Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writers

stephen king writing tips

In one of my favorite Stephen King interviews, for The Atlantic, he talks at length about the vital importance of a good opening line. “There are all sorts of theories,” he says, “it’s a tricky thing.” “But there’s one thing” he’s sure about: “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” King’s discussion of opening lines is compelling because of his dual focus as an avid reader and a prodigious writer of fiction—he doesn’t lose sight of either perspective:

We’ve talked so much about the reader, but you can’t forget that the opening line is important to the writer, too. To the person who’s actually boots-on-the-ground. Because it’s not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer’s way in also, and you’ve got to find a doorway that fits us both.

This is excellent advice. As you orient your reader, so you orient yourself, pointing your work in the direction it needs to go. Now King admits that he doesn’t think much about the opening line as he writes, in a first draft, at least. That perfectly crafted and inviting opening sentence is something that emerges in revision, which can be where the bulk of a writer’s work happens.

Revision in the second draft, “one of them, anyway,” may “necessitate some big changes” says King in his 2000 memoir slash writing guide On Writing. And yet, it is an essential process, and one that “hardly ever fails.” Below, we bring you King’s top twenty rules from On Writing. About half of these relate directly to revision. The other half cover the intangibles—attitude, discipline, work habits. A number of these suggestions reliably pop up in every writer’s guide. But quite a few of them were born of Stephen King’s many decades of trial and error and—writes the Barnes & Noble book blog—“over 350 million copies” sold, “like them or loathe them.”

1. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience. “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

2. Don’t use passive voice. “Timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason that timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.”

3. Avoid adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend.”

4. Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.”

5. But don’t obsess over perfect grammar. “The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story.”

6. The magic is in you. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”

7. Read, read, read. ”If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”

8. Don’t worry about making other people happy. “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. “TV—while working out or anywhere else—really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.”

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. “I stayed physical healthy, and I stayed married.”

12. Write one word at a time. “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.”

13. Eliminate distraction. “There’s should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with.”

14. Stick to your own style. “One cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what that writer is doing may seem.”

15. Dig. “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. “You’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.”

17. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings. “(kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.)”

18. The research shouldn’t overshadow the story. “Remember that word back. That’s where the research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it.”

19. You become a writer simply by reading and writing. “You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”

20. Writing is about getting happy. “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”

See a fuller exposition of King’s writing wisdom at Barnes & Noble’s blog.

Related Content:

Stephen King Creates a List of 96 Books for Aspiring Writers to Read

Stephen King Writes A Letter to His 16-Year-Old Self: “Stay Away from Recreational Drugs”

Ray Bradbury Offers 12 Essential Writing Tips and Explains Why Literature Saves Civilization

Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Tips on How to Write a Good Short Story

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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  1. tony says . . . | March 16, 2014 / 12:58 pm

    21. Deus ex machina is your friend.
    22. Always use children/people who are handicapped or “slow” as the heroes who save the day.
    23. Always use the bumper stickers on cars to let the reader know the political leanings of your characters.

    There…that about does it.

  2. David says . . . | March 16, 2014 / 4:22 pm

    Avoid following advice that begins with “never” and “always.”

  3. Susan says . . . | March 17, 2014 / 2:43 pm

    I see more than one phone in that photo.

  4. Seba says . . . | March 17, 2014 / 5:40 pm

    I Agree with both previous comments… Nevertheless, rules are always guides, it’s much more difficult to accomplish anything without a method, even if this method contains space for improvisation. Really the most important is to write for oneself, for the sake of writing…

  5. KSDelgado says . . . | March 17, 2014 / 9:16 pm

    “They’re more like ‘guidelines’ anyways.”

  6. LMitchell says . . . | March 18, 2014 / 12:15 pm

    Anybody notice the computer??? The old fossil looks likes it’s from the 1980’s.

  7. ted says . . . | March 18, 2014 / 12:30 pm

    That’s because the PICTURE is from the ’80s. And the 20 rules are just lifts from “On Writing”.

  8. once_a_king_fan says . . . | March 18, 2014 / 12:32 pm

    That dog is distracting…and probably deceased…

  9. LMitchell says . . . | March 18, 2014 / 12:42 pm

    Didn’t realized it’s from King’s book “On Writing.” I have the book.

