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

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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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