5 Tips From Stephen King on How to Improve Your Writing
Updated: Mar 25, 2022
I'll share a secret with you, even though I identify as a writer, I don't think I'm a particularly good writer. Why? My grammar and sentence structure is a mess. My mom told me as a kid I would mix up my sentences or use my grammar incorrectly. I also have trouble pronouncing words, I mean it's pretty bad.
But. I am a better writer than when I started my blog almost a year ago. I've been taking courses, reading articles and books about how to improve my writing.
I've always admired Stephen King and his mastery of storytelling. I've read several of his books including The Shining, Pet Semetary, and The Stand. He always manages to bring the stories to life. I'm not aiming to be a fiction writing but the advice he gives can be applied to non-fiction writing as well.
Cut out everything that isn't necessary
Write what first comes to your mind
It's all about the story
# 1 - Read often
Some may argue that you shouldn't read more than you write, in fact maybe you shouldn't read at all. I mean shouldn't most of your time be spent writing? It's true that there's no better way to practice a skill than by actually doing it. But as I explained in my article, How to Learn Complex Skills Quickly, one way to learn is to imitate what you see. Which means you have to find work to imitate, for writers that means reading works of other writers.
Reading can inspire you, educate you, invoke emotions you didn't think possible. Reading also formulates ideas, for King's book Carrie the idea came to him by reading an article in Life magazine. The article suggested some young people might have powers of telekinesis, specifically girls in early adolescence, right around the time of their first period. This sparked the idea behind the opening science in Carrie.
Reading is the foundation for his work. It's where he is inspired for his own books. He is an advocate for reading as much as your write.
"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot."
"If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that"
# 2 - Cut everything that isn't necessary
In a rejection letter King received he was given a valuable advice, a formula:
2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%
Meaning you need to cut out everything that isn't necessary to the story. This includes characters, plots, words, sentences, anything that isn't necessary to progress the story.
One of my most common critiques from my English teachers was my use of run-on sentences. I had so many thoughts in my head. I wrote like how I talk; an endless train of thoughts. With years of "creative writing" assignments, I developed a habit of fluffing up my work. As a note, those with ADHD tend to be talkative so it wasn't a surprise that my writing reflected that.
As I stated in my 5 Lessons Learned from Writing for 6 Months #1, the first draft of what you're going to write sucks. I've accepted that my first draft of my articles will be verbose and mostly "word vomit". The point of a first draft is to get all of the ideas out of your head. Advice given by content writers like Dickie Bush in his tweet and even with Marie Forleo in the first step of her copywriting exercises.
When you go back to rewrite or do your second draft that's when it is essential to cut everything unnecessary, as King says "kill your darlings". Even if you love that particular sentence, word, character, it if doesn't enhance the story, then kill it.
# 3 - Write what first comes to mind
In the beginning of my writing stages I would combine my writing and research together. I did both at the same time. I didn't dedicate a session to sole research or writing. When I would write I would also think of an idea and want to look that up right away. My mind would wander and I would be distracted with another topic, another common symptom of my ADHD. Soon writing sessions would turn into half writing sessions and half research. While research is essential to my articles, unlike King who doesn't like to research too much "Remember that you are writing a novel, not a research paper. The story always comes first".
When I sit down for my writing sessions, I'm going to write. Trying to get as many words on the page as possible and not become bogged down by details or research. If I wanted to reference a quote or a link but didn't have the specifics down I would create markers in my draft to indicate for me later on during my second draft and rewrite.
This kept my focus on my writing, and later when I had my research sessions I would fill in these notes and add in details to my articles during dedicated research sessions.
# 4 - Imitate others
This goes against Lesson 4 in my 5 Lessons Learned from Writing for 6 Months. I was wrong. Copying other's style of writing can be a great way to learn and improve your own style. As long as you don't plagiarize. He calls it a "stylistic blending" which is "a necessary part of developing one's own style". While working on improving his writing he found writers he enjoyed and wrote like them, while he wasn't able to completely capture the same tone (it's not possible), he was able to improve on his own writing. With this you are "constantly refining (and redefining) your own work" and becoming a better writer in the process.
Take a lesson from King, imitate others to develop your own style.
"This sort of stylistic blending is a necessary part of developing one’s own style, but it doesn’t occur in a vacuum. You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so."
# 5 - It's all about the story
Grammar and vocabulary is important, you want your piece to be readable but it isn't the only thing to focus on. What should be important is your story, what you are trying to convey. Some writers have extensive vocabulary , while others do not. But the former isn't necessarily a better writer than the latter, the styles are different.
Once you begin publishing your work you will build an audience that is gravitated towards your work. There are readers who enjoy "flowery' language while others prefer things straight to the point. You shouldn't focus too much on deciding which one you want to be, or what particular style.
While everyone has a different style there are grammar conventions that should be followed. One of the most helpful books on this is The Element of Style by by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. A short book, less than 100 pages, all about how to write clearly using (American) English to do so. I would highly recommend picking up this book if you would like to improve on your writing.
While King's advice is mainly for aspiring fiction writers, I found it useful. I'm not trying to become the next New York Times best selling fiction writer. The power of storytelling, which King is a master of, is essential for my role as a digital writer and as a data analyst (being able to communicate my data insights to others).
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