Here’s What Stephen King Taught Me About Writing

woman writing journal at table
David Iksander

I’ll be frank: I never read a Stephen King book before this year. Despite his prominence as one of America’s most successful and prolific modern fiction writers, I somehow evaded his work long enough that I saw The Shining in high school without the slightest knowledge that it was his book, let alone a metaphor for his difficulties with alcoholism.

This unintentional evasion of his work endured until I started writing consistently.

After years of writing nothing but in-class English essays and group papers, I spent most of the past year venting through poetry and writing articles for college magazines. I turned to writing as a way of processing all the upheaval and major changes in my personal life — and these healing beginnings gave way to its use as a medium to refine my thinking, know deeper parts of myself, connect with others, and share information in easily digestible ways.

In the midst of this writing fury, I knew I found something that brought me joy — but I panicked at the thought of a life of writing. The gravity of undertaking such an unclear life path with such little experience to prove I could make it defied the stable and well-paying career path I laid for myself with my business degree. Alarm bells went off in my own head ceaselessly:

“I have so little experience!”

“I don’t even know what the life of a writer looks like!”

“I’ll never make it, I should just quit!”

As you can guess, I couldn’t stop myself from writing, so I decided that I was going to have to do my homework if I wanted to make anything out of my work. I scoured every corner of the Internet for any resources for beginning writers, from Twitter threads by journalists to the basics of grammar. As soon as I looked for entire books on the muse, though, every list I read pointed me in the direction Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing.

In the five days I read his 289-page book, I learned more about the life of a writer than I ever would’ve anticipated — and from a verified master of the craft, at that. In his book, Stephen King first explores vignettes of his life that proved formative for finding his love for writing, followed by the methods he swears by to write his own books, his own opinions on the muse of writing, and, most importantly, the life-enrichening (and arguably life-saving) quality of the art.

Here are the most important lessons I learned from his book:

Read a lot and write a lot.

Writing is generally understood to be something that only occurs when inspiration strikes at 3 AM and the writer is so overcome by the work that it practically writes itself. This could not be farther from the truth — writing is hard, grueling, difficult work. King posits that one’s ability to write correlates with the frequency with which they write than their natural born talent and that even bad writers can become good writers with enough practice. And the only way to practice is to commit yourself to reading and writing consistently.

“When you write, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

My drafts tend to be wordy and circuitous as if I’m trying to enrich the story by writing never-ending sentences. As soon as I realized this, I saw it as a component of my writing to be erased; however, I realized that if I recount the story to myself in such a way, then there is no harm when it is still in my hands. So long as I tighten the prose in my second draft to ensure brevity and clarity, such messy first drafts are only one step of many in the process toward a proper, completed piece. (This piece of advice has also gotten me to draft. Go figure!)

The writer’s life is rife with rejection. Get used to it.

When King’s received his first rejection from a literary magazine, he nailed the rejection letter into the wall of his room and decided to accumulate all the rejection letters there until the story was published. King eventually had to replace the nail with a spike to fit all of the letters. The life of a writer is typically not one paved in yellow brick; it is hazardous and dangerous and unfriendly, and you must go the beginning of it alone. You cannot let this unfriendliness intimidate you, as all writers experience and it is all part of the process.

Your readers are smart.

When I first began writing, I constantly felt the need to explain my own writing within it. I felt that elaborating on my work not only reaffirmed my point but also ensured that my readers understood what I was going for. Instead, I weakened my point by making it look as though I doubted my execution the first time and wasted my reader’s time by having them read the same thought in different words twice. Clarify your points the first time to assert your certainty.

Make a habit of writing every day.

King writes 2,000 words day in and day out, even on holidays and his birthday. Such a breakneck pace may seem unfathomable and unrealistic, but the habit grants him the ability to finish a 180,000-word manuscript in less than 3 months, so it must have some merit. There are a number of programs out there to help people commit to consistent writing habits — use them.

Write with the door closed.

When one is writing, it is easy to think about the audience and the reception of the piece as you begin. Although it may seem productive to consider your piece’s impact from the get-go, King says that a focus on an audience at the piece’s inception places your work’s ability to please people over its inherent quality, merit, or message. When the door is closed, you write the first draft for your eyes only. You open it when you’ve completed a second, more refined draft and share it with a close confidante or friend before considering it complete.

Let the message of your writing take shape as you go.

In the book, King equates writing to excavating a fossil; you don’t always know what you’re looking for when you start, or even what you’ll find, but the act of doing it reveals its meaning. You’ll never really know what you’re going for when you start, so there’s nothing to gain from letting your inner perfectionist overrule your desire to write. Your perfectionist can come out when it’s done and it’s time to revise.

With King’s wisdom under my belt, I feel more equipped than ever to write with certainty and confidence — and ready to read one of the books that made King famous. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Phil Zminda is a queer writer, student, former three-sport athlete and current no-sport athlete based in Boston, MA.

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