Thursday, April 17, 2014


Forty years ago this month, Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, was published. He has since produced more than four-dozen bestselling books, from Cujo to Christine, from The Shining to The Stand, from The Dead Zone to The Dark Tower. But here at Why Not Books, far and away our favorite Stephen King book is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It is part memoir and part invitation—an opportunity to peek behind the curtain of a masterful mind. As he wrote in the foreword, “What follows is an attempt to put down, briefly and simply, how I came to the craft, what I know about it now, and how it’s done. It’s about the day job; it’s about the language.”

Actually, that was from the “first foreword.” In the “second foreword,” he wrote, “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do—not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit.”

He was being modest, of course. Of the many we could have chosen, here are our 36 favorite tips from one great storyteller:

1. “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.”

2. “Write with the door closed, and rewrite with the door open.

3. “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.”

4. “Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work. Especially work. People love to read about work.”

5. “Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.”

6. “The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page.”

7. “Stylistic imitation is one thing, and a perfectly honorable way to get started as a writer… but one cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what that writer is doing may seem.”

8. “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.”

9. “Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.”

10. “In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech. You may wonder where the plot is in all of this. The answer—my answer, anyway—is nowhere.”

11. “For me, what happens to characters as a story progresses depends solely on what I discover about them as I go along—how they grow, in other words. Sometimes they grow a little. If they grow a lot, they begin to influence the course of the story instead of the other way around.”

12. “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.”

13. “Paragraphs are almost always as important for how they look as for what they say; they are maps of intent.”

14. “In fiction, the paragraph is less structured—it’s the beat instead of the actual melody. The more fiction you read and write, the more you’ll find our paragraphs forming on their own. And that’s what you want.”

15. “Writing is refined thinking.”

16. “Try any goddam thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it.”

17. “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.”

18. “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.”

19. “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.”

20. “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.”

21. “For me, good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that stand for everything else. In most cases, these details will be the very first ones that come to mind.”

22. “The important question has nothing to do with whether the talk in your story is sacred or profane; the only question is how it rings on the page and in the ear. If you expect it to ring true, then you must talk yourself. Even more important, you must shut up and listen to others talk.”

23. “What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you know and favor of things you believe will impress your friends, relatives, and writing-circle colleagues.”

24. “Nobody is “the bad guy” or “the best friend” or “the whore with a heart of gold” in real life; in real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us, baby. If you can bring this attitude into your fiction, you may not find it easier to create brilliant characters, but it will be harder for you to create the sort of one-dimensional dopes that populate so much pop fiction.”

25. “I most often see chances to add the grace-notes and ornamental touches after my basic storytelling job is done.”

26. “Symbolism exists to adorn and enrich, not to create a sense of artificial profundity.”

27. “Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story.”

28. “Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes to my mind, only looking back to check the names of my characters and the relevant parts of their back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.”

29. “If you’ve never done it before, you’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience. It’s yours, you’ll recognize it as yours, even be able to remember what tune was on the stereo when you wrote certain lines, and yet it will also be like reading the work of someone else, a soul-twin, perhaps. This is the way it should be, the reason you waited. It’s always easier to kill someone else’s darlings than it is to kill your own.”

30. “There is a kind of unspoken (hence undefended and unexamined) belief in publishing circles that the most commercially successful stories and novels are fast-paced. I guess the underlying thought is that people have so many things to do today, and are so easily distracted from the printed word, that you’ll lose them unless you become a kind of short-order cook, serving up sizzling burgers, fries, and eggs over easy just as fast as you can. Like so many unexamined beliefs in the publishing business, this idea is largely bullshit.”

31. “The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest. Long life stories are best received in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying.”

32. “When you step away from the ‘write what you know’ rule, research becomes inevitable, and it can add a lot to your story. Just don’t end up with the tail wagging the dog; remember that you are writing a novel, not a research paper. The story always comes first.”

