A short list of valuable Stephen King writing tips I took from his book, “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”, for young writers who want to improve on this art.
I recently finished reading a book titled “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” by Stephen King. In this work, the author tells how some incidents of his life have made him the writer we know today, and how young writers can improve on this art byy explaining valuable writing tips.
Stephen King is one of the most successful writers in the world. His books have sold over 400 million copies. He has published 59 novels, many of them adapted for film, series and even comics. Among his most successful books are It, The Shining and Carrie. He is also the ninth most translated author in the world.
In this article, I will highlight the most important tips I took from the book, both on the technical side of writing and on the attitude that King adopted throughout his life that helped him achieve success in literature.
1. Lose the Shame of Writing
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, little Stephen King came up with the idea of turning a beloved movie, The Pit and the Pendulum, into a book. Unaware that he was violating every possible plagiarism law, King worked hard on this little project for two days. He wrote, printed, and sold some copies of The Pit and the Pendulum at school. No sooner said than done. It was a sales hit. Young King made a staggering $9 from book sales and was happy with his life. “I was walking around in a kind of dream, unable to believe my sudden ascension to previously unsuspected realms of wealth.” he said in the book “On Writing”.
Unfortunately, King’s happiness was short-lived. Miss Hisler, the school teacher, called him to the board and told him that he could not turn the school into a market and that he could not sell garbage like The Pit and the Pendulum. “What I don’t understand, Stevie is why you’d write junk like this in the first place. You’re talented. Why do you want to waste your abilities?”, she said.
In telling this story, Stephen King teaches us a lesson: Many people will make you ashamed of what you do in life, be it writing, dancing, or any other activity. King says he has only lost the shame of what he wrote after he was 40, and many writers of fiction and poetry have heard that they are wasting the “talent God has given him.”
“If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all. I’m not editorializing, just trying to give you the facts as I see them”.
2. “ Write with the Door Closed, Rewrite with the Door Open”.
As a young man, Stephen King had the opportunity to work as a sports reporter with John Gould, editor of the Lisbon weekly newspaper. King’s first work was reporting on how the school’s basketball games went. After King wrote the text, John Gould revised and corrected, cutting out unnecessary words.
It was then that Stephen King had a revelation. John Gould told him: “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”. That is, the writer begins by writing something of his own, for himself. But after finishing the first draft, the text needs to be read and revised by other people, because the work becomes of interest to readers. “If you’re very lucky, more will want to do the former than the latter”, King said.
3. Improve Your Toolbox
“Grammar is not just a pain in the ass; it’s the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking”.
Stephen King calls “Toolbox” the whole technical part of writing. To improve as a writer, you must master the Toolbox. And the most used tool by the writer is vocabulary.
Regarding vocabulary, Stephen King gives us some advice: make no effort to improve it. This may seem odd, but he explains that one of the worst things a writer can do is over-embellish the text with difficult and long words, and it can be objective and straightforward using common words. “This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes”, he said. King still advises to use the first word that comes to mind, if appropriate, because even if you can think of another word, it may not be as good as the first.
Another important tip King gives us: Avoid the passive voice. Using the passive voice reveals the writer’s shyness, while the active voice shows that the writer is taking control of the situation and the text. The writer must worry about making the reader’s life easier, and the passive voice makes this process difficult. Stephen King gives us an example: “The writer threw the rope” (active voice) sounds much better than “the rope was thrown by the writer” (passive voice).
4. Read and Write a Lot.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
Stephen King reads 70 to 80 books a year, mostly fiction. Not for a specific purpose, but for enjoying reading. And read slowly. According to him, it is possible to draw several lessons from each book read, both from good books and — and especially — from bad books.
You don’t read fiction just for enjoying a good story, but to open up to different styles and compare your writing to that of great writers. In this way, the writer expands his own perspectives and increases his potential of what can be done in this art.
Also, King doesn’t believe in people who say they are writers but don’t have time to read. Those who have no time to read have neither the time nor the tools to write.
Stephen King reads in every possible environment, because, for him, “Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life”. Grocery lines, restrooms, traffic (with audio books), meals, gym treadmill, etc. Virtually all environments where it is possible to read.
