On Writing – Stephen King

stephen-king-on-writingISBN: 1439156816
Read: November 2016
Rating: 9/10

Amazon page for more details and reviews.

I loved reading every page of this book. Extremely interesting, insightful, useful, and funny read as I dive into the world of writing fiction. Part autobiography, part instructional guide to writing. I found his personal journey into writing as well as his terrible accident and recovery quite inspiring.

My Notes

When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out al the things that are NOT the story.

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you. Once you know what the story is and get it right, it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticise it.

The writer’s original perception of a character may be as erroneous as the reader’s.

Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from sitting position.

Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.

Books are a uniquely portable magic. You must not come lightly to the blank page.


Put vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it.

The word is only a representation of the meaning; even at its best, writing almost always falls short of full meaning.

You’ll want grammar on the top shelf of your toolbox. Verbs come in two types, active and passive. You should avoid the passive tense.

The adverb is not your friend.

The best form of dialogue attribution is ‘said’ (he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said).

Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affection. Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with.

While to write adverbs is human, to write ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ is divine.

Observe the patterns — the lines of type, the margins, and most particularly the blocks of white space where paragraphs begin or leave off.
You can tell without even reading if the book you’ve chosen is apt to be easy or hard. Easy books contain lots of short paragraphs – including dialogue paragraphs which may only be a word or two long — and lots of white space. Pargraphs are almost as important for how they look as for what they say; they are maps of intent.

The ideal expository Graf contains a topic sentence followed by others which explain or amplify the first.

Topic-sentence-foloowed-by-support-and-description insist that the writer organise his/her thoughts, and it also provides good insurance against wandering away from the topic. Writing is refined thinking.

In fiction, the paragraph is less structured — it’s the beat instead of the actual melody. When composing its best not to think too much about where paragraphs begin and need; the trick is to let nature take its course. If you don’t like it later on, fix it then.

Single-sentence paragraphs can work beautifully to streamline narration, create clear images, and create tension as well as to vary the prose-line. It more closely resembles talk than writing, and that’s good. Writing is seduction. Good talk is part of seduction. Other uses of this paragraph include stage direction, minor but useful enhancement of character and setting, and a vital moment of transition. [In the example on p101], because Big Tony takes a new tack, the writer breaks the dialogue into two paragraphs. It’s a decision made instantaneously in the course of writing, one based entirely on the beat the writer hears in his own head.

The paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing — the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words. If the moment of quickening is to comes, it comes at the level of the paragraph. It’s a marvellous and flexible instrument that can be a single word long or run on for pages. You must learn to use it well if you are to write well. What this means is lots of practice, you have to learn the beat.

Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe.

You will build a paragraph at a time, constructing these of your vocabulary and your knowledge of grammar and basic style. As long as you stay level-on-the-leve and shave even every door, you can build whatever you like — whole mansions, if you have the energy.


Critics and scholars have always been suspicious of popular success. Often their suspicions are justified. In other cases, these suspicions are used as an excuse not to think. No one can be as intellectually slothful as a really smart person.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.

One bad novel is worth a semester at a good writing school.

Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling.

Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing is art of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you. So we read to experience the mediocre and the outright rotten; such experience helps us to recognise those things when they begin to creep into our own work, and to steer clear of them. We also read in order to measure ourselves against the good and the great, to get a sense of all that can be done. And we read to experience different styles.

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.

Teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows.

You must be prepared to do some serious turning inward toward the life of the imagination.

Even when no one is listening or reading or watching, every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. That goes for reading and writing as well as for playing a musical instrument. The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate — four to six hours a day, ever day — will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them.

The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing. 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. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.

Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death. Not working is the real work.

I believe the first draft of a book –– even a long one — should take no more than three months, the length of a season.

I suggest a thousand words a day, and I’ll also suggest that you can take one day a week off, to begin with. Your schedule exists in order to habituate yourself, to make yourself ready to dream just as you make yourself ready to sleep by going to bed at roughly the same time each night and following the same ritual as you go. In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime times.

You need the door, and you need the determination to shut the door. You need a concrete goal as well. The longer you keep to these basics, the easier the act of writing will become. Don’t wait for the muse. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine to not or seven to three.

