Stephen King’s 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.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in March 2014.

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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 (25)
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  • Alicia elliott says:

    I love you Mr. King I am your con­stant reader!!!I have all your books my daugh­ter and broth­er are con­stant read­er er too. My broth­er is an artist he paint­ed both­er it.s for my birth­day thanky­ou thank you thank you for night mares

  • Stephanie says:

    Hi mr king
    Along time ago you answered a ques­tion.. about writ­ing and get­ting pub­lished. I still have not tack­led my sto­ry yet but I know I must do it..all the char­ac­ters are still float­ing around in my imag­i­na­tion zone. I do want to thank you for answer­ing my ques­tion and for all the inter­est­ing night­mares you wove so intri­cate­ly in my dreams
    After read­ing some of your books.
    They fed my imag­i­na­tion.
    Thank you..

  • Annunaki says:

    Used to think he was a good writer .. until I entered junior high. Now I see how child­ish he real­ly is. It’s OK. He can join the rest of the mob of pro­gres­sives that have infect­ed Hol­ly­weird, that I total­ly ignore now. Movies today are noth­ing but pro­pa­gan­da vehi­cles .. push­ing rad­i­cal pro­gres­sive garbage down our throats any chance they get. They have ruined not only movies but com­e­dy, so called jour­nal­ism, and def­i­nite­ly the music indus­try.

    Trump is a breath of fresh air, but he would have to be Her­cules to hold back the army of per­verts that are assault­ing this great nation.

    Midterms are com­ing! Pre­pare your­selves for more dis­ap­point­ment, Pro­gres­sive morons. Low IQ should nev­er go to war with High IQ. It will get ugly.

  • G Dante says:

    No patri­ot cares what he says fact, stephen king is with the peo­ple in the nwo fact.

  • farfignugen says:

    If you’re buy­ing into some­one else’s rules of writ­ing you’re already lost.

  • DespicableMe says:

    King is a NWO glob­al­ist.

  • JosieQ says:

    “The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a sea­son.”

    Big rea­son (not that we need­ed anoth­er) why his books suck so hard!

    Also what’s this “kill your dar­lings” crap? We’re not all writ­ing hor­ror snuff, you douche.

  • Rimbaud Rambo says:

    While Mr. King apt­ly and poignant­ly makes a great point about use of adverbs, and there are some great points about the pas­sive voice made by Mr. King, I can’t help but (still) con­clude that his writ­ing is made-for-Hol­ly­wood pap. He’s more or less the most notable writer loved by read­ers who don’t actu­al­ly like read­ing, or who have some sort of dis­dain for lit­er­a­ture. WASPs, 6th graders, Insta­gram wannabe mod­els… those are King’s peo­ple, real­ly (but it’s a very large mar­ket, so fair enough). Also, to note, try­ing to come across too “strong” in your writ­ing seems ama­teur­ish and forced, as that’s effec­tive­ly how every 8th grad­er is encour­aged to write. As one exam­ple of how that comes across as ama­teur­ish, see: Mr. King’s body of work.

    All of that said, these accu­sa­tions that he’s some NWO pup­pet, push­ing the “pro­gres­sive agen­da” (it’s worth not­ing that the pro­gres­sive elite wear black cloaks and get togeth­er in a room every year to dis­cuss how to push their agen­da, obvi­ous­ly), very secret soci­ety sort of shit… I think maybe I like him now? I mean, if those sorts of dull shills who buy into that crap dis­like him so much, then I feel oblig­ed to defend him. So, all hail the genius of Stephen King!!! Bra­vo, Steve!

  • Dee says:

    “Also what’s this “kill your dar­lings” crap? We’re not all writ­ing hor­ror snuff, you douche.”

    What King means by this is that you should­n’t fall too in love with your writ­ing, and some­times you need to take out parts for the good of the sto­ry, even if they’re the parts you love. In oth­er words, you mis­in­ter­pret­ed what he was say­ing.

