Stephen King’s 20 Tips for Becoming a Frighteningly Good Writer
Have you ever wished you could peer inside the mind of one of the greatest writers in the world and find out exactly what makes them tick?
Well… here’s your chance.
Stephen King has published 49 novels, all of them bestsellers. He has sold more than 350 million copies of his works. According to Forbes, he earns approximately $40 million per year, making him one of the richest writers in the world.
And now he’s going to tell you exactly how to become a frighteningly good writer.
In 2002, King temporarily abandoned writing horror novels, instead publishing On Writing, a little book chronicling his rise to fame and discussing exactly what he believes it takes to become a good writer. Since then, it’s become the most popular book about writing ever written, pulling in over 1000 reviews on Amazon and selling God only knows how many copies.
The book is… magic.
I’ve read On Writing from cover to cover at least five times, and each time, I saw a noticeable improvement in my prose. For one, it teaches the fundamentals of the craft, which is something no writer should ignore, but it also sort of rubs off on you.
As you read through King’s life story, you can’t help but see that, to him, writing isn’t a chore. It’s an adventure through undiscovered worlds where no one knows what’ll happen next (not even him).
And it’s contagious.
You can’t read On Writing and not come away with a smile on your face. Where other writing books are focused on the mechanics of the written word, King shows you how to capture the joy of the craft. You’ll find yourself wanting to write, not because of fame or fortune, but because it’s fun, and there’s nothing else you would rather do.
Personally, it’s inspired me more than any other book I’ve ever read, and if I could recommend only one book to bloggers, On Writing would be it. But don’t take my word for it. Below, I’ve collected a monster list of my favorite quotes from the book, and I also wrote down some of my own thoughts on exactly how they apply to bloggers.
If you enjoy them, grab yourself a copy of On Writing over at Amazon (aff). You won’t regret it.
Here are the quotes:
“I’ve written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side–I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”
In the back of their mind, every popular blogger harbors the same secret:
Given no other choices, we would happily do what we do for free.
Yes, the money and adulation and prestige that stems from a popular blog is nice, but it’s not what drives us to the keyboard. It’s not what wakes us up in the morning, excited and ready to write. It’s not what keeps us glued to a computer screen for 80% of our day.
No, it’s about the buzz. It’s about the joy. It’s about watching an idea take shape on the page and knowing your audience will love it.
All the other benefits are just a happy bonus.
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”
You know Zig Zigler’s old saying, “You can have everything you want in life, if you help enough other people get what they want?”
Well, it’s pretty much the secret to blogging.
If you want more traffic, ask yourself, “What can I give my readers today that would blow their minds? How can I turn their life upside down? What can I say that they couldn’t help but share?”
Answer those questions, and you won’t have to worry about traffic. You’ll get all you can handle.
“You can’t please all of the readers all of the time; you can’t please even some of the readers all of the time, but you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time.”
You want the formula for writing popular blog posts?
Here it is:
- Jot down a list of blog topics you could write about
- Circle the ones at least 80% of your readers would find irresistible
- Write about those topics and nothing else
Simple, but it takes discipline. The better you become at cultivating that discipline, the more popular your writing will become.
“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair–the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.”
Oh, but so many of us do.
We think of our blogs as online journals, places to jot down our thoughts, our own little corners of the world where we can say what we think without fear of anyone cutting us off. It’s easy, harmless, fun, so we do it without thinking, without caring, without giving it the respect it really deserves.
If you want the world to take you seriously, first you have to take yourself seriously. You have to look at your blog as not just a blog but an opportunity to change the world.
And then you have to write as if the whole world is listening.
“I remember an immense feeling of possibility at the idea, as if I had been ushered into a vast building with closed doors and had been given leave to open any I liked. There were more doors than one person could ever open in a lifetime, I thought (and still think).”
After a few months or years of writing about the same topic, you might be tempted to feel like there’s nothing else to say. You wonder how you’re going to write a post for the next day, much less the next three or four years.
I’ve been there, and you know what?
Writers don’t run out of ideas. They just become lazy explorers.
The world is full of breathtaking things to write about. Our job as bloggers is to find them and bring them back to our audience, letting them “Ooh” and “Aah” at our exotic discoveries.
So, get off your ass, and go exploring.
Watch a documentary. Go on a trip. Read a damn book.
