Category Archives: Advice

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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How Meditation Can Help You Concentrate and Write

The earliest written record of meditation dates back to 1500 BCE India in the Hindu Vedas. Meditation has been practiced in many places in the east for health, religious, and spiritual purposes.

Mindfulness meditation is growing in popularity in America for its demonstrated health benefits, such as reducing high blood pressure, chronic pain, and anxiety. From walking meditation to spiritual meditation, there are many different types of meditation. 

Meditation involves:

  • Deep breathing 
  • Focused attention 
  • Quiet setting
  • Open attitude
  • Body awareness

Specific forms of meditation can involve:

  • Prayer 
  • A comfortable position 
  • Mantras (Chanting) 
  • Movement/Walking
  • Reading reflection 
  • Internally focused gratitude 

For a more in-depth understanding, read about the different forms of meditation here.

The ultimate goal of meditation is Mindfulness: to have awareness of your mind and body. When thoughts try to disturb you, let them pass while keeping your focus turned to your physical presence. This moment to regain focus and improve concentration makes it easier to focus your attention after the session ends. 

3 main problems writers face can be helped by meditation: 

  1. Procrastination 

You sit down in front of your desk, uncap your pen, then realize you didn’t pour a cup of coffee (you can’t write without coffee). You write the date on the top page only to stop again, this time, because there’s no background music. 

Feeling overwhelmed can take the form of procrastination. Meditation prompts you to shift your mental focus to your physical presence. As your body relaxes, your mind in turn relaxes, making concentration easier after the session.

  1. Being Uninspired 

Sometimes you are stuck with the project you’re working on. Sometimes you can’t decide on an idea, or stare at the page and have no idea what to write. 

Reading someone else’s writing before meditation is a great inspirational tool. In your session, you can reflect on style, meaning– whatever draws you to the piece. A free writing exercise after the session can help you draw from work you admire.

  1. Distractions 

It’s easy to be preoccupied by external distractions: the traffic outside your window, your phone buzzing. 

Each time you meditate, you practice your ability to concentrate. Like anything practiced, concentration becomes easier with time. Making mediation a routine leads to a better sense of concentration extending into your daily life. 

Mindful’s “How to Meditate” article includes a 1, 10, and 15-minute meditation session for beginners.

The app Headspace offers 10 free beginner sessions (customizable to 5, 10, or 20- minutes). To combat anxiety amid the pandemic, their “Navigating Change” course provides another 10 free sessions. 

If writing is a daily practice for you, try incorporating 10 minutes of meditation beforehand.

 So often our minds are preoccupied with the sensations defining our external worlds. When was the last time you took a ten-minute time-out for your mind? 

– Charleigh

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Advice: For Writers, From Writers

Alden Jones, writer and faculty member at Emerson College and The Newport MFA, recently launched her new memoir, The Wanting Was a Wilderness, with great success. The memoir, which began as a project examining Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 national best-seller, Wild, blends analysis and essay along with the telling of Jones’ own introspection. This month, I had the privilege of attending an author talk between Strayed and Jones. Listed below are tips these two accomplished authors have for writers of all genres.

As a writer of nonfiction, what do you do if your family does not approve of the story you want to tell?

Both writers suggest that as always, do the most you can when telling your story to protect the privacy of others. Changing names of characters is a great place to start, as well as leaving out details that do not further the story. For this very reason, some writers even choose to publish under a pseudonym.

Though your story may encompass others, remember it is still your story to tell. So long as you respect the anonymity of others, both writers agree it’s a personal choice whether you risk uprooting tensions with your family. 

How do you write about something painful? 

When asked this question, Jones explains writing about pain helps her to “reclaim” the experience. Writing can be healing. (She jokes every writer needs a therapist!) 

If it is too painful to write about it now, jot down the details you need to recount the story if you can, and return to it at another time. Ultimately, do what is best for your wellbeing. If you find writing to reopen an old wound, consider writing about another subject.  

How do you handle book criticism? 

When asked this, Strayed simply stated, “It Hurts!” Despite her 2012 success, criticism affects Cheryl no different than any other writer. Her strategy to combat negativity is simple: scroll past the review, ignore the tweet. Don’t even read them. 

Though gaining an outside perspective on your work is crucial, sometimes that perspective is not constructive. Sometimes, we have to be our own best advocates. 

You can find Alden Jones’ The Wanting Was a Wilderness here:

Get in line to get yours soon– it’s on backorder everywhere! The link above helps support local bookstores. 


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3 Tips to Get Back into the Habit of Reading

If I had a nickel for every time someone told me reading is one of their favorite hobbies, only for that person to admit they haven’t cracked open a book for months, I would have enough change to buy another novel that would sit unread on my shelf for months.

During times of media overload, where burning out from staring at screens are far from rare occurrences, a book can be a welcome break. But this points to a clear question: How do we rediscover the habit of reading?

In The Power of Habit, award-winning business reporter Charles Duhigg breaks down why good and bad habits have a tendency to linger. The habit loop, as Duhigg describes it, consists of 3 main steps. The first step of the habit loop involves encountering a trigger to cue an action. This leads into the second step, which is performing the specified action. Performing this action merits the reward, the last step in the habit loop.

Here’s an example of a habit loop:

  1. Cue: a Twitter notification pops up on your screen
  2. Action: You open Twitter and see who liked your Tweet
  3. Reward: A jolt of dopamine and sense of accomplishment encourages repetition

You can read Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit here.

Here are 3 tips to use the habit loop to confidently call yourself a bookworm:

  1. Set an alarm to signal it’s prime reading time

Contrary to popular belief, technology doesn’t have to be the enemy of reading. Setting a repeating alarm on your phone or other device is a simple, effective way to hold yourself accountable and stay dedicated to reading. The more you sit down to read after the alarm sounds, the stronger the cue becomes.

  1. Reward yourself when you reach a reading goal

If reading feels more like work instead of a reward in itself, then take a page out of my book and have a treat after hitting a milestone. When you finish a chapter, turn to a specific page, or read for a certain stretch of time, try enjoying a favorite snack, pouring a cup of tea, and getting cozy for the next reading stint. Remember, books pair well with self-care.

  1. Set a reading schedule

Just like its name implies, the habit loop repeats itself. To avoid losing steam and actually finish that book you’ve been meaning to dig into, set aside chunks of time throughout the week. Even the busiest readers can squeeze in 20-30 minutes of reading before starting the workday or turning in for the night. Making reading a consistent part of your routine is a sure-fire way to build a reading habit that sticks.


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