"... the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies ...", Stephen King
What is writing? Stephen King has a very simple answer: It’s the art and craft of telling stories on paper. But what is “the art and craft of telling stories on paper” and can it be learnt?
King believes that, if you’re a writer, then you can get better, but if you’re not a writer then, Sorry, it’s not gonna happen.
“I don’t believe writers can be made, either by circumstances or by self-will (although I did believe those things once). The equipment comes with the original package. Yet it is by no means unusual equipment; I believe large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers, and that those talents can be strengthened and sharpened. If I didn’t believe that, writing a book like this would be a waste of time.” (Stephen King, On Writing)
Personally, I believe that anyone with sufficient interest in writing can learn to get better. But, of course, not everyone is going to have sufficient interest. Stephen King, like Ray Bradbury, wrote millions of words before he was published. It takes perseverance. And those who don’t love writing probably won’t persevere.
By the way, I'm going to talk quite a bit about Stephen King in this article because he has, more than any other writer, helped me write better. That's my goal: to be better today than I was yesterday. (I'm not saying I achieve that! But it's a goal.)
What is writing?
In order to talk about how to become a better writer one needs, I think, to say something about what writing is.
Is there any one thing that writing is? Perhaps. According to Stephen King, writing is telepathy. That is, it is the sharing of thoughts and ideas.
Perhaps, though, there is just what writing is for me, what writing is for you, what writing is for Stephen King, what writing is to Neil Gaiman, and so on.
I don’t see anything wrong with looking at writing like this, but I think that what writing is for any one particular writer is going to have something in common with all writers. What is that thing?
Writing as manipulation.
I agree with King that writing is the sharing of thoughts and ideas with a reader, but I sometimes wonder if that goes far enough. We are communicating ideas to the reader, but with a desire to achieve a certain end. For example, when a writer creates a book of jokes, his intention is to make his readers laugh. When a writer pens a thriller, she wants her audience to be curious, apprehensive, frightened, and generally caught up in the suspense.
In this view, writing has to do with the manipulation of a reader's emotions. I hate to put it like that because I don’t want anyone to think of writing as Machiavellian. If one accurately communicates a certain idea or set of ideas, it is usually going to be the case that certain thoughts and emotions follow. For example, when Luke’s family's farm is burnt to the ground in Star Wars IV: A New Hope one can’t help but feel Luke’s horror as he sees his relatives’ smoking corpses.
Writing is different for each of us.
As I said, writing is a bit different for each of us. For me, ‘being a writer’ means turning my thoughts, ideas, emotions, wishes, peeves, hatreds, and loves into something shareable. For me, writing is sharing an experience with my reader.
"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 the airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning the pages. This happens, I think, when readers recognize the people in a book, their behaviors, 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. I’d argue that it’s impossible to make this sort of connection in a premeditated way, gauging the market like a racetrack tout with a hot tip." (Stephen King, On Writing)
I really like what King says here. Yes, I can't help but be the kind of writer I am.
In my everyday life certain things make me happy or sad, certain things make me angry, certain things make me laugh like a lunatic. I'm unique, and that this-ness is and should come out in my work. But, at the same time, that doesn't mean I can't improve my writing. Since writing is the communication of thoughts and ideas, there are better and worse ways of expressing them. And we, each of us, can get better.
So! That leads me to:
Nine things you can do to become a better writer:
Stephen King believes that in order to write one must read.
“You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” (Stephen King, On Writing)
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.
“I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on. 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. (Stephen King, On Writing)
2. Don’t write for anyone but yourself.
Just the other day I was talking to a writer about writing. I do that occasionally, and I always come away looking at the craft a bit differently.
Sometimes it’s just the realization that not every writer thinks about writing the way I do. Some writers write with the desire to communicate certain thoughts, certain ideas, perhaps even certain emotions to their reader. Other writers write because they are telling themselves a story. If they like the story, good. If other people like the story … Well, great, but that’s not the point. The story will sell or it won’t. Selling is better than not selling but that doesn’t change what they write.
I guess, thinking about it now, I would say that the latter kind of writer -- one who writes what they like and their only concern is the story itself -- is more of an artist than I am. I chew my fingernails and pace the floor when my story is read by others. My first question is a breathless, “What did you think?” But, really, it would be much healthier to just write the story for myself, edit it for the world and then let it go. If readers take to it, great! If they don’t … Well, I should already be working on my next story.
3. Edit for the world.
There are two things here. First, write the first draft for yourself but write the second draft for the world. Second, the first draft will tell you what the story is and what it isn't. On your second draft, take away all those bits that don't belong. (Yes, this is where another bit of King's advice comes in: kill your darlings.) 
“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” he [John Gould] said. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
“Gould said something else that was interesting on the day I turned in my first two pieces: write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right—as right as you can, anyway—it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it. If you’re very lucky (this is my idea, not John Gould’s, but I believe he would have subscribed to the notion), more will want to do the former than the latter.” (Stephen King, On Writing)
“The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a 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.” (Stephen King, On Writing)
Whenever I think about backstory I think of Aaron Sorkin’s advice:
“A song in a musical works best when a character has to sing—when words won’t do the trick anymore. The same idea applies to a long speech in a play or a movie or on television. You want to force the character out of a conversational pattern.” (Aaron Sorkin, from Aaron Sorkin On How To Write A Gripping Monologue)
You want to only give a reader background information when they want the information. The background information needs not only to be relevant, but you want the reader to be sitting on the edge of their seats eager to know the information.