  10. Annelie says . . . | March 18, 2014 / 12:53 pm

    Two telephones in his writing corner.

  11. HappyB says . . . | March 18, 2014 / 6:13 pm

    I have to chuckle that people take shots at one of the great writers of our time. Even if you think he’s a total hack, 99.9999% of all writers have a lot they could learn from him. Why is everyone so angry, miserable, and jealous. These are great rules for people in other professions too. In many cases, replace the words “writing” with “your profession”.

  12. Salem ghariani says . . . | March 19, 2014 / 3:52 am

    I like the way was put to people

  13. Salem ghariani says . . . | March 19, 2014 / 3:55 am

    It was rely nice

  14. Dan Colman says . . . | March 22, 2014 / 1:50 pm

    Just curious, does anyone know what Facebook page just mentioned our post?

    Dan (editor)

  15. Plaice Holden says . . . | March 22, 2014 / 1:56 pm

    Derry, Maine.

  16. Wen says . . . | March 22, 2014 / 2:40 pm

    @ Dan Colman – that FB page would be Ann Rice’s page, she posted the link to this.

    I used to love Stephen King and still love his earlier books. But the “First write for yourself”, yeah, one word … IT. I wanted to take a red marker and exacto knife to that book.

    Interesting list though, some good things to think about as I sit with 3 chapters of a book I’d started and then my train of thought derailed.

  17. SHE Versus HE says . . . | March 22, 2014 / 2:53 pm

    The Barefoot Writer appears to be first to mention your post then it was shared by many. Excellent Post!

  18. Will says . . . | March 23, 2014 / 7:26 am

    BTW, this was recently shared on Fantasy and Sci-Fi Fans, Artists, Readers, Writers, Filmmakers & Cosplayers Facebook group.

  19. Jared Morgan says . . . | March 23, 2014 / 1:14 pm
  20. Dan Colman says . . . | March 23, 2014 / 3:38 pm

    Thanks all for letting me know.

  21. Chris says . . . | March 23, 2014 / 6:33 pm

    I’m going to chalk this up to a generation gap, I’m not giving up my video games or writing XD but it was pretty good

  22. Janet Wilson says . . . | March 25, 2014 / 5:30 am

    Rule 10 it takes one season to write a book, 3 months. He has not lived through a Canadian winter season, here we 9 months or one season to write a book.

  23. Jennie says . . . | March 25, 2014 / 6:20 pm

    #13 is ironic in light of the picture with this article. Stephen King’s got 2 telephones in his office!

  24. marilee pittman says . . . | April 18, 2014 / 5:17 am

    from the master

  25. Dan Colman says . . . | May 6, 2014 / 10:52 pm

    Anyone know who just posted this on Facebook by chance?

  26. Liss Thomas says . . . | May 15, 2014 / 9:16 pm

    My writing hero… Loved On Writing by Stephen King… which is all I can read cause I don’t like the scary stuff! Is that a corgi at his feet?

  27. Melissa Larrabee says . . . | June 10, 2014 / 1:38 pm

    Posted on FB via Brainpickings (.org)

  28. Sue Owens Wright says . . . | July 15, 2014 / 9:49 am

    King is Master of his craft, and I love his style of writing. “On Writing” is one of a few great books any writer should read again and again. Here are some others for a writer’s library: Bird by Bird (Anne LaMott), The Lie That Tells a Truth (John Dufresne), If You Want To Write (Brenda Euland), and the writer’s bible: Elements of Style (Strunk & White).

  29. Cordelia Renner says . . . | July 15, 2014 / 2:50 pm

    21. Get a corgi.

  30. Kathleen Delaney says . . . | September 4, 2014 / 6:05 am

    Sue Ann is so right. These are books every writer, and just about everyone else, should have on their shelves. Especially Elements of Style.

  31. julie Brown says . . . | November 18, 2014 / 4:23 am

    Feck the be-grudgers.
    Steven King on writing, resulted in my first writing contract!!

  32. Alton Thompson says . . . | December 20, 2014 / 8:18 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. I especially like Number 8. True, that.

    Also for the library:
    Annie Dillard ‘The Writing Life’

  33. Rosanna Every says . . . | January 10, 2015 / 1:30 am

    Thanks for the inspirations.Read my book David to a tea by Rosanna Every on David helfgott her friend

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