At some point in your life, you’ve probably heard the phrase You either have it or you don’t. But what is it? One writer who has It, both literally and figuratively, is the master of horror himself– Stephen King. From his famed book about a terrifying clown titled It to many other successful books, it’s clear King has something figured out. But how do we achieve It– both the the book and that elusive and indefinable factor? King has passed on his 20 tips for writing to help us:
1. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience. King suggests that your first draft is only written for yourself. This is where you’re supposed to write freely and follow wherever the story takes you. It’s only on your second draft that you should go back and, according to King, take out, “all the things that are not the story.”
2. Don’t use passive voice. Passive voice is when the subject of the sentence is acted upon rather than performing the action. For example, saying ‘Brutus stabbed Caesar’ is active while saying ‘Caesar was stabbed by Brutus’ is passive. See the difference? The gravity of Brutus’s action is diminished when using passive voice.
3. Avoid adverbs. You need to do the work prior to using an adverb so that it isn’t necessary as a descriptor. If your characters are in a heated argument, you need to create the drama leading up to an exit so that you don’t need to say that the character slammed the door, forcefully. Forcefully should be redundant.
4. Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.” According to King, “While to write adverbs is human, to write ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ is divine.” You don’t need to add an adverb after he said or she said. Just keep it simple.
5. But don’t obsess over perfect grammar. “Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes.”, says King. The priority of the writer should be telling a good story, and grammatical correctness should be secondary.
6. The magic is in you. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.” King advises growing writers to be bold. Fear is the only thing keeping you from being great.
7. Read, read, read. As with many other famous writers, one of King’s main points of advice is to read. Reading allows you to learn from other great writers and gain the tools you need for your own craft to flourish.
8. Don’t worry about making other people happy. Read wherever you can. Skip out on commitments to work on your book- don’t worry about upsetting other people. To be a good writer, you have to be rude sometimes.
9. Turn off the TV. According to King, those Netflix binge sessions aren’t doing you any favors. So, the next time you want to re-watch one of your comfort shows- don’t. Pick up a book instead.
10. You have three months. King believes that this is the length of time in which the first draft of a book should be completed. Now, we don’t necessarily agree with this one. Every book is different and every writer has their own process. However, putting a deadline on your first draft can definitely help you stay on task with your writing.
11. There are two secrets to success. When King is asked the secret of his success, he says, “I stayed physically healthy, and I stayed married.” While this may not apply to everyone, there is some truth in it. Making sure you and the relationships in your life are healthy can help you focus more absolutely on your craft.
12. Write one word at a time. Similarly to the phrase Take life one day at a time, King suggests that aspiring writers stay in the present- writing one word at a time instead of focusing on where the book is headed.
13. Eliminate distraction. According to King, “There should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or video games for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall.”
14. Stick to your own style. While King advises aspiring writers to read and learn from the styles of other writers, ultimately you need to form your own style rather than trying to simply imitate the greats.
15. Dig. “When, during the course of an interview for The New Yorker, I told the interviewer (Mark Singer) that I believed stories are found things, like fossils in the ground, he said that he didn’t believe me. I replied that that was fine, as long as he believed that I believe it. And I do. Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or Game Boys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small–a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all the gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.”
16. Take a break. Not only can doing this help with the dreaded writer’s block, but King suggests that coming back to your work after taking a hiatus can help you view it in a whole new light.
17. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings. You can’t be so attached to your work that you won’t chop it up and cut it down when needed. It’s pretty self-explanatory, the boring bits must go.
18. The research shouldn’t overshadow the story. Even though a well-researched book can be great, King wants writers to remember: the audience cares more about your characters and your story. Keep research in the back-story.
19. You become a writer simply by reading and writing. “The most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.” says King. While seminars can be a helpful tool, King ultimately feels that you learn most by observing the work of writers and practicing it yourself.
20. Writing is about getting happy. We could definitely get into this, but we think King says it best, “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. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”