Do anything but sit there in front of the computer and wonder what to write next. That’s just pathetic.
“If you’re just starting out as a writer, you could do worse than strip your television’s electric plug wire, wrap a spike around it, and then stick it back into the wall. See what blows, and how far.”
A couple years ago, I decided to do a test. I cut my TV time to one show per day and then read for two hours instead.
My creativity exploded. I went from writing 1,000 words per day to pumping out over 2,000 words per day in the same amount of time.
So, now I’m a believer. Television may be popular, but it’s poisonous to creativity, and all truly dedicated writers need to limit their exposure to it.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
Of course, most bloggers do neither. We start a blog, squeeze in the occasional post between going to the gym and picking up take-out, and then expect it to somehow lead to fame and fortune.
Sorry, but that’s not how it works. Every popular blogger I know reads at least one book every week and writes at least 1,000 words every day.
Yes, it’s a lot, but success comes at a price, folks. Are you willing to pay it?
“Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
In our case, it’s not the desk we have to fear, but the smart phone, the tablet, and the laptop, all jangling for our attention, all sucking us in, all immersing us into the world of social media.
And it’s dangerous.
One day you wake up to realize your life is nothing more than a series of digital communications. You wonder, is all that blogging and twittering and facebooking really serving you, or are you serving them? Who is the master, and who is the slave?
If you ever find the answer is the latter, disconnect for a while. Social media is supposed to be an echo of your real life, not the other way around. Never forget that.
“All the arts depend upon telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing is the purest distillation.”
In school, we are taught writing has three and only three purposes: to inform, to entertain, and to persuade. It’s true, I think, but it’s also missing a subtle requirement:
To inform, first you have to be informed. To entertain, first you have to be entertained. To persuade, first you have to be persuaded.
Then and only then are you ready to write.
And when you do, your job isn’t so much jotting down words on the page as beaming the ideas inside your head into the heads of other people. Words are just the medium through which the transfer happens.
“Paragraphs are almost always as important for how they look as for what they say; they are maps of intent.”
Ever stopped to look at the way popular blogs are formatted?
Probably not, unless you’re a total nerd (like me), but give it a try sometime. You’ll notice a surprising pattern:
They all use short paragraphs.
Most of the paragraphs are two or three sentences. Occasionally, they’ll use a one sentence paragraph to emphasize an important point.
The shorter your paragraphs are, the less dense and threatening the post looks. It’s a simple thing, but it has a huge impact on how many people stick around and read what you have to say.
“Writing is refined thinking.”
A lot of writing books tell you to “write like you talk,” and while I suppose that’s fine for a beginner, it’s death if you ever want to be a respected authority. Yes, your writing should be conversational, but it should be the conversation you would have if you had time to think everything through and say exactly the right things.
The truth is, any great piece of writing is preceded by hours and hours of thinking. Have more respect for the power of words than to spit them out without any real forethought.
“Write with the door closed, and rewrite with the door open.”
If you’re ever writing a post, and you get stuck, try this:
Write as if no one in the world will ever read it.
Say exactly what you feel. Don’t think. Just get your thoughts out there in all their disheveled, chaotic glory.
This is what Stephen calls writing with the” door closed.” It’s just you and your work, nobody else, and it’s the first stage of writing.
The second stage is opening the door to the rest of the world — a metaphor for pondering how the average Joe might respond to your new creation and making the changes necessary to help it survive.
And yes, there will be changes. Lots and lots of them.
“We need to experience the mediocre and the outright rotten; such experience helps us to recognize those things when they begin to creep into our own work, and to steer clear of them.”
It’s happened to all of us.
You click a link, and you stumble onto somebody’s blog. Not just any blog, mind you, but an extraordinarily crappy one, devoid of any comments, wit, or charm, and yet somehow managing to survive.
When confronted with such a pathetic creature, most people make a bolt for the “Back” arrow, and that’s fine, if you’re just a reader. If you’re a writer, on the other, you’re far better served by sticking around and analyzing exactly what makes the blog so pathetic.
- Why are their headlines so incomprehensible?
- What, exactly, makes the blog look amateurish?
- How does their grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure make them sound uneducated?
Sure, studying the best is a good way to learn, but so is studying the worst, not because you want to emulate them, but because you begin to “recognize those things as they creep into your own work.”
“This isn’t the the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks.”