5. Talent vs. Practice
“Practice is invaluable (and should feel good, really not like practice at all) and that honesty is indispensable”.
In one passage of the book, Stephen King tells a brief story of his 7-year-old son Owen, who decided to play the saxophone. King and his wife, Tabby, when they noticed their son’s willingness to want to be a musician, put him in music lessons and hoped that he would be a prodigy in this area. But King soon realized that it wouldn’t work. Why? Because King realized that Owen, though practicing saxophone during school four days a week, soon kept the instrument in its case. Owen had no pleasure playing the saxophone out of school. It was a mechanical and repetitive activity, not natural and pleasurable. There was no passion in performing this activity, and for Stephen King, it makes no sense. “What this suggested to me was that when it came to the sax and my son, there was never going to be any real play-time; it was all going to be a rehearsal. That’s no good.”
King argues that, regardless of the nature of the activity, whether it is to play a musical instrument, write or run a 4×400 relay when a person goes having an interest and talent for it, he will do it full time, even if no one is witnessing, because will be happy. “Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless,” he says.
6. Get Organized to Write, But Stop Nonsense
King says in his book that you don’t need a room full of luxuries to write. While a quiet place for this activity, such as libraries, is important, it is unhealthy to be overly demanding, or writing can become unworkable. Just one door that can be closed. Stephen King wrote Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot with a typewriter in the laundry room of the trailer where he and his wife lived.
However, it is important that the writer has a serene environment when working. And that means eliminating any distractions like telephone, television and video games. But despite this, King says there is no perfect writing environment. Routine interruptions are common, such as when your wife calls asking to fix the clogged toilet, for example. The writer must know how to handle these situations. Over time Stephen King found that these interruptions do not hinder the writing process, but may even help.
7. Learn to Work Even Without Inspiration
“There was no inspiration that first afternoon, only a kind of stubborn determination and the hope that things would get better if I kept at it.”
In 1999, as King walked along the side of a road, a van, also walking along the side of the road, collided with him, leaving him completely debilitated. After the serious accident, some surgery and recovery time, and even sitting in a wheelchair with severe body aches, Stephen King wrote again. Not to impress anyone, nor to be part of a cliché motivational story, but because “I had been in terrible situations before which the writing had helped me get over — had helped me forget myself for at least a little while. Perhaps it would help me again”, he said.
Even with pain, no inspiration, and with great difficulty, King was able to write five hundred words. Over time the pains were easing, and he was able to write more and better.
As pleasant as an inspiration at the moment is a sense of accomplishment. If the writer’s job is to write, why not be happy when you can do so under circumstances that do not favor you? The writing gave Stephen King a sense of work done that was as pleasurable as a momentary inspiration. We won’t always have the inspiration to write, and that’s fine. Just persist for a while, and maybe a good idea might emerge from there.
“The scariest moment is always just before you
start. After that, things can only get better.”
8. Tabitha Spruce
“Tell Tabby I love her very much”, Stephen King said when he was taken by helicopter to the hospital after the van accident in 1999.
On Writing is not a book that just goes over tips on how to write better. It is also a book about help, reciprocity, and love. It tells how a person can be by your side at the most important times and often save your career.
“For me, that first reader is my wife, Tabitha”. Tabitha Spruce, Stephen King’s wife, is his Ideal Reader. It is to her that Stephen thinks in writing, even with the door closed. “Do all opinions weigh the same? Not for me. In the end, listen most closely to Tabby because she’s the one I write for, the one I want to wow”.
King said that Tabby played an important role in her life at crucial moments, such as when she rescued Carrie’s manuscript from the trash, a story that even King did not believe could succeed.
And the last lesson I took from the book is this. In the words of Stephen King:
“When I’m asked for “the secret of my success” (an absurd idea, that, but impossible to get away from), I sometimes say there are two: I stayed physically healthy, and stayed married”.
The book also contains a number of other useful tips that I didn’t discuss in this text. “About Writing: About Writing: Art in Memories” is a must-have book for anyone who wants to improve their writing skills.