  • irene says:

    I used to think that Steo­hen King was a great writer too.
    Ever notice how he over­plays his hand, he goes on and on after the sto­ry already has lost its steam.
    And if a writer real­ly needs King to tell him to turn off the TV then hes not a writer any­way.
    Also when it comes to the hor­ror genre there are plen­ty bet­ter writ­ers out there , ones that dont steal their ideas from Math­e­son and Brad­bury

  • Michael Camp says:

    Some sage, straight-for­ward advice on the craft of writ­ing from one of my favorite authors of hor­ror fic­tion! And what’s with the con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry non­sense in this com­ments sec­tion? Did the same idiot cre­ate three dif­fer­ent names/accounts to spout lunatic fringe dri­v­el com­plete­ly incon­gru­ous to the sto­ry?

  • John M. Kerr says:

    The open­ing line in the first of your sto­ries that I read pulled me out away from shore, unmoored in the mist. Char­ac­ters, grainy, and unre­al as an artist’s char­coal scrib­bles, and hap­py lit­tle trees; Then emerg­ing out of the dark, bright and stark as chrome and blood-red paint. Lat­er on, Sagas of the wast­ed lands and door­ways that open and close. These echo my fear and hope of what’s next, my unwill­ing­ness to put the paper win­dows down and sleep. But I know there are oth­er worlds than these.…

  • JosieQ says:

    If I said “I like to smash babies” and it got trun­cat­ed to “I like babies,” would you call any­one out on respond­ing to that frag­ment mis­in­ter­pret­ing?

    But hey thanks for clar­i­fy­ing.

  • Sharon says:

    You might avoid resort­ing to imma­ture name call­ing and unpremed­i­tat­ed com­ments on read­ings you don’t under­stand if you don’t want to be called out on them. Also, any­one famil­iar with Stephen King knows he pri­mar­i­ly writes hor­ror and so that is the audi­ence he is address­ing. Since you appar­ent­ly write in anoth­er genre, find a best-sell­ing author you like and see what he/she has to say. You will prob­a­bly find those com­ments more com­pat­i­ble to your lik­ing.

  • Jim Valko says:

    Great points! Espe­cial­ly “Writ­ing is about get­ting hap­py.” True. How­ev­er, mak­ing mon­ey from my writ­ing makes me a lot hap­pi­er than not.

  • Adi says:

    Thank you S.King, I lost the abil­i­ty to use my visu­al imag­i­na­tion when read­ing after a head injury. By read­ing King’s sto­ry’s in audio for­mat helped me to recov­er that abil­i­ty and is help­ing cog­ni­tive recov­ery. Read­ing is always a strong foun­da­tion for much in life.

  • meldie says:

    On Writ­ing is a fan­tas­tic book for writ­ers of all lev­els, but espe­cial­ly begin­ners.

    And to the com­menters throw­ing shade on Stephen King, con­sid­er this: with words alone, Stephen King has enter­tained, ter­ri­fied, pro­voked, com­fort­ed, ener­gized, inspired, and stim­u­lat­ed the minds of bil­lions of peo­ple; intro­duced some of the most icon­ic char­ac­ters, set­tings and sto­ries in pop cul­ture; pro­vid­ed the source for some of the great­est movies ever made; and influ­enced gen­er­a­tions of writ­ers, film­mak­ers, artists and thinkers all over the world.

    Get back to me when you’ve accom­plished some­thing more than trolling with words. Until then, take a seat.

  • Jan says:

    You should add “leave you pol­i­tics at home”.

  • Annunaki is a looser says:

    Speak­ing of child­ish, you must be refer­ring to you “Hero” trump. Talk about easy and pre­dictable read­ing. “This is a good thing, not a bad thing” “Best Ever, is me”

    Takes a sim­ple mind to like a sim­ple man.….

