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:
"The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better."
2. Starting Out in the Industry
"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."
3. Writing Short Stories
"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."
On The Writing Process
4. The Best Advice He Ever Got
"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."
5. Avoiding Distractions
"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."
6. Starting the Day Writing
"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."
7. The Process
"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."
8. Write Like Yourself
"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."
9. Go Where the Story Leads You
"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."
10. Make Stories About People
"I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven."
11. Break Up Thoughts
"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."
12. Kill Your Darlings
"Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings."
13. Avoid Too Much Backstory
"The most important things to remember about backstory are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting."
14. The Purpose of Symbolism
"Symbolism exists to adorn and enrich, not to create an artificial sense of profundity."
On Grammar and Parts of Speech
15. Don’t Sweat the Grammar
"The object of fiction isn't grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story."
16. Passive Sentences
"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."
17. Sentence Fragments
"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.'"
18. Avoid Adverbs
"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."
19. Grammar is Simple
"One who does grasp the rudiments of grammar find a comforting simplicity at its heart, where there need only be nouns, the words that name, and verbs, the words that act."
20. Two Types of 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 voice."
21. Don’t Over-Describe
"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."
22. Keep It Simple
"One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones."
23. A Learned Skill
"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."
24. Again, Don’t Over-Describe
"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.'"
25. Read A Lot
"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut."
26. Duplicating the Effect of Good Writing
"You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you."
27. The Purpose of Book Genres
"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.'"
28. Technology and the ‘Death’ of Books
"The book is not the important part. The book is the delivery system. The important part is the story and the talent."
29. The Importance of Literacy
"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."
30. Good People
"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."
31. Amateurs vs. Professionals
"Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work."
32. On New Ideas
"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."
33. Love it
"I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever."
"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. "
"Stopping a piece of work just because it's hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure."
36. Take Risks!
"Try any goddamn thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn't, toss it."
37. 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? Getting happy."
38. A Way Back to Life
"Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life."
39. Your Job is to Show Up
"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."
40. A Support System
"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."
41. Talent Renders Rehearsal Meaningless
"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."
42. Don’t Wait for the Muse
"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."
"I cannot emphasize the importance of rewriting."
44. Finding Cultural and Thematic Implications
"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."
45. Reality in Fiction
"You can never bend reality to serve the fiction. You have to bend the fiction to serve reality when you find those things out."
"Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open."
On Telling the Truth
"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."
48. Bad Writing
"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."
49. Don’t Let Others Shame You
"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."
50. The Most Important Things Are the Hardest to Say
"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."