What are you going to write about? Anything you damn well want. As long as you tell the truth. The job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies, no to commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck.

The writer who is serious and committed is incapable of sizing up story material the way an investor might size up various stock offerings, picking out the ones which seem likely to provide a good return.

Book-buyers aren’t attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel; book-buyers want a good story to take with them on a plane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning the pages. This happens when readers recognise the people in a book, their behaviours, their surroundings, and their talk. When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story.

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

There’s a difference between lecturing about what you know and using it to enrich the story.

Create a world impossible not to believe.

What you know makes you unique in some way. Be brave. Map the enemy’s positions, come back, tell us all you know.

Stories consist of three parts:

1. Narration, which moves the story from A to B and finally to point Z
2. Description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader
3. Dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech


My basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them).

The writer’s job is to use the tools in his toolbox to get as much of each story out of the ground intact as possible.

I want to put a group of characters in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. I watch what happens and then write it down.

I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way.

If I’m not able to guess with any accuracy how the damned thing is going to turn out, even with my inside knowledge of coming events, I can be pretty sure of keeping the reader in a state of page-turning anxiety.

The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a ‘What-if’ question.

Story is honourable and trustworthy, plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.


Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. It’s not just a question of how to, its also a question of how much to.

Description begins with visualisation of what it is you want the reader to experience. It ends with your translation what you see in your mind into words on the page. If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it in a way that will cause your reader to prickly with recognition.

I’m not keen on writing which exhaustively describes the physical characteristics of the people in the story and what they’re wearing. Id rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well. If I tell you that Carrier White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can’t you?

Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.

Locale and texture are much more important to the reader’s sense of actually being in the story that any physical description of the players. Nor do I think physical description should be a shortcut to character.

Good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else. In most cases, these details will the first ones that come to mind. If you decide later on that you’d like to change, add, or delete, you can do so – that’s what the rewrite is for.

Before beginning to writer, I’ll take a moment to call up an image of the place, drawing from my memory and filling my mind’s eyes, an eye whose vision grows sharper the more it is used. Open up all senses. This memory search will be brief but intense, a kind of hypnotic recall.

It’s important remember that its not about the setting, it’s about the story, and it’s always about the story. When it comes to scene- setting and all sorts of description, a meal is as good as a feast. When a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling. Don’t be self-indulgent.

When it’s on target, a simile delights us in much the same way meeting an old friend in a crowd of strangers does. When a simile or metaphor doesn’t work, the results are sometimes funny and sometimes embarrassing. The most common is the use of cliched similes, metaphors, and images. It makes you look lazy or ignorant.

The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary.

Your job is the say what you see, and then to get on with your story.


What people do tells us more about what they’re like, and talk is sneaky: what people say often conveys their character to others in ways of which they — the speakers — are completely unaware.

One of the cardinal rules of good fiction is never tell us a thing if you can show us.

Good dialogue is a delight to read, bad dialogue is deadly. Dialogue is a skill best learned by people who enjoy talking and listening to others — particularly listening, picking up the accents, rhythms, dialect, and slang of various groups.

Make characters’ dialogue so real that part of what we feel is the guilty pleasure of anyone first tuning in and then eavesdropping on an interesting conversation. We’re getting a sense of character, as well, in faint strokes. We don’t have to give it all away at once.

If you are honest about the words coming out of your characters’ mouth, you’ll find that you’ve let yourself in for a fair amount of criticism. The Legion of Decency might not like the word ‘shit’, and you might not like it much either, but sometimes you’re just stuck with it. You must tell the truth if you dialogue is to have resonance and realism. Don’t break the unspoken contract that exists between writer and reader — your promise to express the truth of how people act and talk through the medium of a made-up story.

The point is to let each character speak freely, without regard to what the Legion of December or the Christian Ladies’ Reading Circle may approve of.

Talk, whether ugly or beautiful, is an index of character; it can also be a breath of cool, refreshing air in a room some people would prefer to keep shut up. In the end, the important question has nothing to do whether the talk in your story is scared 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.

The job boils down to two things: paying attention to how the real people around you behave and then telling the truth about what you see.


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. I almost always start with something that’s situational.

I think the best stories always end up being about people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven. Once you get beyond the short story, though (2-4K words), I’m not much of a believe in the so-called character study; I think that in the end, the story should always be the boss.

