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.

  • Alexandra Antonovitc says:

    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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