Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writers


Image by the USO, via Flickr Com­mons

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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Comments (49)
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  • David says:

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

  • Susan says:

    I see more than one phone in that pho­to.

  • Seba says:

    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…

  • KSDelgado says:

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

  • LMitchell says:

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

  • ted says:

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

  • once_a_king_fan says:

    That dog is distracting…and prob­a­bly deceased…

  • LMitchell says:

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

  • Annelie says:

    Two tele­phones in his writ­ing cor­ner.

  • HappyB says:

    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”.

  • Salem ghariani says:

    I like the way was put to peo­ple

  • Salem ghariani says:

    It was rely nice

  • Plaice Holden says:

    Der­ry, Maine.

  • Wen says:

    @ 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.

  • SHE Versus HE says:

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

  • Will says:

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

  • Chris says:

    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

  • Janet Wilson says:

    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.

  • Jennie says:

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

  • marilee pittman says:

    from the mas­ter

  • Liss Thomas says:

    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?

  • Sue Owens Wright says:

    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).

  • Cordelia Renner says:

    21. Get a cor­gi.

  • julie Brown says:

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

  • Alton Thompson says:

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

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

  • Rosanna Every says:

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

  • Carmen Garcia says:

    I read the Stephen King, On Writ­ing: A Mem­oir of the Craft. I just want to say that it brought tears to my eyes. It remind­ed me of the things which have expe­ri­enced in life and I could just feel the sin­cer­i­ty of heart from which all of this was writen. I cried, life is not easy. Mr. King I just want to say thank you for shar­ing all you’ve shared with us the pub­lic and I hope and pray I will one day become a good writer to inspire oth­ers. Many bless­ings

  • Amber says:

    I’m pret­ty sure one is specif­i­cal­ly for the fax machine

  • Fanboy Bob says:

    The lessons are learned by expe­ri­ence. King also made mis­takes with his health, includ­ing sub­stance abuse, but luck­i­ly sur­vived to learn a les­son about that, too.

  • Robbie Griffin says:

    I too have Stephen King’s book, On Writ­ing A Mem­oir of the Craft. It pulls you in while read­ing, because he is shar­ing real life expe­ri­ences. You can real­ly get to see how he devel­oped as a writer. The best way is to read, read, read. And, when the time comes to write you will know it. It may work bet­ter if you can read and write as you go along. I’m fol­low­ing Harp­er Lee now, Go To the Watch­man & To Kill A Mock­ing­bird. Read­ing now, The Ele­ment Find­ing Your Pas­sion Changes Every­thing. I think jour­nal­ing dai­ly helps too.

  • Bill Adams says:

    Cru­el, but fair.

    You might add, Delib­er­ate plot­ting is hacky; bet­ter to just make the mid­dle sec­tion as long as you need to des­per­ate­ly search for a way out.

    All this said, his writ­ing book has a hell of a lot of good advice in it. And if he gets wrong the whole sub­ject of plot­ting, it is because that is the one key thing he nev­er learned.

  • Virginia Selanik says:

    Also in King’s book On Writ­ing is his admis­sion to “The Hem­ing­way Defense” or why he was an alco­holic for about 12 years. It was the same as that of Hem­ing­way.

  • Sonny says:

    How often should we avoid it?

  • Sonny says:

    You seem like a dick.

  • eric says:

    very clever

  • Rocco says:

    Hi how are you doing.
    First ques­tion.
    1.My writ­ing is knot good,when I write some­thing they say it chick­en writ­ing.
    2.If you know some­one who’s good it writ­ing and they stop,is there any­way I could help him on.
    Thank you

  • This is a great post. And who says this pic­ture is of his writ­ing room. I have a room for writ­ing and an office for doing busi­ness as an author (an every­thing else).

  • Phillip Adams says:

    This is great info. But, I am no writer, although, I have a sto­ry, a real life sto­ry, that I feel would be a great book for Stephen King to write. This time­line occurred in 1979–1980, over a span of about 9‑months, with real life, eerie and unex­plain­able events, that, unless you lived it, is hard to believe. I feel my sto­ry would make a great book/movie, and would be right up Stephen Kings exper­tise. I wold love to meet and pitch my sto­ry to him some­time.

