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

by Henrik Edberg

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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{ 68 comments }

Cullen Bunn October 8, 2007 at 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 at 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 at 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 at 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 at 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 at 10:23 am

Thanks!!!

Henrik Edberg October 10, 2007 at 12:41 pm

Thanks for your kind words.

Amrit Hallan - HowToPlaza October 10, 2007 at 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 at 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 at 3:43 pm

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

Coreytree October 18, 2007 at 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 at 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 at 8:11 pm

great blog.

thnaks

Subhorup Dasgupta October 18, 2007 at 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 at 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 at 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 at 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 at 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 at 4:14 pm

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

Janh October 19, 2007 at 11:45 pm

Good starting point(s)!

IdiosynracticChick October 25, 2007 at 4:56 pm

hey, thats a nice list. i’m wondering though, do you have a link that shows where/when steven king said this?? thanks..

Twist October 29, 2007 at 8:26 am

Good tips for the most part but #1 and #3 both sound kind of funny coming from Stephen King. I have tried reading a few of his books (It was one of them) and I lost interest mainly because he didn’t follow either of these tips (or maybe he did and we should really worry about what will happen if he decides not to some time). Kurt Vonnegut’s suggested rules are pretty good too.

WhoTheFuckCares October 29, 2007 at 8:29 pm

Stephen King. Okay, that’s fine. Get real. Nobody is going to tell you the secret of all times – that would make you stop buying books about how to write and start actually writing – making you a competitor which is going to lower their income which is … hello, world – :)

Laraine November 1, 2007 at 7:39 pm

These days Mr King doesn’t have to follow his rules of brevity if he doesn’t want to. His book will still get published. And look at the Harry Potter books–every new one was longer than its predecessor, with the one where almost nothing happened (Order of the Phoenix) being amongst the longest.

GJ Coleman November 7, 2007 at 4:20 am

The tips are good and sometimes they work but when you write you have to enjoy what you’re writing and want to share your excitement with the reader.

The tip is to find what works best for you as a writer and practice that. You must study your craft and write as much as you can. Practice makes perfect.

caccioly November 12, 2007 at 9:32 pm

One of King’s most important tips is missing: don’t hesitate to kill your babies.

Once you’ve put words to paper, they’ll sound to you like they’re the greatest piece of writing in History. You may want to keep a piece that does not serve any useful purpose because you’ve fallen in love with it. Don’t. If it doesn’t reveal character or advance the action (thanks, Kurt), strike it out.

Stuart McCallum November 13, 2007 at 1:55 am

Terrific stuff, I’m an author and freelance journalist. I must confess I spend many hours procrastinating. Lets take Stephen King’s advice and WRITE! Good luck everyone, Stuart (land down under)

John from north of Cincinnati December 7, 2007 at 4:53 pm

It’s possible to follow these rules and crank out writing on demand; I’ve done it. Waiting for inspiration doesn’t often fit with someone else’s deadline. But the only stuff I wrote that was worth anything, the only stuff I can look back on without cringing, is the writing that I define as inspired.

It’s the kind that makes a person get up in the middle of the night to get it written because this one’s going to be so easy to write, you can see everything so clearly, it’s all there in front of you, all you have to do is copy it down and remember to hit Save. The pieces where you feel as though you’re channeling some superior being, because you know you rarely write something this good.

tracy ho January 3, 2008 at 5:33 am

Great aticles you are sharing,

All The Best For 2008,

Tracy Ho
wisdomgettingloaded

Scott January 13, 2008 at 4:34 am

I read King’s “On Writing” several years ago, having been a longtime fan of his fiction. As I recall, it’s filled with great advice and a gratifying insight into the man himself.

I’m an aspiring writer and have tried to put his tips into practice. Especially important, I believe, are the exhortations to read and to write. Everyday. Widely.

Linda le Roux February 16, 2008 at 8:31 am

As an aspiring, but yet unpublished writer, as Stephen King once was, I am in awe of his productivity. The old adage that ‘everybody has a book inside them, and that’s where it should stay’ hasn’t put me off yet.

It’s so much harder now, I think, as there is so much competition out there.

But I guess I’ll keep on writing – even if it stays in the drawer for a few more years!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Notgivingupyet.

stephen king March 20, 2008 at 7:29 pm

i am one of your biggest fans and i hope to meet you one day.

Sincely,your biggest fan

Asia

Rahnay March 21, 2008 at 4:01 am

Hi Mr King

Growing up with you, I know your work very well. You have inspired me to write as well and I think I may have something that could possibly capture your interest. Please respond if you would like to know more. Thank you Renee

JS Paul March 23, 2008 at 4:51 am

I just like to say, for the most part, these tips are helpful to those who dwell to much upon their craft. As I say, the difference between an average man and a genius, is one can apply himself to his goal unfaulteringly and achieve the ends he wants no matter the strife or anguish. Most of my art in this craft has taught me that you should follow your own perpective, not one of another man. If you worry and fret over something one person opinions, you will never have opinions of your own. If you understand this, you will never fail for always in your own eyes are you truely brillant and by your own hands is everything you do magnificant. Failure is mans triumph, for if he never fails, he never learns. For you have the craft, you just need to mold it to your own expectations and then will acception follow suite.

