In On Writing, a book that balances autobiography with writing tips, Stephen King delivers a lot of great advice. Not all of it holds up, but some of the things he covers are invaluable if you want to be a successful writer. Here are a few of the lessons he shared with us.
1. Write for yourself, not an audience
Pleasing everyone is impossible, and writing crowd pleasers is one of the lowest forms of writing. Don’t try to guess what the market will want when your book is published; focus on the story you want to tell. Write honestly, and don’t worry about the audience, because as Stephen King says,
“If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”
2. Turn off the TV
“TV—while working out or anywhere else—really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.”
This may have held more merit in 2000 when On Writing was published, but that was before the boom of HBO and original cable programming. In 2014, there’s a lot you can learn about storytelling from some of the stellar television that’s gracing our airwaves, so I don’t think King’s argument holds as much weight here as it once did.
3. Avoid disturbances while writing
Stephen King is not wrong, however, about the importance of keeping the television set off when writing. As he says,
“There should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or video games for you to fool around with.”
Such distractions will sever you from the story you’re trying to tell. If you need some kind of noise in the background, noninterruptive nature sounds or instrumental music are your best bets.
4. Finish your book in three months
“The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”
This is one of Stephen King’s most divisive tips, and one I don’t personally subscribe to. Even if King wrote The Stand in 90 days, which is hard to believe, every author has their own pace. However, King is right to stress that a successful writer doesn’t leave a project lingering too long, lest the author loses their momentum. I just don’t know if three months and one day is the cutoff point.
5. 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.”
I love this quote; it’s so true. JRR Tolkien didn’t let himself get overwhelmed while he made progress on his opus. He just kept writing, one word after another, and look how that turned out. Do the same to be a successful writer.
6. Avoid adverbs and passive voice
This is probably King’s most technical advice, and it’s very astute. Adverbs are not your friend, often coming across as excessive to readers, and active voice is almost always a better choice than passive voice.
7. Don’t mimic other styles
“One cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what that writer is doing may seem.”
Everyone’s inspired by what they consume, but if you want to be a successful writer instead of an uninspired one, be careful about wearing your influences too much on your sleeve.
8. Give yourself time to gain perspective
As King says,
“You’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.”
I wait at least a day or two after writing an article to submit it to Lifehack and other outlets. If I just wrote something today, it’s too fresh in my mind for me to recognize its flaws tonight. Set your story aside so that you can have a little more perspective when you’re editing.
9. You’re not writing a research paper
World-building is great, but Stephen King was very astute when he wrote,
“Remember that word back. That’s where the research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it.”
Successful writers make the story their first priority, with world-building a little further down the list.
10. Read a lot, write a lot
“You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”
Even if someone is working with you one on one, they still won’t be able to instruct you on some subjects as well as you can teach them to yourself. Never be afraid to learn things on your own.
11. Happiness is the goal
“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.”
This might be Stephen King’s most important point. Only a handful of people strike it rich off the words they write, so be a writer for the right reasons.
Featured photo credit: Michael Femia via flickr.com