SK : Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully

Stephen King
Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully: in Ten Minutes

II. The Story, or, How Stephen King Learned to Write
When I was a sophomore in high school, I did a sophomoric thing which got me in a pot of fairly hot water, as sophomoric didoes often do. I wrote and published a small satiric newspaper called The Village Vomit. In this little paper I lampooned a number of teachers at Lisbon (Maine) High School, where I was under instruction. These were not very gentle lampoons; they ranged from the scatological to the downright cruel.

Eventually, a copy of this little newspaper found its way into the hands of a faculty member, and since I had been unwise enough to put my name on it (a fault, some critics argue, of which I have still not been entirely cured), I was brought into the office. The sophisticated satirist had by that time reverted to what he really was: a fourteen-year-old kid who was shaking in his boots and wondering if he was going to get a suspension … what we called “a three-day vacation” in those dim days of 1964.

I wasn’t suspended. I was forced to make a number of apologies - they were warranted, but they still tasted like dog-dirt in my mouth - and spent a week in detention hall. And the guidance counselor arranged what he no doubt thought of as a more constructive channel for my talents. This was a job - contingent upon the editor’s approval - writing sports for the Lisbon Enterprise, a twelve-page weekly of the sort with which any small-town resident will be familiar. This editor was the man who taught me everything I know about writing in ten minutes. His name was John Gould - not the famed New England humorist or the novelist who wrote The Greenleaf Fires, but a relative of both, I believe.

He told me he needed a sports writer and we could “try each other out” if I wanted.

I told him I knew more about advanced algebra than I did sports.

Gould nodded and said, “You’ll learn.”

I said I would at least try to learn. Gould gave me a huge roll of yellow paper and promised me a wage of 1/2¢ per word. The first two pieces I wrote had to do with a high school basketball game in which a member of my school team broke the Lisbon High scoring record. One of these pieces was straight reportage. The second was a feature article.

I brought them to Gould the day after the game, so he’d have them for the paper, which came out Fridays. He read the straight piece, made two minor corrections, and spiked it. Then he started in on the feature piece with a large black pen and taught me all I ever needed to know about my craft. I wish I still had the piece - it deserves to be framed, editorial corrections and all - but I can remember pretty well how it looked when he had finished with it. Here’s an example:

(note: this is before the edit marks indicated on King’s original copy)

Last night, in the well-loved gymnasium of Lisbon High School, partisans and Jay Hills fans alike were stunned by an athletic performance unequaled in school history: Bob Ransom, known as “Bullet” Bob for both his size and accuracy, scored thirty-seven points. He did it with grace and speed … and he did it with an odd courtesy as well, committing only two personal fouls in his knight-like quest for a record which has eluded Lisbon thinclads since 1953…

(after edit marks)

Last night, in the Lisbon High School gymnasium, partisans and Jay Hills fans alike were stunned by an athletic performance unequaled in school history: Bob Ransom scored thirty-seven points. He did it with grace and speed … and he did it with an odd courtesy as well, committing only two personal fouls in his quest for a record which has eluded Lisbon’s basketball team since 1953…

When Gould finished marking up my copy in the manner I have indicated above, he looked up and must have seen something on my face. I think he must have thought it was horror, but it was not: it was revelation.

“I only took out the bad parts, you know,” he said. “Most of it’s pretty good.”

“I know,” I said, meaning both things: yes, most of it was good, and yes, he had only taken out the bad parts. “I won’t do it again.”

“If that’s true,” he said, “you’ll never have to work again. You can do this for a living.” Then he threw back his head and laughed.

And he was right; I am doing this for a living, and as long as I can keep on, I don’t expect ever to have to work again.

IV. Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully

  1. Be talented

  2. Be neat

  3. Be self-critical
    If you haven’t marked up your manuscript a lot, you did a lazy job. Only God gets things right the first time. Don’t be a slob.

