Stephen King’s Top 10 Writing Tips

writing tips stephen king
8 Min Read

Stephen King is a popular writer who’s written quite a bank of successful stories, from his first title “Carrie” to the timeless “The Shining.” Cementing his status as the King of Horror, it can be hard to see that he came from a beginning that’s just like any other writer.

writing tips stephen king

His success is built upon the “rejection slips impaled upon [the wall],” and he is no stranger to failure. However, having pushed through thick and thin and now pursuing a life of writing, few are as qualified as him to advise aspiring writers everywhere.

In this article, we’ll lay out 10 writing tips that Stephen King personally provided in his memoir “On Writing.”

King’s Top 10 Writing Tips

Don’t Be Afraid of Failure

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.

Stephen King

At a young age, King has been writing and writing, and by the same number of times he’s written, he’s been equally matched by the same number of rejection slips. Perhaps young age and optimism are a better pair and it worked well for King.

However, rejections and failures are constants in a serious writer’s life. From writer’s block to not making your manuscript into a published novel, you will encounter a lot and more as you push through. But push through, you still must.

Don’t Dress Up Your Vocabulary

Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful.

Stephen King

Firstly tackling what may be the easiest thing to go wrong on, King addresses that vocabulary is not everything to writing. It is the first thing to learn as a writer, yet you don’t need to have the greatest pile of words to write a novel. 

Wordsmiths like H.P. Lovecraft and Cormac McCarthy are amazing writers with enormous vocabularies, but Ernest Hemingway has written equally-amazing novels with simpler sentences. 

Your vocabulary is a tool; it has never been about how good it is, but how well you can use it.

Avoid the Passive Voice like the Plague

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.

Stephen King

In writing, there are two types of verbs: active and passive. Active verbs indicate that the subject of the sentence is performing the action. Passive verbs, on the other hand, indicate that the subject of the sentence is the object of the action, i.e. the action is being done to the subject.

King vehemently suggests scrapping the passive voice altogether in fiction. It implies that you are a timid writer who wants to be taken seriously. The active voice is easier to understand, and using it encourages you to convey thoughts and ideas more clearly.

Also, Avoid Adverbs

With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid […] that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.

Stephen King

Adverbs are modifiers to verbs, adjectives, and to other adverbs, like how adjectives are to nouns. However, King believes that they are not necessary for prose. Effective writing will not need adverbs, and an over-reliance on them will result in their surplus in your paragraphs, “like dandelions.”

Read. And Write. 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.

Stephen King

This might be a relatively basic tip that doesn’t seem to do anything grand. However, as King said, there is no shortcut to this. As a writer, you have to read a lot and write a lot. It is crucial in becoming a better writer.

King advocates four to six hours of simply reading and writing per day, which can be a lot. Reading exposes you to a lot of writing, and you get to know which ones are good and which ones are bad. What can be, has been, and should not be done. Reading is one of the, if not the best ways to improve your writing. 

Write What You Know (and Like)

There’s nothing wrong with writing [on genres that you like]. What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you know and like […] in favor of things you believe will impress [everyone else]. What’s equally wrong is the deliberate turning toward some genre or type of fiction in order to make money.

Stephen King

A piece of common life advice is to go out of your comfort zone and grow out of there. However, King believes that’s not always true in writing. The best writing often comes out from things that you already know and are already intimately familiar with.

It’s fine to write something that is already on the market. Hardly anything nowadays is truly original. However, always make sure to give a piece of yourself in your writing. This way, your story still ends up being unique: your personal experiences and beliefs spilling into your stories make sure that they are truly yours.

Many readers are invested in stories because they see a part of themselves in them. You can only establish this connection if you intimately know your story from start to finish, reversed or flipped upside down.

Write for Yourself, then Rewrite for the Readers

Gould said something else that was interesting on the day I turned in my first two pieces: write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out.

Stephen King

King’s editor, Gould, told him a piece of advice that stuck with him: write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. The first time you’re writing the story, you are telling yourself the story. You are trying to get intimate with the characters and understand what is happening to them.

By the time you’re editing your draft, you should know the story by then. It’s time to chip away at the parts that don’t matter to the story. You want the readers to know the story, too, so you rewrite with the audience in mind. 

You Don’t Have to Plot (!?)

It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can—I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow […]

Stephen King

Stephen King has confirmed that he is a pantser, a type of writer who prefers to forego the usual outlines and plotting and instead lets the story tell itself. He firmly believes that plotted stories feel “artificial and labored.”

He believes that stories start as a situation, then the characters come alive next. As the writer, you simply let the characters act like themselves, trying to get out of the sticky situation. The plot becomes irrelevant if the situation is interesting enough.

If you’re a pantser like Stephen King, then you’d love to use our Story Elements. A crucial part of being a pantser is knowing the characters of your story. With Story Elements, you can exhaustively write notes about who they are and what they do. You can flesh out entire personalities, and you can easily refer to your notes when stuck on the “situation.”

fantasy writing cliches story elements

Believe in the Magic within Yourself

I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one’s own pleasure, that fear may be mild—timidity is the word I’ve used here. […] Just remember before you do that, Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.

Stephen King

King foresaw some mistakes that many writers will stumble upon on their journey. After all, he had trodden the same road as you, and many others, will. However, if you ever needed confirmation or validation, few can surpass that of Stephen King.

The magic is inside of you. A lot of the things that are stopping you right now may be rooted in fear. Fear of rejection, shame, and whatever inhibitions that you may have. Believe in yourself, and maybe that will allay your worries away and get that manuscript finished.

Write Like Stephen King with LivingWriter

If you want to learn more about how to write like Stephen King, we’ve had an article written about it right here. However, these tips would be more than enough

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