I have a thing about finishing books I start.
The first book I ever started, but didn’t finish, was a book by Stephen King. I wasn’t that into the horror genre to begin with, and I found this particular book disgusting and repellant. It just wasn’t my thing. It also tainted how I felt about King himself. His personal brand, in my mind, was “Sleazy, disgusting, dirty old man.”
Then, 20+ years later, I read a second book by King, except this time it wasn’t one of his novels, it was his book On Writing, which is half autobiography, and half about the craft of writing.
It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, and it’s the first book I recommend to people who ask me “How can I write better?”
Even if I don’t quite like some of the stuff he writes, he most certainly has a gift for writing and his advice on writing is pure gold.
And while I’m no more inclined to read King’s fiction books than I was, reading the auto-biographical part of his book made me love King as a human being and if I met him in person I’d want to give him a big hug for what he’s gone through and overcome.
These are my 10 favorite lessons from Stephen King’s book, On Writing (all quotes are from King unless specified otherwise):
1. Beware of Adverbs
The adverb is not your friend.
very good at remembering the names of the elements of writing, I just write. While writing this post I had to look up what an “adverb” was. Here are a few examples:
abnormally absentmindedly accidentally actually adventurously afterwards almost always annually anxiously arrogantly awkwardly bashfully beautifully bitterly bleakly blindly blissfully boastfully boldly bravely briefly brightly briskly broadly busily calmly carefully carelessly cautiously certainly cheerfully
You may be wondering what’s wrong with using these words. But these are also adverbs:
up so out just now how then more also here well only very even back there down still in as to
When I read this second list, which includes the top 20 most common adverbs in the English language, I realized “Oh yeah, I use those words all the time…probably too much.”
Next time you start writing “I was so…” or “It was just…” or “Also, …” or “I’m not very good at…” catch yourself and ask “Is this adverb necessary?
What would Stephen King do?”
Perhaps this second quote from King about adverbs will help you understand his feelings on this bit of verbiage.
The road to hell is paved with adverbs.
2. Use Active Verbs
Timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason that timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.
I’m writing I write I’m constantly replacing I constantly replace any sort of “I was doing” with “I did.”
3. Don’t Worry About Grammar Or Anything Else Technical
The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story.
“But…you just…you, you can’t…how…?”
That is, don’t worry about grammar as you’re writing your first draft.
You can take care of it during the rewrite.
The most important thing at the beginning is to get your ideas on paper, whether or not they’re full of adverbs.
Don’t worry about anything but writing. Just start.
I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.
4. Start Today
Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.
Write. Write poorly, but write…wait, is “poorly” an adverb? Oh well.
I’ve had writer’s block, and I’ve had days, weeks, months, and years when I couldn’t write fast enough and left 9 out of 10 ideas in my brain.
For me, the work is figuring out what impact I want to make, who’s my target audience, what message will create that impact, and then the action plan becomes obvious.
If you sit down and merely think “I want to write a book, what should I write?” then of course you’re going to draw a blank.
5. Remove the Non-Essential
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.
As they say in business, the heart of strategy is knowing what not to do.
Great writing is as much about what you don’t say as what you do say.
If you include things that don’t contribute to the point of it all, you’re confusing the reader, sending them down rabbit holes that don’t lead anywhere and leave them at the end saying “Wait, what about so and so? Why did he do XYZ?”
6. Good Readers Make Good Writers
There are a few quotes I love from King on this, like this one:
Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
I had forgotten this part of King’s book when I wrote my blog post How Reading Made Me A Better Writer and was delighted to rediscover it.
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.
My own experience bears this out. I used to read a lot, but didn’t write much. Then I wrote 1,000 blog posts, and I got better at writing.
Then I wrote 300 articles for major publications, where the stakes were higher, and I got even better.
Perhaps King is wrong and there are shortcuts, but I haven’t found them. It’s easier, and more fun, to just write a lot than try to shortcut the process.
The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen.
Bear in mind King is talking about the technical side of your writing–you can still say something stupid yet say it well.
7. If You Write You Will Offend Someone
The exception being if you write in secret where no one can read what you write. But if you write for public consumption you will never be able to keep everyone happy.
If you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.
I still try to be polite, but no matter how polite you try to be, if you write the truth as you see it then someone will disagree.
8. If You Write Someone Will Say Your Work Stinks
There is no writer without a critic.
There are people who say Shakespeare was a terrible writer.
Same with Hemingway.
More than one person has wondered why To Kill A Mockingbird is so popular.
That’s life as a writer.
Write and be criticized, or don’t write.
I have spent a good many years since―too many, I think―being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction or poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. 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.
9. Other Things Matter
Sacrificing your life for the craft is not necessary to become great at the craft.
I stayed physical healthy, and I stayed married.
If you’re feeling inspired and in a state of flow it’s easy to go with it and put everything else aside, but if you put everything else aside too often, soon they’ll put you aside.
I learned this the hard way.
From 1999 to 2007 I did nothing but work.
It led me to debt, despair, and depression.
When I set boundaries to my work, I got rid of all three. That’s what inspired me to write my most popular article of all time, Why Exercising Is A Higher Priority Than My Business.
It starts with this: 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.
10. Be Yourself
One cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what that writer is doing may seem.
I can’t avoid the influence of other writers, but I also can’t copy what they do.
It just doesn’t work.
It’s easier to be yourself and blaze your own trail.
You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.
You can do this.
The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.
And if things still go wrong?
Optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure.
I wrote 1,000 blog posts during a 10-year period and nobody cared.
Then I got picked up by Fast Company, then Forbes, and during the next three years I wrote 300 articles for two dozen major publications that generated over $5M in revenue for my business and landed me a book deal and a trip to hang out with Richard Branson on his private island.
You’re smarter than I am, so you indeed have every reason to be optimistic about your writing future.Liked it? Share it!