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Stephen King’s Top 7 Tips for Becoming a Better Writer


If you want to learn how to write better where do you go?

Well, you can take a creative writing course.

Or read the books, biographies and studies of men and women hailed as literary geniuses throughout history.

For today, I’ve chosen to take some advice from one the most popular fiction writers of the last few decades: Stephen King.

Now, great sales figures aren’t always an indication of greatness in any field.

But it probably means that the creator knows what s/he is doing and what works. Plus, I have found that that quite a few of Stephen King’s books – like Insomnia, The Long Walk or The Running Man- are really good reads (and sometimes even greater films).

I’ve learned/been reminded about these seven tips by rereading King’s memoir/how-to-write book On Writing – highly recommended for many good insights into writing and a writer’s life – and by a whole bunch of his novels I’ve sacrificed sleep to keep on reading.

Many of these tips can be useful no matter if you are a blogger, writing reports at work/in school or quietly spending your nights secretly working on that great novel that will astonish the world.

1. Get to the point.

Don’t waste your reader’s time with too much back-story, long intros or longer anecdotes about your life. Reduce the noise. Reduce the babbling. In On Writing King gets to his points quickly. Get to your point quickly too before your reader loses patience and moves on.

2. Write a draft. Then let it rest.

King recommends that you crank out a first draft and then put it in your drawer to let it rest. Now, how long you let your text rest may vary. King puts his manuscripts away for several months before rereading and start the editing process.

I often let a post rest for a day or two before I start editing (as I’m sure many other bloggers do from time to time too).

This enables you to get out of the mindset you had when you wrote the draft and get a more detached and clear perspective on the text. It then becomes easier to edit, add and cut in a sometimes kinda ruthless way. The result is most often a better text.

3. Cut down your text.

When you revisit your text it’s time to kill your darlings and remove all the superfluous words and sentences. Removing will declutter your text and often get your message through with more clarity and a bigger emotional punch.

Don’t remove too much text though or you may achieve the opposite effects instead. King got the advice to cut down his texts by 10 percent from an old rejection-letter and has followed this advice for decades. While editing my blog I’ve found that 10 percent seems to be a pretty good figure not just for mammoth-sized books.

4. Be relatable and honest.

King has an honest voice in his fiction and in his memoir. He tells it like it is and makes us relate to him and his characters. Since King’s fiction often is of an odd kind with strange plots that seldom happen to normal people I think one of his strengths as a writer is being able to write relatable content anyway.

One of the keys to doing that is to have an honest voice and honest characters with both bad and good sides to them. People we can relate to with all of their faults, passions, fears, weaknesses and good moments. King’s characters seem human. That creates a strong connection to the reader who starts caring about the characters.

Another key to being honest and relatable is keeping a conversational style. Keeping it simple and using language that isn’t unnecessarily complicated. Using the words that first come to mind.

5. Don’t care too much what others may think.

King admits to being needy about the emotional feedback he gets when he lets his wife read a new story for the first time. He gets a kick out of hearing her laugh so she cries or just cry because something in manuscript really touched her. But he has also gotten tons of mail over the years from people who confuse his sometimes nasty characters with the writer. Or just thinks he should wind up in hell. And King hasn’t always been a favourite among literary critics either.

But from what I gather he just sits down at his desk and keeps writing every morning anyway. If you listen too much to your critics you won’t get much done. Your writing will probably become worse and less fun. And criticism is often not even about you anyway.

6. Read a lot.

When you read you always pick up things. Sometimes it might be reminders about what you know you should be doing while you write. Sometimes it’s some cool idea or just the world and atmosphere the writer is painting. Sometimes it’s something totally new that makes your jaw drop. That one is my favourite. And sometimes you learn what you should avoid doing. There are almost always lessons you can learn.

If you want to be a better writer you need to read a lot to get fresh input, broaden your horizons and deepen your knowledge. And to evolve you need to mix yourself up with new influences and see what happens.

How do you find time to read more? You can cut down on other evening activities like watching TV-shows you don’t care for that much anyway. Or, as King suggests, you can bring a book to waiting rooms, treadmills or toilets. I like to plug in an audiobook while I’m on the bus or walking somewhere.

7. Write a lot.

I’ve saved the most important tip for last. To become a better writer you probably – and not so surprisingly – need to write more.

Many of the best in different fields – Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods – have gone beyond normal limits of practise. And so they reap extraordinary results.

But what do you do when you don’t feel like writing? Waiting for inspiration can become a long wait.

