16 Things We Can Learn From Stephen King About Writing

Hey! Welcome back.  In this post I’m going to breakdown some writing advice from one of the best-selling authors of all time, American horror/thriller/supernatural author Stephen King.  King has written over 80 books and counting, sold over 350 million copies, and has had screen adaptations of several novels including ‘The Shining’ (‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’), ‘Carrie’ (one of the most frequently banned books in the US according to the First Amendment Museum) and ‘IT’ (yep, that movie about the terrifying clown).  He also happens to be my favourite author, alongside JK Rowling. 

King’s non-fiction novel ‘On Writing’ is, as the front cover states, ‘part biography, part collection of tips for the aspiring writer’.  Let’s take a look at the second part of the book which contains King’s advice and opinions on writing. 

  1. Vocabulary

You don’t have to have the widest vocabulary to be a writer but you need to know your audience and write according to what they will accept (crass expressions, swear words and phonetically rendered street vocabulary included). 

‘One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.’

King advises that you should use the first word that comes to mind (assuming it is appropriate and colourful) when trying to express what you want to say.  If you dwell on it too much you will no doubt end up finding another word, however it will sound like you are trying too hard. 

2. Dialogue

Dialogue is crucial in defining characters and gives your cast their voices. What people say conveys their character.  King gives the example of a man who didn’t often attend school and so has little education.  Rather than stating this King portrays it via dialogue, with poor grammar and incorrect words.

‘Dialogue is a skill best learned by talking and listening to others – particularly listening, picking up the accents, rhythm, dialect and slang of various groups.’

The key to good dialogue is honesty.  You need to be honest about the words coming out of your characters’ mouths.  This includes profanity, racism, homophobic slurs etc.  Your characters’ must speak freely and you must not worry about what external people may think or say. 

3. Grammar

Verbs come in active and passive. You should avoid the passive tense (King refers to The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jnr and E.B. White, a concise book on writing that gives the same advice.)  This section contains one of my favourite quotes rephrased (King’s actual quote is ‘the road to hell is paved with adverbs’).  He states that adverbs are not a writer’s friend; they show that the writer is worried that they are not expressing themselves clearly and not getting to the point of what they want to say.

4. Characterization

To build realistic characters you need to pay attention to how real people behave and then tell the truth about what you see. This is the key to developing well rounded characters.  You can’t lump people into categories, for example ‘the bad guy’, ‘the bitch’ or ‘the best friend’.  Characters should not be clichés; they need to come to life.  King allows his characters to grow and develop at their own pace, revealing themselves to him as the story progresses.  It is important to also use your imagination when constructing your characters; really think about the situations your characters find themselves in and ask yourself how they would react. King believes that every character you create is partly you.

‘When you ask yourself what a certain character will do given a certain set of circumstances, you’re making the decision based on what you yourself would or wouldn’t do.  Added to this version of yourself are the character traits, both lovely and unlovely, that you observe in others.’

5. Paragraph Structure

Paragraph structure includes length, the speed of the sentences within them, and how these elements contribute to the pace and flow of the novel.  King argues that the paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing.

‘[Paragraphs are] the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words.’

6. Reading as a Writer

Reading is how you learn what you like and what you don’t like.  So if you are going to spend thousands of hours writing, you should spend tens of thousands of hours reading.  A major part of my philosophy on writing is based on King’s following quote:

‘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.’

7. When to write

King’s advice on how often you should write is to have a schedule, no matter what it is.  He himself writes every day and finishes his first draft within three months.  He does this in order to stay involved with his story and in tune with his characters.  If you’re looking for an example of a structured schedule you can download my free Writer’s Planner at nathaliesaleeba.ck.page. 

8. Where to write

Your writing room should be a private place with no distractions, a door that can be closed, and your desk should be in a corner or against a wall. 

9. What to write

Should you stick to writing what you know? According to King you should write anything that you want, as long as you tell the truth.  If we only wrote what we knew, we wouldn’t have Hogwarts, or Middle-earth, or Westeros! King uses John Grisham as an example; Grisham combines what he knows and what he doesn’t by writing legal thrillers (he has experience in the legal world but *doubtfully* has experience with the mob.)  You should also write what you love to read.

‘Write what you like, then imbue it with life and your own personal knowledge.’

10. Parts of a novel (to plot or not to plot)

King feels that stories consist of 3 parts – narration (which moves the story from A-B and then to Z), description (which creates a sensory experience for the reader), and dialogue (which brings the characters to life.).  He does not consider plot a part of the story.  He never plots his novels as he feels this makes them too structured and they come across contrived, preferring instead to let his characters lead the way – then the writer also gets the joy of being the story’s first reader!  This may not be for everyone – some writers fly by the seat of their pants and others plot out their novels before they begin (James Patterson is of the latter).  King believes that stories are like fossils – they are found and as you continue to dig (write) the fossil (story) takes shape.

11. Description

Description should begin in your mind and end in your reader’s mind.  If you don’t provide enough description, your reader will feel bewildered and nearsighted, yet if you provide too much the reader gets bogged down in details and images.  Locale and texture are more important than your characters’ physical description. A few well-chosen details go a long way and leave room for the reader’s imagination.  King explains that the process of writing description starts with clear seeing and ends with clear writing.

12. Theme

When considering theme don’t worry about it at the start of your writing – address this in the first edit you do, where you will pick up on symbolism, imagery and literary homage.  Begin with your story and progress to your theme.  If you get stuck during the first draft, ask yourself what it is you are writing about. 

13. Pace

Let your novel unfold at its own pace.  To find a happy medium, think about your Ideal Reader (the person you are writing for and who should be at the forefront of your mind during your first draft in particular) and ask yourself what they would like.  Then ask your Ideal Reader once they have read it.

14. Backstory

Backstory helps define character and establishes motivation, but it needs to be incorporated into your novel seamlessly and gracefully.  King isn’t a fan of flashbacks – he feels that they are ‘boring and corny.’ They can however be used as a tool to provide backstory.  Talk to your Ideal Reader about how they feel you have incorporated backstory, what they found boring and what worked for them.

15. Research

While it is important to do your research, it should remain in the background of your story.  King reminds us that even though we may find something interesting, our reader may not want to be bogged down with the information.

16. Reviewing and Feedback

King writes two drafts and a polished version (which sometimes turns into a third draft).  He recommends not showing anyone your writing until you have finished your first draft.  When you are finished, get your Ideal Reader to review your novel but promise to only talk to you about it once you are ready.  King’s next recommendation is to let your novel rest for 6 weeks then return to it with fresh eyes and make any necessary changes.  Following this, get your Ideal Reader to reread it and ask a few close, reliable people to also review it.  If everyone who reads your book points out the same problem, then it is a problem and you should change it.  If people have issues with different things, then it’s not a problem and you don’t have to change it.  Aim for resonance – you want your story to linger in the reader’s mind.  King uses this Rewrite Formula:

‘2nd Draft = 1st Draft minus 10%’

I found ‘On Writing’ informative, incredibly helpful and an excellent resource, one that definitely belongs on your bookshelf.  I hope this post helps you and I can’t wait to connect with you again next week!



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5 thoughts on “16 Things We Can Learn From Stephen King About Writing

  1. Great list. Well-written and a great article overall. My personal likes for Stephen King is his description. He always knows how to describe with words that instantly conjure exact images in my head, such as teeth looking like Skittles or this: “The edge of the mist was nearly ruler-straight.”

    Thanks for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank u Stuart! I’m a huge fan of his character building, the way he tells the reader details about his characters with elegant and smart descriptions (such as Holly from the Bill Hodges trilogy having a bare ring finger). A brilliant writer!


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