If I have to tell you how my characters behave, I lose. If I am able, even briefly, to give you a characters’ eye view of the world — if I can make you understand Annie Wilkes ‘ madness — then perhaps I can make her someone you sympathise with or even identify with. The result? She’s more frightening that ever, because she’s close to real.

When you ask yourself what a certain character will do given a certain set of circumstances, you’re making the decision based on what you yourself would (or, in the case of a bad guy, wouldn’t) do). Added to these version of yourself are the character trait, both lovely and unlovely, which you observe in others. There is also a third elements: pure blue-sky imagination.

My job is to make sure these fictional folks behave in ways that will both help the story and seem reasonable to su, given what we know about them (and what we know about real life, of course). Sometimes villains feel self-doubt; sometimes they feel pity. And sometimes the good guy tries to turn away from doing the right thing. And you do your job, your characters will come to life and start doing stuff on their own. I know that sounds a little creepy if you haven’t actually experienced it, but it’s terrific fun when it happens. And it will solve a lot of your problems.

Editing, Symbolism, Theme:

You can’t please all 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.

If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it. ‘Murder your darlings’ – Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.

Look for underlying pattens. Two examples of the story of work second drafts were made for are symbolism and theme.

If symbolism is there and you notice it, bring it out as well as you can, polishing it until it shines and then cutting it the way a jeweller would cut a precious stone.

Symbolism exists to adorn and enrich, not to create a sense of artificial profundity. None of the bells and whistles are about story, all right? Only story is about story.

Symbolism can serve as a focusing device for both you and your reader, helping to create a more unified and pleasing work.

Your job in the first draft is to decide what something or somethings your story is about. Your job in the second draft is to make that something even more clear. The benefits to you and your reader will be clearer focus and a more unified story.

There may be no moral in the story, but if the theme stands out clearly enough, those discussing it may offer their own morals and conclusions.

Once your basic story is on paper, you need to think about what it means and enrich your following drafts with your conclusions. To do less is to rob your work and readers of the vision that makes each tale you write uniquely your own.

With the door shut, downloading what’s in my head directly to the page, I write as fast as I can and still remain comfortable. Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into 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.

The first draft should be written with no help or interference from anyone else. Resist the impulse to show anyone. Keep the pressure on; don’t lower it by exposing what you’ve written to the doubt, the praise, or well-meaning questions. Let your hope of success and fear of failure carry you on, difficult as that can be.

If no one says to you ‘This is Wonderful!’ you are a lot less apt to slack off or to start concentrating on the wrong thing (being wonderful instead of telling the goddam story).

Your first readers MUST promise not to talk to you about the book until YOU are ready to talk to THEM about it.

How long you let your book rest is entirely up to you, but I think it should be a minimum of 6 weeks. During this time your manuscript will be safely shut away in a desk drawer, ageing and mellowing. Your thoughts will turn to it frequently, and you’ll be tempted a dozen times to take it out and re-read. Resist temptation. If you don’t you’ll very likely decide you didn’t do as well on that passage you thought and you’d better retool it on the spot. This is bad. You’re not ready to go back to the old project until you’ve gotten so involved in a new one that you’ve almost forgotten the unreal estate that took up three hours of your every morning or afternoon for a period of three to five to seven months.

Wen you come to the correct evening, take your manuscript out of the drawers. Sit down with your door shut, a pencil in hand, and read your manuscript over. Do it all in one sitting. Make all the notes you want, but concentrate on the mundane housekeeping jobs (typos, inconsistencies). There will be plenty.

If you spoke a few big holes, you are forbidden to feel depressed about them. Screw-ups happen to the best of us.

The most glaring errors I find on the re-read have to do with character motivation.

I love this part of the process because I’m rediscovering my own book, and usually liking it. That changes. By the time a book is actually in print, I’ve been over it a dozen times or more, can quote whole passage, and one wish the damned old smelly thing would go away. That’s later thought; the first read-through is usually pretty fine.

Add clarifying phrases where necessary. Delete all the adverbs you can bear to part with.

