If you’ve ever liked writing, thought about writing, or had anything to do with writing at all, then you’ve probably heard of this book. Among writers, Stephen King’s On Writing is like the equivalent of the Bible. I’ve been wanting to read it for awhile now, but instead it’s just been sitting on my shelf unread (kind of like the real Bible… Ha).
So when I finally got around to reading it, I decided to share the wisdom with anyone who could use the knowledge but doesn’t have the time to read it for themselves. If you’re interested in more in-depth examples and anecdotes from King’s life, obviously I’m going to tell you to read the book yourself. But if you’re just interested in the general tips and tricks he gives along the way, this post is for you.
Disclaimer (because there’s always one, isn’t there?): These writing tips are all summarized from King’s novel, On Writing. The words are mine, but the ideas are not, and they do not reflect my own opinions. Except, of course, for the sassy commentary that will inevitably pop up here and there. I can’t help it.
In the first part of the book, King talks about the importance of having a “writing toolbox” that will help make your writing better. The first of these tools is vocabulary. But we’re not talking about SAT level words that will make you sound intelligent but will force your reader to pull out a dictionary every few paragraphs. Rather, it is better to let the words come naturally and make no effort to improve them. The more you read, the better and more genuine your vocabulary will be. King’s basic rule of vocabulary is to use the first word that comes to your mind as long as it’s appropriate and colorful. It’s not how much you have, it’s how you use it.
If you’ve never been very good at grammar, things probably aren’t going to change for you now. But don’t lose hope just because you got a C in high school English! The most important thing to keep in mind is that sentences should remain simple. Every sentence needs a noun, a verb, a capital letter at the beginning, and punctuation at the end. Combine those things together and you have yourself one complete thought. Bad grammar makes a sentence more difficult to read, so keeping your sentences simple is the best way to make the reading process as smooth as possible for the reader. Not rocket science, right? Thank god, because I know nothing about rocket science. Or any kind of science, to be honest.
Verbs & Adverbs
Although King notes he doesn’t want to go into detail on grammar, he does find it important to mention verbs and adverbs. First, he notes the difference between active and passive verbs.
Active sentence = the subject of the sentence is doing something / Mandy picks up the toy.
Passive sentence = something is being done to the subject / The toy is picked up by Mandy.
In most cases, passive verbs should be avoided because they are weak and unclear. King has the same issue with adverbs, noting that it’s better to strengthen the verb and description rather than throwing in useless adverbs. Good writers shouldn’t have to tell us that the door was closed firmly, because they should supply enough context to make it clear how the door was shut, without having to explicitly say it. Ugh, writing can be so annoyingly hard sometimes, right?
In terms of style, King notes that the paragraph is the basic unit of writing and one of the most important parts, as it is like the beat of a story. Paragraphs are where words stand a chance to become more than words, because they welcome the reader and make him/her forget that he/she is reading a story at all. However, King notes at the end that grammar and style may be the tools of writing, but there is a lot of magic involved as well. Sadly, King does not mean Harry Potter kind of magic. I know, I was bummed, too.
Read a lot, Write a lot
While a lot of good writing is about mastering the fundamentals, or the “tools” mentioned above, there are other ways to make a good writer. With lots of hard work, dedication, and help, it is possible for a competent writer to become a good one.
King’s first tip to becoming a good writer is to read a lot, because every book comes with a lesson. The bad ones teach us what not to do, how to recognize it, and to steer clear of it in our own work. The good ones teach us helpful tools such as style, narration, plot development, character creation, and how to tell the truth. The more we read, the more we become intimate with the process of writing. The more intimate we are, the easier it will be to put ourselves in the right headspace to write eagerly, intelligently, and without self-consciousness. So get to know your books, sleep in the same bed, cook their favorite foods, etc.
Create a writing space
Along with reading a lot, we need to write a lot. “A lot” will mean something different to every writer, but in order to do so, every writer must write regularly and in an atmosphere that works for them. This atmosphere should be private and clear of distractions. But to King, stability is the most important component to writing a lot. If you have stability in your life, you are able to walk into your writing space every day with an attainable goal. King urges that writers should keep a low goal at first (to avoid disappointment) and take no more than one day off per week (to keep the urgency). I personally recommend a lot of snacks and a cat.
Write anything you want, as long as you tell the truth
If you’re a writer, chances are you’ve heard the term “write what you know.” But King urges not to forget heart and imagination. It’s easy to write what you think will impress people or make you money, but it’s better to write stories that are meaningful to you. Don’t turn away from what you love. Readers want a good story they can connect with. In order to do this, you can’t simply imitate. You must use what you know to enrich a story and make it unique with your own personal knowledge and style. Kind of like how I always insert a goofy and unnecessary comment at the end of something important.
Forget about plot
While many good writers may be plotters, King argues that plotting a story is unnecessary (don’t hurt me, plotters! I didn’t say it!). At least, if you want your story to feel real and genuine. King notes that our lives are largely plotless. You can’t plot your story while also being spontaneous. Instead, stories should be based on a situation, in which case you don’t have to manipulate it. You can just watch what happens and write it down. To develop a strong situation where you won’t need a plot, as yourself “what if?” Like, what if I didn’t feel the need to say something dumb after everything useful and important? There’s your story.