  4. Remove every extraneous word
    You want to get up on a soapbox and preach? Fine. Get one and try your local park. You want to write for money? Get to the point. And if you remove all the excess garbage and discover you can’t find the point, tear up what you wrote and start all over again . . . or try something new.

  5. Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft

  6. Know the markets

  7. Write to entertain
    Does this mean you can’t write “serious fiction”? It does not. Somewhere along the line pernicious critics have invested the American reading and writing public with the idea that entertaining fiction and serious ideas do not overlap. This would have surprised Charles Dickens, not to mention Jane Austen, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Bernard Malamud, and hundreds of others. But your serious ideas must always serve your story, not the other way around. I repeat: if you want to preach, get a soapbox.

  8. Ask yourself frequently, “Am I having fun?”

  9. How to evaluate criticism
    Show your piece to a number of people - ten, let us say. Listen carefully to what they tell you. Smile and nod a lot. Then review what was said very carefully. If your critics are all telling you the same thing about some facet of your story - a plot twist that doesn’t work, a character who rings false, stilted narrative, or half a dozen other possibles - change that facet. It doesn’t matter if you really liked that twist of that character; if a lot of people are telling you something is wrong with you piece, it is. If seven or eight of them are hitting on that same thing, I’d still suggest changing it. But if everyone - or even most everyone - is criticizing something different, you can safely disregard what all of them say.

  10. Observe all rules for proper submission

  11. An agent? Forget it. For now

  12. If it’s bad, kill it
    When it comes to people, mercy killing is against the law. When it comes to fiction, it is the law.

He didn’t mention the part about respecting copyrights, but that’s a pretty good idea as well…


i would argue that this would fall under fair use, as teaching, no one is profiting or claiming this work as their own, the author and source are cited in the link, and simply being shared in the interest of education, sharing of knowledge…

Copying a work in its entirety is almost never fair use.

Teaching materials are in no way exempt from copyright laws. Nor is the non-profit nature of the sharing particularly relevant.


didn’t say they didn’t, i just meant the way it is being used here, it qualifies for fair use, that’s all…

its a summary of a summary,

Whether someone profits is not a good justification for lifting a piece of writing whole from anyplace. (Besides, how do you know that there is no money involved? I see an advertisement at the end of the article, so presumably some money is changing hands as a direct result of eyeballs visiting the page.)

Why not summarize the article, pointing out a few of the points King is making, and then encourage a visit to the original link? This is not a classroom, where the “teaching” aspect of fair use comes into play, so I don’t think that’s proper justification either. Quoting is good. Summary encourages visiting the original source of the article, so that’s good too. Copying verbatim… I don’t think that’s respectful of the author.

edited to keep the lawyers away…

in the original article it says it is reprinted with permission…

Okay, everyone who is reading this must now go purchase a copy of On Writing to compensate Mr. King for this usage.

Truly a remarkable book.

I have an audiobook copy, a paperback and a hard cover, so two of you can ride my coattails. The rest of you, go get it. :slight_smile:

Seriously, though, you won’t be sorry. The combination of auto-bio and how-to-write makes it an easy, entertaining read and most will actually learn something from the endeavor.



Though it feels a bit nit-picky on my part, I’m going to respond because I’m not sure what you’re getting at with regards to my previous post…

  1. As stated at the end of Mr. King’s article, the permission was given to the Great Writing site admins/editors/owner to reprint it there. So you are correct in that, but I don’t see how that furthers your previous assertions.

  2. My bolded statement in no way influences who gets to reprint, but it does hold true. There’s an advertisement. If you click through and buy the book advertised there, the site owner gets a little cash from It is possible that the “price” for reprinting that article was a promise to link to one of S. King’s books alongside the article. But again, that doesn’t matter with regards to reprinting.