Biggest question: is the story coherent? And if it is, what will turn coherence into a song? What are the recurring elements? Do they entwine and make a theme? What’s it all about? What I want most of all is resonance, something that will linger for a little while in Constant Reader’s mind and heart after he or she has closed the book and put it up on the shelf. I’m looking for ways to do that without spoon-feeding the reader or selling my birthright for a plot of message.

Most of all, I’m looking for what I meant, because in the second draft I’ll want to add scenes and incidents that reinforce that meaning. I’ll also want to delete stuff that goes in other directions. There’s apt to be a lot of that stuff, especially near the beginning of a story, when I have a tendency to flail.

When I’ve finished reading and making all my little anal-retentive revisions, it’s time to open the door and show what I’ve written to four or five close friends who have indicated a willingness to look.

All novels are really letters aimed at one person. The ideal reader. At various points during the composition of a story, the writer thinks ‘I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part?’x

I usually send manuscripts to between four and eight other people who have critiqued my stories over the years. Unbiased opinion is not what I’m looking for. You’ll get back highly subjective opinions about what’s good and bad in it. If all your readers think you did a pretty good job, you probably did. This is are are. More likely they’ll think that some parts are good and some parts are not so good. You can safely relax and leave things the way they are. If some people love your ending and others hate it, same deal.

Factual errors are the easiest the deal with. If everyone who reads your book says you have a problem with a part of the story, you’ve got a problem and you better do something about it.

If you’re writing primarily for one person besides yourself, I’d advise you to pay very close attention to that person’s opinion. And if what you hear makes sense, then make the changes. You can’t let the whole world into your story, but you can let in the ones that matter the most. And you should.

Ideal Reader will help you get outside yourself a little, to actually read your work in progress as an audience would while you’re still working. During the actually writing of a scene, the thought of making IR laugh/cry is in the back of my mind. During the rewrite, the question is right up front (is it funny enough? sad enough?).

Ideal Reader is also the best way for you to gauge whether or not your story is paced correctly and if you’ve handled the back story in satisfactory fashion.

Pace is the speed at which your narrative unfolds. Move too fast and you risk leaving the reader behind, either by confusing or by wearing him out. I like a slower pace and a bigger, higher build. I believe each story should be allowed to unfold at its own pace, and that pace is not always double time.

Try to imaging whether IR will be bored by a certain scene — if you know the taste of your IR even half as well as I know the tastes of mine, that shouldn’t be too hard. Is IR going to feel there’s too much pointless talk in this place or that? Have you underexplained a certain situation, or overexplained it? Have you forgotten to resolve some important plot points? Forgotten an entire character? These questions should be in your mind even with the door closed. And once it’s open — once your IR has actually read your manuscript — you should ask your questions out loud. Watch when you rIR puts the manuscript down to do something else. What scene was he/she reading? Why was it so easy to put down?

Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Every novel and story is collapsible to some degree. If you can’t get out 10% of it while retaining the basic story and flavour, you’re not trying very hard. The effect of judicious cutting is immediate and often amazing — literary Viagra. You’ll feel it and your IR will too. [lol]

Back story is all the stuff that happens before your tale began but which has an impact on the front story. Back story helps define character and establish motivation. I think its important to get back story in as quickly as possible, but it’s also important to do it with some grace.

As a reader, I’m a lot more interested in what’s going to happen that what already did.

Your IR can be of tremendous help when it comes to figuring out how well you did with the back story and how much you should add or subtract on your next draft. You need to listen very carefully to the things IR didn’t understand, and then ask yourself if you understand them. If you do and just didn’t put those parts across, your job on the second draft is to clarify. If you don’t, then you need to think a lot more carefully about the past events that cast a light on your characters’ present behaviour.

When a novelist is challenged on something he likes, the first two words out of his mouth are almost always ‘Yeah but.’

The most important things to remember about back story are that a) everyone has ta 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.


Research belongs as far in the background and back story as you can get it. You may be entranced with what you’re learning, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.

Make up all the stuff you don’t know, and then use the rewrite to correct the worst factual errors and add detail.

Research is like the handful of spices you chuck into a good spaghetti sauce to really finish it off.

Do you need someone to make you a paper badge with the word WRITER on it before you can believe you are one? I hope not.

You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself. These lessons almost always occur with the study door closed.

Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.

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.

Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.
Drink and be filled up.