5. Be brutally honest
“The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are things you get ashamed of, because words make them smaller. When they were in your head they were limitless; but when they come out they seem to be no bigger than normal things. But that's not all. The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried; they are clues that could guide your enemies to a prize they would love to steal. It's hard and painful for you to talk about these things ... and then people just look at you strangely. They haven't understood what you've said at all, or why you almost cried while you were saying it.” (Stephen King, The Body)
Writing isn’t easy. It requires bravery. I believe that the very best writing needs honesty the way humans need oxygen. That said, no uncomfortable admissions or confessions are required, just be honest about how things seem to you and try to say them clearly. That’s usually awkward enough.
And if that is accompanied by a bit of poetry, by a bit of style, so much the better.
6. Art is there to enhance our lives, not the other way around.
“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.” (Stephen King, On Writing)
I love this. The purpose of life isn't to create great art, the purpose of great art is to create a good life. Art enhances life, it helps us understand ourselves as well as others. If we're really lucky art helps us come to grips with this great nebulous thing that we sometimes gesture toward by mumbling about “the human condition.”
7. You will have critics. Ignore them.
“Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. 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.” (Stephen King, On Writing)
“I have spent a good many years ...—too many, I think—being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all. I’m not editorializing, just trying to give you the facts as I see them.” (Stephen King, On Writing)
Tell yourself a story, a story that is unique to you, and enjoy yourself. If no one else likes the story, that’s fine. It will happen. Start writing your next story.
Stephen King knows more than I ever will about writing but, for what it’s worth, I’ve found that my best stories were written quickly, in the heat of the moment. Yes, that initial draft was followed by a number of others, but the story itself, the first draft, was written quickly. And I think that’s key. Checking on a date, or the spelling of a name, etc., is important, but it can break the flow and let doubt in. And, who knows, whatever it is you wanted to research may be a detail that is nixed in the next draft.
8. You will fail. Shake it off and keep writing.
"Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as “good” and other sorts as “bad,” is fearful behavior." (Stephen King, On Writing)
"What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you know and like (or love, the way I loved those old ECs and black-and-white horror flicks) in favor of things you believe will impress your friends, relatives, and writing-circle colleagues. What’s equally wrong is the deliberate turning toward some genre or type of fiction in order to make money. It’s morally wonky, for one thing— the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies, not to commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck. Also, brothers and sisters, it doesn’t work.
"When I’m asked why I decided to write the sort of thing I do write, I always think the question is more revealing than any answer I could possibly give. Wrapped within it, like the chewy stuff in the center of a Tootsie Pop, is the assumption that the writer controls the material instead of the other way around. 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. If it could indeed be done that way, every novel published would be a best-seller and the huge advances paid to a dozen or so “big-name writers” would not exist (publishers would like that)." (Stephen King, On Writing)
Don't measure your own success or failure by what other people do. Measure it by where you are today compared to where you used to be.
9. The adverb is not your friend.
Stephen King makes no secret of it, he does not approve of adverbs. And for good reason! As he points out:
“Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously; it is the voice of little boys wearing shoe polish mustaches and little girls clumping around in Mommy’s high heels. With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.
“Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?” (Stephen King, On Writing)
I’ve thought about this a great deal over the years, more than is decent. And the more I ponder it, the more I agree. No matter how much you would like to be on congenial terms with all parts of speech the truth is clear: adverbs are traitors. It seems they’ll help you express yourself more clearly but they won’t. If I need an adverb to explain things to a reader then I haven’t done it right.
a) She looked at him, puzzledly.
b) Squinting at him, she frowned.
I like to see things when I read. “The man walked down the street.” I see this, and in seeing it I understand it. If I squint at someone and frown, there’s something I’m trying to figure out.
The first sentence, (a), tells us that someone is puzzled and asks us to do the imaginative work. What would happen if we took “puzzledly” away? We would have no idea that she (whoever she happens to be) is puzzled.
Now, I’m completely positive (and, yes, I did that on purpose!) that you will find my own work (as is King’s work) riddled with adverbs. The point is not to excise them from one’s speech, but to make sure they’re not doing the heavy lifting. (And, yes, definitely, this is a “do as I say, not as I do” moment. ;)
Thank you for reading! If I have written something that encourages you to write, I will consider this time well spent. I hope you have a wonderful day, and I’ll talk to you again soon. 😀👋
My home on Twitter: @woodwardkaren
1. Stephen King on killing one's darlings:
"... it’s all on the table, all up for grabs. Isn’t that an intoxicating thought? I think it is. Try any goddam thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said, “Murder your darlings,” and he was right." (Stephen King, On Writing)
"Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)." (Stephen King, On Writing)
2. I thought this was a good article: 22 lessons from Stephen King on how to be a great writer, by Maggie Zhang.