    Phil Adams

  • Carol Parker says:

    Notice to many peo­ple look­ing at the pic­ture and not get­ting the just of the words. Each writer has their style and Mr. King just allow us to view some advice that has worked for him.

    Thank you Mr. King for allow your advice to be post­ed.

  • Daniel Kyle says:

    I am a huge Stephen King fan even with his overuse of the N word. I love the advice he gave and I am fol­low­ing it (was doing it before even read­ing this). Look for my book on the shelves soon (and in the­aters)!!!! Him and Dean Koontz are won­der­ful writ­ers.

  • ade olusesi says:

    Great advice for all aspir­ing (and estab­lished) writ­ers!

  • JBR says:

    I think the pic­ture has been changed, but…

    1) King’s ‘office’ is quite large, con­sist­ing of about 5 rooms. The room with the vis­i­ble phones was like­ly one of the rooms oth­er than the ‘writ­ing room’.

    2) The old ‘com­put­er’ from the 80’s might have been King’s famous old Wang word proces­sor (always ban­gin’ on his big Wang).

    3) I liked this sum­ma­ry into basic rules. Much of On Writ­ing was aimed at aspir­ing nov­el­ists, and was­n’t much use to me. But these 20 rules will help any­one.

  • IanDM says:

    Good advice. How­ev­er, the bit about not using adverbs rings hol­low. Browse through any SK sto­ry — they are loaded with adverbs includ­ing lots after “he said/she said”.

  • Martin C says:

    Always put ice inside the buck­et next to your table.

    Put pants on when you run, but nev­er when you walk.

    Stay close to those who need more than you have the pow­er to give.

    Under­stand that life is some­thing no one feels the need to begin (et alone end!)

  • Joe J says:

    Sure you need to be a good writer to suc­ceed (which is what we want to do in being good writ­ers — suc­ceed.) But being a good writer does­n’t mean you’ll suc­ceed. And I don’t mean world suc­cess. I mean just some­one oth­er than your moth­er read­ing your man­u­script. In the end, you need read­ers to write. Else it’s hit­ting the ball against the shed wall instead of on the court with anoth­er play­er. You with­er, no mat­ter how hard you read Strunk. Until advi­sors can mean­ing­ful­ly advise about this prick­ly top­ic, find­ing read­ers, it all stays in the draw­er, and what we think of as writ­ing is a voice in a vac­u­um. And that’s not real­ly speak­ing, is it, or writ­ing. But it’s nice peo­ple like Stephen King think­ing about us. It makes you feel con­nect­ed, and not so inca­pable of mak­ing things hap­pen.

  • CLIC AQUÍ says:

    La impor­tan­cia de la lec­tura en los niños es tal que, sus ben­efi­cios se refle­jan a la hora de estu­di­ar y adquirir conocimien­tos. La colab­o­ración de los padres es nece­saria para impul­sar el pro­ce­so de apren­diza­je y para lograr que los niños se acerquen con gus­to a los niños, para que, en defin­i­ti­va, apren­dan cuál es el plac­er de leer.

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    I was in total­ly con­fused when my hus­band divorced me and said he was tired of me. My life was noth­ing with­out him and i tried all i could to make him can­cel the divorce but he said his mind was made up and we went our sep­a­rate ways. I was cry­ing in shock, shame and pain when my friend when search­ing for help and i was told to get in touch with Robin­son buck­ler for help by an old friend of mine when she heard what i was going through and i hur­ried­ly con­tact­ed Robin­son buck­ler and explained every­thing to him and he told me that my hus­band will come back to me beg­ging me to accept him back all with­in 12 to 16 hours. Lat­er that day, my hus­band called me on phone cry­ing and plead­ing for for­give­ness at first, i thought i was dream­ing until he came to the house beg­ging. Right now, we both are liv­ing as one. For more inquires on how to get in touch with this Email: robin­son­bu­cler {@gmail. com}🤞🤞🤞🤞🤞🤞🤞🤞🤞

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