  • Rimbaud Rambo says:

    Meldie — With all due respect, you com­ment is basi­cal­ly a band­wag­on fal­la­cy, fol­lowed by an argu­men­tum ad pop­u­lum, fol­lowed by an appeal to accom­plish­ment. It would be like argu­ing that Kim Kar­dashi­an is a more impor­tant his­tor­i­cal fig­ure (or will be) because she has more Insta­gram likes than Cather­ine the Great, or say­ing because peo­ple love Bey­once then she’s there­fore great and no one else can crit­i­cize her, or because Don­ald Trump was elect­ed pres­i­dent then no one else can cri­tique his actions (because, I mean, those peo­ple crit­i­ciz­ing him weren’t elect­ed pres­i­dent, so they can take a seat, right?).

    On that note, I’m not sure you’re real­ly qual­i­fied to appre­ci­ate King’s writ­ing, or any lit­er­a­ture at all. I mean, you’re hard­ly as accom­plished a read­er — or crit­ic — as John Ruskin or Wal­ter Pater, so you’re clear­ly not qual­i­fied to have an opin­ion on Mr. King’s work, now are you?

    Stephen King writes pap. It’s cool if you like pap (God knows I do, in the form of crap TV shows and what­not), but… heh. Seri­ous­ly though, if you like his work, then great. I’m glad you enjoy it. But just because Mr. King has cre­at­ed sev­er­al icon­ic char­ac­ters does­n’t mean his work does­n’t come across as pap to oth­ers. He’s provoked/terrified/inspired many, and he’s bored many oth­ers s***less. That’s how it goes. Diver­si­ty of opin­ion and all that, right? Peace.

  • JosieQ says:

    Again, it’s the arti­cle’s fault.

    And again, King is an absolute douche. I glad­ly stand by that. ^-^

  • Ben says:

    Irony is not lost on you, I see. Brad­bury advo­cat­ed lit­er­al­ly cut­ting writ­ten words from oth­er works, past­ing them onto “paste sheets” to cre­ate new sto­ries. In that sense he stole ideas from oth­ers. Point of fact here any writer will glad­ly steal ideas even from their moth­er’s urn.

    Ideas are not prop­er­ty to be owned. They are stolen cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly in writ­ing as well as oth­er indus­tries. This is not say­ing the arrange­ment of words as a nar­ra­tive can­not be copy-writ­ten, or the algo­rithm that saves dri­vers from crash­ing on wet roads can­not be patent­ed. Yes, they can but at the core of these lies ideas which are com­mu­nal and shared by all.

    Besides there are no new ideas only dif­fer­ent voic­es express­ing them in a dif­fer­ent man­ner. Con­sid­er the axiom, “noth­ing new under the sun.” That’s a tru­ism that has been around quite some very long time. And yes, even in music the artists have real­ized there’s only so many ways to arrange notes and cre­ate melodies. It seems to some degree we, the human race, have solved all the maths home­work.

    Now, we need to apply that knowl­edge and some­how fig­ure out when it is appro­pri­ate to apply it, leav­ing us with wis­dom. Appar­ent­ly that’s not here in the com­men­tary sec­tion of a web based media site. Excuse me, need to attend oth­er stuff.

  • Ben says:

    My Novem­ber 8, 2018 at 7:37 pm reply is for the com­ment at Octo­ber 17, 2018 at 9:25 pm to clar­i­fy, thanks.

  • sam says:

    Great advice here. To each his own, of course, as far as his sto­ries go. I love a lot of his nov­els and did­n’t care for some of his more pop­u­lar ones. It, The Shin­ing, even The Stand did­n’t do it for me.

    For writ­ers try­ing to break in, this arti­cle left out the sin­gle most impor­tant thing he said in his book On Writ­ing. He men­tions it briefly and only one time when talk­ing about how he final­ly got picked up by a major pub­lish­er for Car­rie. Para­phras­ing: “I made a friend in pub­lish­ing.”

    While King deserved it, and cer­tain­ly put in the time and effort, no one would know his name with­out that friend except for the rel­a­tive few that hap­pened to read his pub­lished shorts sto­ries. Things have changed some­what with ebooks and the inter­net, but there are very few authors who make it big with­out the machine behind them. Can you imag­ine how many good or even great authors gave up because they nev­er made that friend?

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