Inspiration for Change May 24, 2008 at 6:58 pm
blah June 16, 2008 at 10:22 pm

Bruce Springsteen is not a good example since he sucks and Stephen King too.
Would have been better if it was Oscar Wilde and Jimi Hendrix :-).
Sorry for being right.

Jaeho July 11, 2008 at 10:27 pm

Great article !

Personally I have a blog focusing on self-development. If possible, I want to translate this article in Korean. Of course, I will clearly specify that the source of the material. Let me know what you think.

tom July 17, 2008 at 5:06 am

christ almighty, is bruce springsteen really such a good example for above par music writing?

Jane Little July 25, 2008 at 5:13 am

Dear Steven King,
The introductory paragraph to this blog was unreadable. Too bad. I expected more from your staff than this. Are you not supervising your blog? I doubt that you would have put up with this lack of attention to detail in your high school students’ introductory paragraphs.
As an aside, I was a Special Education teacher. My sophmore students clamored to learn about Steven King stories. Horror stories were a major ‘No-No’ at that school. A comparison study of Steinbeck and King as modern American writers was a ‘go’.
I think the students learned about American Literature and I was very satisfied with the lesson.

I have a question about writers’ block. I have completed one novel. I have three other novels which I have taken almost to an ending….and I can’t decide how I want the characters to end the story.
I’ve searched the internet re:writers’ block and I have never seen anyone with this particular block.

I would appreciate any advice you could give me.

With appreciation, Jane Little

tommy August 8, 2008 at 5:56 pm

What are people thinking…first of all his advice is good. But its stuff you learn in high school, just common sense stuff. I havent learned anything from this book that wasnt common sense. On top of it Stephen King comes off as an arrogant self important asshole throughtout the whole novel. Deeming himslef such a good writer. Even if you think hes a good writer he is not that good. Plus he only writes horror. BLECK TO STEPHEN KING

Howard Hopkins August 13, 2008 at 7:09 pm

A very enjoyable article and great advice. As a fellow Maine horror writer, I have sometimes found it hard to deal with a scattering of readers/critics who have decided the writer and a particulary odious character were one and the same (or pick on some odd apsect, such as last week a reverend who took me to task in a western for a cowyboy using the word “Jesus” as an expression)so the advice is much appreciated.

Matt Caldwell October 6, 2008 at 9:38 pm

I’ve been following your blog for a while, but this is my favorite post. It’s interesting to get a glimpse into the mind of one of the greatest and most versatile writers of our time. Thanks and keep up the good work!

Jim O'Neill November 22, 2008 at 12:30 am

I hesitate to advise such a literary genius as Mr. King, but one smart “tip” might be to curtail your bias on current hot-button politics in your fiction genre.
As a “constant reader” of everything Stephen King since Carrie, I feel as if I’ve been forcefully disenfranchised, not by Mr. King’s personal views, as offensive as I feel they are, but by the insertion of his derisive and condescending anti-Republican and anti-administration one-liners into his later novels such as DUMA.

I guess he can still make a living on the 51% of his “constant readers” who vote liberal, but…I’m outta here!

Quinton Diets December 9, 2008 at 4:43 am

Stumbled upon this and thought it was an excellent article. I’ll take all the help I can get in getting back into the wing of things.

kudos

Mark December 20, 2008 at 1:17 am

“Write a draft. Then let it rest.” In his early years he tossed some of his stories out and his wife Tabitha kept them.

Asia Vacation January 12, 2009 at 9:42 am

Just came across this post. Thanks for all the great tips. Especially the “write a lot”. Practice, practice… On that note, I’ll better get going and practice a little more. ;-)

John!M February 24, 2009 at 5:06 pm

Hi there! I found this article a year ago. Since then, I follow the articles coming from this blog. Recently, I resume the editing of a novel I write back in 2006 and come back here to remember a thing or two about what keep and what cut. I hope do a decent job, improvement the first edition and maybe getting it published at some point.
Thanks for this tips and for all the other stuff coming from this blog!

Katy Hawley February 27, 2009 at 1:35 am

Thank you Stephen and publisher Henrik Egberg for giving great advice. Some of your advice is so true but of course the last one is hard to keep up with. I plan on writing my first novel, by the end of the summer. Of course it is a little bit hard to keep up with school work at the same time, but I enjoy writing a lot. I’m a junior in high school and i’ve read a few of Mr. King’s novels and I sincerely enjoy it. I hope that I could be able to create interesting characters with unique qualities and an amazing plot line just like you.
Katy Hawley

Andrew April 2, 2009 at 8:43 pm

Interesting tips indeed, all of them good ones.

King says that he writes at least 2,000 words a day. He also said that if you don’t have time to write or read for 4-6 hours a day, you don’t have time to be a really good writer.

And, honestly, I agree with him. You could be average, maybe even good, by a bit of practice every day…but it takes a lot more than that to be a master.

casper May 15, 2009 at 3:38 am

I think at the beginning it’s really hard not to care what others think but then you can get used to it.

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