One good way to get around this is to find an effective solution to reduce procrastination. You may have to try a few before you find one that works for you. Another way is well, just to do it. And if you just get going your emotions changes a lot of the time and any initial resistance becomes fun and enthusiasm instead.

If you like this article, please bookmark it at del.icio.us. Thanks a lot! =)



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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Cullen Bunn October 8, 2007, 7:20 pm

    That’s a great list of “rules of the road” for any writer. Thanks for posting this refresher.

  • Todd October 8, 2007, 9:12 pm

    Nice article there– I love the mention of Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, etc…to becoming a better writer. It is SO true that your improvement as a writer will be in direct relation to how much you practice. When writing, I also like to visualize myself standing on a podium and speaking my words to thousands of people…this helpe me be more relatable!

  • Henrik Edberg October 8, 2007, 11:08 pm

    Thanks for the link Cullen and thanks for the tip Todd. And thanks for your comments, guys.

  • Dave Willison October 9, 2007, 1:33 am

    Stephen is a real inspiration to me and On Writing was amazing, if you havn’t read it yet, get it!

    Thanks Henrik :)

  • Mike Pedersen Golf October 9, 2007, 2:15 pm

    Great post! Writing for your reader should always be number one, but we all get into that rut of swaying from that.

  • NoBlush October 10, 2007, 10:23 am

    Thanks!!!

  • Henrik Edberg October 10, 2007, 12:41 pm

    Thanks for your kind words.

  • Amrit Hallan - HowToPlaza October 10, 2007, 6:35 pm

    Hi.

    I find your 7th point especially appealing. One should write a lot, regularly, in order to become a better writer. The rest happens later on.

  • Eli October 17, 2007, 11:55 am

    hey, nice post..

    I’ve been a fan of Mr. King for many years now and I did relate to the stuff you mentioned here. Haven’t finished the book (On Writing) yet, but reading King’s life is a story in itself.

  • Henrik Edberg October 17, 2007, 3:43 pm

    Amrit and Eli: Thanks for your comments. Glad you liked it.

  • Coreytree October 18, 2007, 4:42 pm

    I’m a video editor and motion graphics designer, and these ideas relate to my sort of work as well, especially to the “storytelling” aspect of video editing. This morning I was telling a friend about a trick someone taught me years ago about writing on demand. It’s a trick to get ideas flowing: if you have an assignment to write something and you don’t know where to start, just start anywhere and just write anything. Doing this can give you a good starting point. Using this technique, there may be something that you write which will stay in the piece, or you may have written something that demands to be changed. Either way, you’re now off and writing. Stumped? Just write anything. It’s mentally freeing and can remove your mind from the proverbial “box”. BTW, I heard a nice thought yesterday about thinking outside of the box – “there is no box”.

    C

  • James Kochalka Rockstar October 18, 2007, 7:31 pm

    This is great. I’m so glad Stephen King is finally committed to becoming a better writer. Let me know if he learns anything about brevity. :)

  • Vang October 18, 2007, 8:11 pm

    great blog.

    thnaks

  • Subhorup Dasgupta October 18, 2007, 8:35 pm

    Wanted to share Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for fiction.
    Eight rules for writing fiction:
    1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
    2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
    3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
    4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
    5. Start as close to the end as possible.
    6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
    7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
    8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

    – Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999), 9-10.

  • Angie October 18, 2007, 8:55 pm

    The principles behind these tips can be applied to almost any creative field. I’m not a writer but I think I can take something away from what Mr. King has to say.

  • Kurt October 18, 2007, 10:06 pm

    Read King’s book. It’s pretty short. And entertaining. And NOT full of frightening characters or action.

  • Ravi Vora October 18, 2007, 10:44 pm

    Fantastic find. I really enjoy reading Stephen King’s views on writing. I try to incorporate a lot of what he says into my own writing whether it be on my blog or otherwise.

  • Jonathan October 18, 2007, 11:01 pm

    Thanks for this, I think Stephen King is one of the best storytellers around. And this is very practical advice for all us would be writers. I especially liked the tip about letting a draft rest for a while. Have you heard that Ernest Hemingway wrote the end of “The Old Man and the Sea” 43 times before he was pleased with it? Really good post. Thanks.

  • Henrik Edberg October 19, 2007, 4:14 pm

    Thanks for all your kind comments, tips and insights. And for Vonnegut’s rules for writing fiction.

  • Janh October 19, 2007, 11:45 pm

    Good starting point(s)!