Stephen King on Writing

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Writing advice from Stephen King made the Internet rounds recently, and I think it's worth passing along to my readers. In "Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully - in Ten Minutes", King introduces his topic twice. (To see why he does this, you'll have to follow the link.) His second introduction ends as follows:

I am going to tell you these things again because often people will only listen -- really listen -- to someone who makes a lot of money doing the thing he's talking about. This is sad but true. And I told you the story above not to make myself sound like a character out of a Horatio Alger novel but to make a point: I saw, I listened, and I learned. Until that day in John Gould's little office, I had been writing first drafts of stories which might run 2,500 words. The second drafts were apt to run 3,300 words. Following that day, my 2,500-word first drafts became 2,200-word second drafts. And two years after that, I sold the first one.

So here it is, with all the bark stripped off. It'll take ten minutes to read, and you can apply it right away ... if you listen.
King goes on to elaborate on the twelve points listed below:
  1. Be talented.
  2. Be neat.
  3. Be self-critical.
  4. Remove every extraneous word.
  5. Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft.
  6. Write to entertain.
  7. Ask yourself frequently, "Am I having fun?"
  8. How to Evaluate Criticism
  9. Observe all rules for proper submission.
  10. An agent? Forget it. For now.
  11. If it's bad, kill it.
As King indicates, much of this is common advice, although his advice on not consulting references bears special consideration in this day and age, when most of us write with the Internet a click or a glance away. (He wrote this in the late 1980s.) In addition, think his advice on knowing markets is particularly relevant to anyone who blogs, and might be used to a self-selecting readership.

-- CAV


Steve D said...

‘much of this is common advice’

It is also fairly non-specific advice; so much so that it doesn't help a whole lot. I am pretty sure most aspiring writers already do all of those things. In my opinion how to get from these general ideas about writing to a specific manuscript and inspiring the creative process along the way are the key problems which he doesn’t address (although in a previous blog post you linked to by Isaac Asimov, they were addressed) You know, things English teachers like to talk about; plot flow, developing characters, theme and on a lower level irony, metaphor, symbolism.

For example, King advises removing every extraneous word. Look at the before and after excerpt about the basketball game. 90% of the work and 95% of the creativity (the difficult part) went into writing the first version. All Gould did was clean it up and make it marginally better; easy once you’ve learned the technique. Editors are good at taking out words and rearranging phrases and sentence structure to make them sound better but not all editors are good writers. OTOH, all good writers could easily learn to be good editors. King says that was all he needed to learn about his craft, but I think he already knew almost all he needed to know (but may not have realized it) – he just got a little help making it smoother.

His advice about the agents might be dated for fiction writers. All major and many minor publishing companies will not deal with authors directly so there may be no way around going to an agent these days. As far as his point about not using references, I see what he means, but this seems very like an individual-specific rule and I’m guessing not all writers follow it. Everything else, I agree with completely.

BTW, even his final version is wordier than it needs to be.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for the correction regarding agents.

It was his advice on references I found most interesting. I am toying with the idea of writing on something I think I know a lot about, then looking up references, just to see if that could be a way to speed up production on some topics. That said, lots of the writing I do requires some up-front research. Doing the same thing after the reasearch would probably speed things up/keep me focused on what I want to add, too.