33. “Too many writing classes make Wait a minute, explain what you meant by that a kind of bylaw… Writing class discussions can often be intellectually stimulating and great fun, but they also often stray far afield from the actual nuts-and-bolts business of writing.”

34. “Submitting stories without first reading the market is like playing darts in a dark room—you might hit the target now and then, but you don’t deserve to.”

35. “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.”

36. “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.”


  1. I initially read Stephen King's "On Writing" years ago and I've re-read the book several times since. It sits, within reach, on my desk. Still...thanks for taking the time to put together this list. I've printed it and it awaits my attention, immediately next to my copy of "On Writing."

    1. Right on, Lex. It's on my read-to-be-inspired shelf,too.

  2. Stephen King's book 'On Writing' was one of the most helpful books I've ever read to improve my writing skills. I've recommended it to many other writers in the making for inspiration!

    1. Mary Jane, funny thing is, I'm not a huge fan of horror and haven't read many Stephen King novels. But I could read his writing about writing over and over...

  3. The afterword, spoken by King himself, at the end of the audiobook for 11-22-63 is excellent as well. He talks about how shitty he feels he is at endings.

  4. You would be amazed to know that “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” is the only Stephen King book I have read and I was not disappointed because it contains a wealth of information for writers.
    top stephen king books

    1. Oh please read some of his work. If yr not into horror he has such rich stories that don't even venture down that path (Shawshank Redemption, The River). His writing is brilliant.

  5. Well, these are some really good tips that can help in writing interesting articles and blog but still I would say that for a creative writing you must have some basic skills for writing only then you can implement the above tips to make your writing more interesting.

  6. I adore Stephen King. I have read his best works! However, speaking about his book 'On Writing', it absolutely should be the table-book for every writer. It is really inspiring and helpful. Personally I have taken so much advice from it.
    Thank you for collecting all the tips together.
    Good luck!

  7. Not a King reader myself, but have read this book and loved it, I think it is time to read it again. Thanks for putting this together, I was in need of a reminder on some of the points, especially that a story doesn't have to fast-paced.

  8. I agree with all that king said except for point #34. A great writer does not read the market. A great writer does not let the market overule his soul. Write what your soul cries out that you must share with world. Do not succumb to fads.

    1. King means "read the magazine to which you intend to submit a story." (It's clear in the context of the book.)

  9. I agree with all that king said except for point #34. A great writer does not read the market. A great writer does not let the market overule his soul. Write what your soul cries out that you must share with world. Do not succumb to fads.

  10. Nice concise list. Have to drag out the book. Love his writing, You miss his subtle phrasing if you just watch his stories on movies or TV.

  11. Thank you for compiling this list from his outstanding book on writing. Great tips from the master King!

  12. This book not only changed for the better (I hope) how I write, but also how I read. Which affected how I write.

  13. This comment my post twice, so sorry if so!
    But I'm reading this book now, and am honestly having trouble understanding the "desk in the corner" thing. Can anyone help me out here? :)

    1. Stephen is making a simple point. Put your writing desk in a corner. Do not make your writing desk the most important feature of your room. Reflecting on Stephen's words ... Life is not a support system for art. Art is the support system which helps readers get through life.

  14. Thanks for writing this post.


  15. Some great tips here, thanks for sharing. Each year I assess hundreds of novels and and the same five issues pop up time and time again, so I wrote this article, which you might find helpful as well. Happy writing. :)

  16. This one is definitely one of the best tips: “Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work. Especially work. People love to read about work.”
    I love Stephen King's writing style and he is really inspirational.
    Jennifer | Website

  17. i want to become a writer. i guess i sorta am. i'm fifteen and though i have self-doubt, i am glad to have found this. THANK YOU STEPHEN KING. starting to believe it's possible...

  18. Stephen's book on writing is one his best. It contains so much down to earth honesty which aspiring writers can relate to. I have read it once and I am on my second read through. There is always something else to reflect on. This is a good summary which should serve as an entry point for any aspiring writer who may not yet have picked up this publication.