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How Toosday: six tips from Stephen King to improve your writing

Estimated read time: 5 minutes

Well, here we are again. It turns out pulling together tips about how to be a better writer is just so much fun, they can’t be contained in one article.

Last week we looked at six tips to improve your writing from George Orwell. This week, we’re going a bit more contemporary and turning to the master that is Stephen King.

For someone with the career he has had, King can often get written off too easily by many people as simply that guy who writes scary stuff. And sure, he does do that – Carrie, Pet Sematary and IT are just three occasions where Maine’s finest export has made it necessary for you to go to sleep with the lights on.

But, don’t forget what else he’s given us; The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and The Body – which was turned into the movie Stand By Me – are all simply wonderful stories, while his Dark Tower epic is a fantasy quest saga that makes Lords of the Rings look small-time.

Essentially, he is the shit. He’s also written one of the most useful things anyone who ever does any writing could add to their bookshelf – a book about writing.

That book is called On Writing: A Memoir of a Craft and is part autobiography, part writing guide. There is so much in there to learn. If you’ve not already got it, go and buy it now.

In the meantime, here are six standout tips from Mr King.

Read, a lot

This is, without doubt, the best way to improve your writing. By reading, your pick up good habits and spot bad ones. And, as the man himself says…

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write

Write, a lot

Just like playing the ukulele, changing nappies and building flatpack furniture, writing is a skill. The more you practice it, the better you’ll be.

The road to hell is paved with adverbs

Stephen King really doesn’t like adverbs. Why? Well, I’ll let him explain himself…

They’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.

Avoid the passive voice

Just like George Orwell taught us last week, stay away from the passive voice! Mr King calls anyone using it a ‘timid fellow’. Don’t be timid – be fearless and use the active voice instead!

Master your vocabulary

It should be noted here that this is not Stephen King telling you to swallow a dictionary and start using fancy words. Far from it. This is about using words you’re comfortable with and using them well.

Also, interestingly, Mr King advises not to make a conscious effort to improve your vocabulary. Instead, just follow the first rule in this list and it will happen.

Write what you know

If you’ve read as many of Stephen King’s books as I have, you’ll have noticed just how many of his characters are writers. This isn’t a coincidence. King is a big fan of writing about what you know. If you can draw on personal experience or knowledge in your writing then do it. The result will be powerful.