Pull the reader in with good description
Description is the part of storytelling that makes the reader a participant in the story. But description is much more complicated than visualizing what you want the reader to experience and writing it down. In fact, King notes that description is incredibly difficult (Ugh, thanks!). Thin description leaves the reader bewildered, while over-description buries the reader in details. Writers must find the happy medium. King suggests that writers pay attention to the first few senses that come to mind. Decide what will help tell the story and let those well-chosen details stand for everything else. Let the reader fill in the rest (Yeah, readers! You do the work for a change!).
Define characters with dialogue
Dialogue is a crucial component to defining characters as it gives them a voice. The way a character speaks reveals things that the character herself is often unaware of. King notes that the key to good dialogue is honesty. Listen to your characters and follow what they say, not what you think they should say. Kind of like, if you have a character that can’t say anything serious without trying to be funny, they may have an underlying issue. Or they may be totally cool and sane. My vote goes to the latter.
Build your characters, then let them take control
Like dialogue, a large component to creating good characters is to let them take control. Then tell the truth about what you see. As a story progresses, we will discover more about the character. And if we’re lucky, the character will start to influence the story instead of the other way around. They will come to life and start controlling the story on their own. Kind of like Tom Riddle’s diary. Damn, wouldn’t that be nice?
It’s also important to remember that everyone is a protagonist in their own story — no one thinks of themselves as the “bad guy” or the “best friend.” Remembering that will help you to create vibrant, supporting characters as well.
Symbolism doesn’t have to be difficult
When writing fiction, the story should always be at the front of your mind. Crafting a story around symbolism or theme will only weaken the narrative. Instead, King argues that symbolism is pre-existing, and is found and brought out rather than crafted. Kind of like a fossil. What makes symbolism interesting is the ability to find it in a story and make it interesting. It doesn’t have to control the story, it just has to enrich it to create a more unified story.
Kind of like how my lame jokes at the end of everything don’t really help you, but they make this post a little less serious. Which reminds me, what does an annoying pepper do? It gets jalapeño face! Ha!
Theme is no big deal
Like symbolism, theme doesn’t have to be difficult. Every story is about something, you just have to decide what that something is and make it more clear. Throughout writing, King mentions, never hesitate to ask yourself what you’re writing about and why it matters. Themes grow out of your life and experiences, and they will often show up in your story without you noticing. However, like symbolism, starting your story with thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction. Always start with your story and think about what it means later.
Recipe for good fiction:
- Add story to oven and cook until well done
- Sprinkle theme and symbols on to taste
Revise with the door shut
Rewriting will vary greatly from writer to writer, but King recommends to take all writing through at least 2 drafts, one with the door shut and one with it open (Not literally, but, go right ahead if that feels right to you). The first draft of your story should be written quickly and without interference. This will help keep the pressure and hopefully keep doubt from getting in. But like, let’s get real, doubt knows how to pick locks.
Once you finish your first draft, don’t discuss it until you’re ready. King recommends taking a six-week break from the story — take a vacation and work on other projects. So head to Bali and get your tan on. And then, once you’re ready and engaged in a new project, go back through your story with fresh eyes. Read it and make your own revisions, and then open the door and show your story to people you trust. Or just stay in Bali forever. That’s fine, too.
Write to an ideal reader
It’s important to keep in mind that everyone you send your story to will have a different opinion. If everyone says there is a problem, then there is a problem and you better fix it. But at the end of the day, all opinions don’t weigh the same. That’s where the ideal reader comes in. Your ideal reader is the person you are writing for (besides yourself) and who is often in your head throughout the writing process. Pay close attention to this person’s opinion, as they will help your get outside yourself and see your story as your ideal audience would. So that voice inside your head that keeps telling you to get a snack? Yeah, apparently you’re supposed to listen to it. Who knew?
Leave the back story in the back
Pacing is the speed at which your story unfolds. Too fast and your story will confuse the reader, too slow and it will be boring. Your ideal reader is the best way to find the happy medium of pacing. I guess this kind of makes them the speed limit of a story. Watch when he/she puts your story down to do something else, then fix that part of your story. One of the quickest ways to hurt your pacing is back story. Everyone has a history, but most of it isn’t very interesting. Pay attention and make sure you aren’t including anything that is boring or not helpful to the story. Like all the times I’ve mentioned snacks in this post? Pry them from my cold, dead hands, I dare you to try!
Write first, research later
Research is a specialized kind of back story. And just like back story, it should be kept in the back. Focus on the story first and do the research later. No matter how interesting you think the research is, it is likely not the focus of your story. So put it as far in the background as you can get it. Especially if it’s like, really boring. Get that away from me ASAP!
As King said, writing tips and tricks are only half the battle. A lot of writing is magic that you have to find and figure out once you start. So if you’ve been looking for that sign to start writing… this is it, bright and yellow and reflective. Find your story and tell it to the best of your ability. Hopefully, these tips help give you the confidence to start writing. If not, I hope they at least amused you for a bit.
If you’re struggling to write, or you have any helpful tips for writers, make sure to leave it in the comments!