To many aspiring writers, a great piece of writing is something mystical, filled with an almost frightening power, and they look at the writers who create such magic with reverence, maybe even worship, longing for the day when they can discover their closely-guarded “secrets.”
Yes, there is some magic to it, but the same magic exists in every type of art, and it’s accessible to everyone. Here’s how:
Write. Every day. For years.
Is it hard work?
But so is any job worth doing.
“We’ve all heard someone say, ‘Man, it was so great (or so horrible/strange/funny) … I just can’t describe it!’ If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition.”
If you pay attention to only one quote in this article, pay attention to this one.
Our job as bloggers isn’t so much saying what we think as putting what our readers think into words, describing it with such clarity and intimacy they suspect us of reading their minds. Do that, and you won’t have to beg your readers for their attention. They’ll follow you to the ends of the earth.
“Not a week goes by that I don’t receive at least one pissed-off letter (most weeks there are more) accusing me of being foulmouthed, bigoted, homophobic, murderous, frivolous, or downright psychopathic.”
Great writing polarizes people.
Some people will love it, and some people hate it. It’s the way you know you’re on the right track.
It’s also the way you know you’re off-track.
If you’re not getting any hate mail, it’s not because you’re the world’s most lovable writer. It’s because you lack the conviction to say anything of substance.
The penalty isn’t death. It’s worse:
“There are lots of would-be censors out there, and although they may have different agendas, they all want basically the same thing: for you to see the world they see… or to at least shut up about what you do see that’s different. They are the agents of the status quo.”
Many a talented blogger has been shocked and even silenced when confronted with the seething, almost bestial hatred of critics. You think, “Well, I’ll just ignore it,” but it eats at you, and even if you succeed at not responding (no easy feat), you often find yourself thinking about what the critics will say when you write.
And there are two ways to respond.
You can either shut up, taking what was your unique and wonderful about your work and shuttering it away in a mental closet. Or, you can fight back, not by criticizing the critic, but by realizing you’re in a war against the status quo, and the only way to fight back is to be delightfully, unapologetically weird.
“Try any goddam thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it.”
How do you know when you’re going too far?
You don’t. At least, not at first.
One day, write something so new and different it’s either a work of genius or the stupidest thing conceived in the mind of man. The next, examine your creation to find out which is true.
If it’s stupid, delete it. If it’s genius, publish it.
The mistake most bloggers make, of course, is never trying anything new at all. They do whatever their English teachers told them is “right.”
And that’s just sad.
“You undoubtedly have your own thoughts, interests, and concerns, and they have arisen, as mine have, from your experiences and adventures as a human being. . . . You should use them in your work.”
Notice he said “use them in your work,” not “let them become your work.”
Including stories about your life in your blog post is fine and dandy, especially if those stories are interesting, but most bloggers suffer not from a lack of stories but from an extravagance of them, writing about little nothings that happened to them and somehow expecting these boring trivialities to make them famous. Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way.
Stories are like condiments. They add flavor, sure enough, but eating them all by themselves is just gross.
“While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”
And finally, we come to the ray of hope.
You want thousands of loyal readers who love your work and happily tell all their friends to check you out?
You don’t have to be a great writer. In the beginning, you don’t even have to be good.
You just have to be competent.
What, exactly, is “competence?” Here’s my take:
You can write down your thoughts, and people think, “Hmm, that makes sense.”
Maybe you don’t come across as a genius. Maybe your vocabulary is simple. Maybe your grammar isn’t even good enough to get a pass from your high school English teacher.
But you have good ideas.
You can communicate those ideas.
People like what you’re saying.
If you can do those three things, you can work on the rest. No, you’ll probably never win a Pulitzer, but newsflash, I don’t know a single popular blogger who has one of those sitting on their bookshelf.
Most are just merely competent writers who, over the years, got better. They wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, and one day, they woke up to discover the world liked what they had to say.
The secret, though?
Writing and writing and writing and writing.
The reason most bloggers fail isn’t a lack of talent or smarts or technical know-how. It’s a refusal to take what they do seriously. They don’t believe their blog can be anything, so they never put in the work to make it anything.
But you’re going to be different, right?
You’re going to commit yourself to learning the craft?
You’re going to sit down and actually write, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, until you really and truly get good at this?
You better bet your ass.
If not, I’ll come down there and knock the hell out of ya.