At this time, the point is moot. You’ve already implicitly agreed to not reprint another author’s entire article (thanks for that). Call me pedantic if you like… at least today, I’m concerned not only with outcomes but with process.

naw i just gave in to avoid further argument… i feel it was fair use, but not enough to drag the thread from “hey look, good advice” to arguing copyright law and fair use… i posted it because i was afraid there would be some lazy people who instead of clicking the link would just skim the post… i wanted to offer it all in one place and save time from clicking…

the bold i posted was because i perhaps misunderstood what you said, inferring that the original site it was posted on was also violating copyright by posting it

lets try and steer this back to the content… i have read the full book and yeah that little summary is like a wee nibble of the whole shebang…

i was curious about 5, not stopping to look stuff up… i mean i stop to fact check cause i am terrified i will miss it later… how do you ‘mark up’ your draft when you need to go back and fact check? << what i ask here is how YOU mark YOUR draft… usually i put an XxX on both sides and later just search for Xs … wanted to know how others did it…

I agree. A friend gave it to me a few years back, and it did improve my writing. I don’t agree with everything he has to say but there is a great deal of value to be had in trying out his advice to see how it fits. His attitude to agents and unpublished novelists runs counter to the advice I’ve seen from successful authors, but everything else he has to say in On Writing can improve your writing, if you haven’t already learned those lessons.

one thing i never noticed or thought about till he brought it up was adverbs on how people said something… and yeah, like he owns up in the book, its a do as i say not as i do…

agrees to disagree… moves on

In scrivener, I use annotations or highlights. Once I decide if a given scene is going to make the cut at all, then I find the research needed to re-write the bits that give me specific info (what kind of stone a building is made of, or the velocity of a bullet, etc…) Even if you miss a highlight, upon a careful re-read, your same doubts will surface. Once you verify or correct a fact or description, annotate it to say that you did. Cite your reference material for good measure.

If I’m writing in Scrivener I use annotations and highlights. Lately though I’ve been writing on my iPad and importing into Scrivener as I go, so I’ve been using the “xxx” with a small note about why I’m putting the “xxx”. That will get me through the first draft. When I’m done I’ll go back and turn those “xxx”'s into highlights or annotations depending on what it is.

Sometimes it’s simply I don’t know the name of a place or thing and need to research it. Sometimes it’s bigger, like “xxx - character needs to know at this point that the girl on the news is his childhood friend, not just suspect it is.” That’s a big change (and a real one that recently happened to me) and will require more than just fifteen minutes of work. Because of the tools in Scrivener, as I’m going through my first edit, I will have those issues with me at all times, so making small changes to meet that requirement by the time I hit that point in the story is going to be relatively easy.

In other words, THANK YOU SCRIVENER! :slight_smile:


I don’t have an iPad, but I do recall something about in-line annotations and document syncing with ipad apps. I think that they get turned into bracketed text (don’t know which brackets) on the iPad apps, and then those are translated into annotations when you sync back to Scrivener. If you check the manual, or the Tech support forums, I’m sure someone will be able to confirm or deny that feature.

I fought with the Scrivener/iPad syncing for a long time, using different text editors on my iPad, working with the sync features in Scrivener, etc., but for me it just wasn’t worth it. I’m just cutting/pasting as I write from Dropbox into Scrivener. I have no intention to copy back into my iPad for editing, so that works for me.

Maybe I’ll try and tackle it again once my first draft is done.

P.S. - The iPad is a fantastic first draft machine.

Re not stopping to look stuff up: I agree with this. One of the things to learn when writing long-form is that a proportion of research and checking should be done after the first draft. Not only is this more efficient in the long run – your draft defines the additional research you need, so less time wasted on redundant looking-up – but also in the short – your thinking and writing flows are less disjointed, and the words on the page may manifest this. (Of course some research needs to be done before you start writing, but much less than many people sometimes think.)

Personally, I believe the same applies to factual writing too. (I see that in another thread in this forum today, someone suggests a similar approach to writing a dissertation.*) In this case, there’s also – I think – less risk of inadvertent plagiarism.