Stephen King is one of the most prolific and gifted American novelists. I say that as someone who does not particularly enjoy his bent toward the dark and terrifying but who absolutely recognizes him as a brilliant writer. King’s book, On Writing, is my favorite resource of both an example of good writing craft and tips on how to do it. Any writer or aspiring writer should read it.
Some time ago the Barnes & Noble book blog shared King’s 20 rules for writing, as drawn from his book. Their post includes Kings’ brilliant commentary on each rule, so go read it in full. For the more opaque rules I included King’s explanations.
Here are the 20 rules. If you can follow even a few of these your writing will notably improve.
1. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience.
2. Don’t use passive voice.
3. Avoid adverbs.
“The adverb is not your friend. Consider the sentence “He closed the door firmly.” It’s by no means a terrible sentence, but ask yourself if ‘firmly’ really has to be there. What about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before ‘He closed the door firmly’? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, then isn’t ‘firmly’ an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?”
5. But don’t obsess over perfect grammar.
6. The magic is in you.
“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.”
7. Read, read, read.
8. Don’t worry about making other people happy.
“Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second to least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”
9. Turn off the TV.
10. You have three months.
“The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”
11. There are two secrets to success.
“When I’m asked for ‘the secret of my success’ (an absurd idea, that, but impossible to get away from), I sometimes say there are two: I stayed physically healthy, and I stayed married. It’s a good answer because it makes the question go away, and because there is an element of truth in it.”
12. Write one word at a time.
13. Eliminate distraction.
14. Stick to your own style.
“When, during the course of an interview for The New Yorker, I told the interviewer (Mark Singer) that I believed stories are found things, like fossils in the ground, he said that he didn’t believe me. I replied that that was fine, as long as he believed that I believe it. And I do. Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or Game Boys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.”
16. Take a break.
“If you’ve never done it before, you’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience. It’s yours, you’ll recognize it as yours, even be able to remember what tune was on the stereo when you wrote certain lines, and yet it will also be like reading the work of someone else, a soul-twin, perhaps.
17. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings.
18. The research shouldn’t overshadow the story.
19. You become a writer simply by reading and writing.
“You don’t need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this or any other book on writing. Faulkner learned his trade while working in the Oxford, Mississippi post office. Other writers have learned the basics while serving in the Navy, working in steel mills or doing time in America’s finer crossbar hotels.”
20. Writing is about getting happy.
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”