanted to leave it completely behind."
"It boils down to what Satchel Paige said: 'Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.' There will be people who like what you do and people who don’t. But if they’re picking over the last thing and you’re working on the next thing, that’s all yours."
"It's pure habit. I write from probably 7:30 till noon most days. I kind of fall into a trance. It's important to remember that it isn't the big thing in life. The big thing in life is being there if you're needed for family or if there's an emergency or something. But you have to cut out the unimportant background chatter. That means no Twitter. That means not going to Huffington Post to see what Kim Kardashian is up to. There's a time for that – for me, it's usually before I go to bed. I find myself sitting hypnotized and looking at videos of funny dogs, that kind of thing."
"I wake up. I eat breakfast. I walk about three and a half miles. I come back, I go out to my little office, where I've got a manuscript, and the last page that I was happy with is on top. I read that, and it's like getting on a taxiway. I'm able to go through and revise it and put myself – click – back into that world, whatever it is. I don't spend the day writing. I'll maybe write fresh copy for two hours, and then I'll go back and revise some of it and print what I like and then turn it off."
"For me the fun of writing novels isn’t in the finished product, which I don’t care about. There’s a guy over there looking at all the books on my shelf and to me those are like dead skin. They’re things that are done, but I love the process."
"I love D.H. Lawrence. And James Dickey's poetry, Émile Zola, Steinbeck... Fitzgerald, not so much. Hemingway, not at all. Hemingway sucks, basically. If people like that, terrific. But if I set out to write that way, what would've come out would've been hollow and lifeless because it wasn't me."
"When I started [Salem’s Lot] I thought to myself, 'Well, this will be the opposite of Dracula where the good guys win and in this book the good guys are gonna lose and everybody’s gonna become a vampire at the end of the book.' And that didn’t happen. Because you go where the book leads you."
"You might also notice how much simpler the thought is to understand when it's broken up into two thoughts. This makes matter easier for the reader, and the reader must always be your main concern; without Constant Reader, you are just a voice quacking in the void."
"Two pages of the passive voice—just about any business document ever written, in other words, not to mention reams of bad fiction—make me want to scream. It’s weak, it’s circuitous, and it’s frequently tortuous, as well. How about this: 'My first kiss will always be recalled by me as how my romance with Shayna was begun.' Oh, man—who farted, right? A simpler way to express this idea--sweeter and more forceful, as well--might be this: 'My romance with Shayna began with our first kiss. I'll never forget it.' I'm not in love with this because it uses with twice in four words, but at least we're out of that awful passive voice."
"Must you write complete sentences each time, every time? Perish the thought. If your work consists only of fragments and floating clauses, the Grammar Police aren’t going to come and take you away. Even William Strunk, that Mussolini of rhetoric, recognized the delicious pliability of language. 'It is an old observation,' he writes, 'that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric.' Yet he goes on to add this thought, which I urge you to consider: 'Unless he is certain of doing well, [the writer] will probably do best to follow the rules.'"
"The other piece of advice I want to give you before moving on to the next level of the toolbox is this: The adverb is not your friend. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously; it is the voice of little boys wearing shoe polish mustaches and little girls clumping around in Mommy’s high heels. With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across."
"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 voice."
"In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it 'got boring,' the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling."
"Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It’s not just a question of how-to, you see; it’s also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing."
"I’m not particularly keen on writing which exhaustively describes the physical characteristics of the people in the story and what they’re wearing... I can always get a J. Crew catalogue... so spare me, if you please, the hero’s 'sharply intelligent blue eyes' and 'outthrust, determined chin.'"
"As far as I’m concerned, genre was created by bookstores so that people who were casual readers could say, 'Well, I want to read romances.' 'Well, right over there, that’s where romances are.' The thing about genre is, so many people are like little kids who say, 'I can’t eat this food because it’s touching this other thing.'"
"Reading is more than a door opener to a better job. It’s cool, it’s a kick, it’s a buzz. Plain old fun. Non-readers live just one single life. It may be a good one, it may be a great one, but a reader can live thousands. Sometimes when the right book falls into the right pair of hands, it lights a fire that leads to others."
"You know what I like? When I go into someone’s house and ask to use the bathroom and see a bunch of books beside the commode. When I see that, I know I’m with my peeps, you know what I’m sayin’? People who read on the toilet, as far as I’m concerned, good people."
"Particularly in the Horror genre there are only three or four good ideas and we’ve all done them before. And it’s really – okay, I mean like, how many times in your life have you eaten eggs? But there’s always a new way to fix eggs and, you know, I look at it that way. You can always find a new way to do it. I think there are as many ideas as there are probing talented minds to explore those ideas."
"I’ve written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side – I did it for the buzz...
You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair – the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page. "
"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? Getting happy."
"Let's get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn't to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up."
"It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room. Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around."
"Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic."
"Don't wait for the muse. As I've said, he's a hardheaded guy who's not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn't the Ouija board or the spirit-world we're talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be every day from nine 'til noon. Or seven 'til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he'll start showing up."
"In terms of work, once I sit down to write and I’m in the story, all that falls away. I’m not thinking about cultural implications, I’m not thinking about genre, I’m not thinking about any of those things that have to do with what critics would talk about when they analyze fiction — all those things go away. But they only go away in the first draft. And then you put stuff away. When you come back to it, you read it and you say, these are the important things, this is where lightning struck for me. Those are almost always things that are cultural and thematic, and I just try and highlight those."
"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."
"Bad writing is more than a matter of shit syntax and faulty observation; bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do―to face the fact, let us say, that murderers sometimes help old ladies cross the street."
"I have spent a good many years since―too many, I think―being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction or poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that's all."
"The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of because words diminish your feelings – words shrink things that seem timeless when they are in your head to no more than living size when they are brought out."
And most importantly, On Writing by Stephen King.
Playwrights and screenwriters have always understood the power of dramatic action — but many fiction writers fail to fully harness dramatic writing in novels and short stories. Check out our masterclass on dramatic writing, and learn 3 tools that will help keep your readers hooked to your story.