Writing Advice From Stephen King

Spooky season officially kicks off in October, but these 10 pieces of advice from the master of horror Stephen King are excellent for writers year-round. Whether you write thrillers like King or explore other genres, check out these words of wisdom from an author who’s sold over 350 million copies:

1. Avoid passive voice

In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, King speculates some writers use passive voice because they feel timid with their writing. King states, “I think unsure writers also feel the passive voice somehow lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty.”

Here’s a tip on how to identify passive voice: if you can insert the phrase “by zombies” at the end of your sentence and it works grammatically, then you’re using passive voice.

2. You can say “said”

According to King, “The best form of dialogue attribution is said, as in he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said.”

It’s natural to want to dress up dialogue to be more descriptive, but writers don’t have to solely rely on phrasing like “Bill cried angrily” and “Monica tearfully replied” to communicate with their reader. Instead, try out describing actions and reactions alongside dialogue to cue your reader in.

3. Don’t rely on adverbs

For King, this piece of advice connects back to why passive voice is a no-go in most instances. “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.”

King recommends giving the reader context instead of a never-ending stream of words that end in -ly.

4. Let your writing sit

After you’ve finished a draft, take a break. It may feel counterproductive to let a work sit instead of rereading it, but King recommends reading your draft after 6 weeks have passed. Time passing creates distance, so editing your work will feel more like reading another person’s draft.

5. Kill your darlings

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch said, “Murder your darlings.” Characters, entire story lines, and individual sentences alike may need to cut — or killed — to improve the overall story. Being emotionally attached or having invested time and energy into a certain aspect of a story doesn’t necessarily mean it should stay in the final draft.

6. Eliminate distractions

For those of us who aren’t lucky enough to have a writing room like King, simulating a writing room can be accomplished by cutting out unnecessary distractions.

Try working in relative silence, even if leaving the TV on for background noise is tempting. If you find yourself staring out a nearby window, try closing the curtains or pulling down the shades.

7. Set time limits

King says, “The first draft of a book — even a long one —  should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”

This may not be true for every writer, but King has a point. If you set a strict time limit for you to churn out your draft, then commit to daily work, you’re all but certain to have an end result by your deadline. Consistency directly relates to progress.

8. Stay true to your own style

In On Writing, King warns against trying to mimic another writer’s style in an effort to create new success. “People who decide to make a fortune writing like John Grisham or Tom Clancy produce nothing but pale imitations, by and large, because vocabulary is not the same thing as feeling and plot is light years from the truth as it is understood by the mind and the heart.”

9. Write one word at a time

When a talk show host asked about how he wrote, King replied: “One word at a time.” King explains, “It’s always that simple. Whether it’s a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like The Lord Of The Rings, the work is always accomplished one word at a time.”

If the concept of finishing a whole draft feels insurmountable, focus on completing smaller goals that build on one another. One word on a page tends to multiply.

10. Write to be happy

King says, “It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”

You can check out more of King’s tips in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft here.


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