On Writing by Stephen King

On Writing by Stephen King

The Book in a Few Sentences

An informative and, at times, hilarious book on writing. Stephen King's frank style belies his deep intellect and philosophical insights. Highly recommend for anyone wanting to learn the craft of writing, especially fiction.

On Writing summary

This is my book summary of On Writing by Stephen King. My summary and notes include the key lessons and most important insights from the book.

Second Forward

  • This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.
  • I’ll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style.  

Third Forward

  • To write is human, to edit is divine.
  • I believe large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers, and that those talents can be strengthened and sharpened.  


  • Good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky:  two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun.  
  • Your job isn’t to find the ideas but to recognize them when they show up.  


  • When you’re too young to shave, optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure.


  • Then as now, I tend to go through periods of idleness followed by periods of workaholic frenzy.  


  • [Stephen King’s first editor] “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story.”  “When you rewrite , your main job is editing out all the things that are not the story.”  “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”


  • Writing is a lonely job.  Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference.  They don’t have to make speeches.  Just believing in you is usually enough.


  • For me writing has always been best when it’s intimate, as sexy as skin on skin.  


  • The writer’s original perception of a character or characters may be as erroneous as the reader’s.  
  • Shopping 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 a sitting position.


  • The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.
  • Life isn’t a support system for life.  It’s the other way around.

What Writing Is

  • We [writer and reader] are together.  We’re close.  We’re having a meeting of the minds.
  • You must not come lightly to the blank page.
  • But it’s writing, damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner.  If you can take it seriously, we can do business.  If you can’t, or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else.  Wash the car, maybe.


  • Common tools go on top.  The commonest of all, the bread of writing, is vocabulary.
  • Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it.  
  • One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.
  • I’m not trying to get you to talk dirty, only plain and direct.  Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful.
  • The word is only a representation of the meaning; even at its best, writing almost always falls short of full meaning.  Given that, why in God’s name would you want to make things worse by choosing a word which is only cousin to the one you really wanted to use?


  • You’ll also want grammar on the top shelf of your toolbox.
  • Vocabulary used in speech or writing organizes itself in seven parts of speech.
  • Communication composed of these parts of speech must be organized by rules of grammar upon which we agree. Bad grammar produces bad sentences. My favorite example from Strunk and White is this one:  "As a mother of five, with another one on the way, my ironing board is always up."
  • Nouns and verbs are the two indispensable parts of writing.
  • A sentence is, by definition, a group of words containing a subject (noun) and a predicate (verb); these strings of words begin with a capital letter, end with a period, and combine to make a complete thought which starts in the writers head and then leaps to the reader’s.
  • Must you write complete sentences each time, every time?  Perish the thought.
  • "It is an old observation," he [Strunk] writes,” that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric."
  • One who does grasp the rudiments of grammar find a comforting simplicity at its heart, where there need be only nouns, the words that name, and verbs, the words that act.
  • Strunk and White caution against too many simple sentences in a row, but simple sentences provide a path you can follow when you fear getting lost in the tangles of rhetoric.
  • Besides, all those simple sentences worked for Hemingway, didn't they?


  • He [Strunk] hated phrases such as “the fact that” “along these lines.”
  • I have my own dislikes - “at this point in time” and “at the end of the day”.  
  • Verbs come in two types, active and passive.  With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence.  The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense.
  • The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with.
  • The timid fellow writes The meeting will be held at seven o’clock because that somehow says to him, “Put it this way and people will believe you really know.”  Don’t be a muggle.  Throw back your shoulders, stick out your chin, and put that meeting in charge!  Write The meeting’s at seven.  There, by God!  Don’t you feel better?
  • The body was carried from the kitchen and placed on the parlor sofa.  I accept them [passive voice] but I don’t embrace them.  What I would embrace is Freddy and Myra carried the body out of the kitchen and laid it on the parlor sofa.  Why does the body have to be the subject of the sentence, anyway?
  • You might also notice how much simpler the thought is to understand when it's broken up into two thoughts. This makes matters easier for the reader, and the reader must always be your main concern; without Constant Reader you are just a voice quacking in the void.  And it's no walk in the park being the guy on the receiving end.  [Will Strunk] felt the reader was in serious trouble most of the time.  
  • The adverb is not your friend.  Adverbs, you will remember from your own version of Business English, are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs.
  • Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With a 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 cross.
  • What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) pros which came before He closed the door firmly?  Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door?  
  • I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.
  • I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in and the rarest and most special occasions… and not even then, if you can avoid it.
  • The best form of dialogue attribution is said, as in he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said.  If you want to see this put stringently into practice, I urge you to read or reread a novel by Larry McMurty.
  • When I do it [adverbs in dialogue attribution], it's usually for the same reason any writer does it:  because I am afraid the reader won't understand me if I don’t.
  • Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affection.


  • Lift out the top layer of your toolbox – your vocabulary and all the grammar stuff. On the layer beneath go those elements of style upon which I've already touched. Strunk and White offer the best tools (and the best rules) you could hope for, describing them simply and clearly.
  • Possessives:  you always add ’s, even when the word you’re modifying ends in s - always write Thomas’s bike and never Thomas’ bike.
  • In expository pros, paragraphs can (and should) be neat and utilitarian.  The ideal expository graph contains a topic sentence followed by others which explain or amplify the first.
  • Topic-sentence-followed-by-support-and-description insists that the writer organize his/her thoughts, and it also provides good insurance against wandering away from the topic.  
  • It’s [wandering] is a very bad habit to get into when working on more serious subjects in a more formal manner. Writing is refined thinking. If your master’s thesis is no more organized than a high school essay titled “Why Shania Twain Turns Me On,” you’re in big trouble.  
  • In fiction, the paragraph is less structured–it's the beat instead of the actual melody. The more fiction you read and write, the more you'll find your paragraphs forming on their own. That's what you want. When composing, it's best not to think too much about where paragraphs begin and end; the trick is to let nature take it's course.  If you don't like it later on, fix it then. That's what rewrite is all about.
  • It is possible to overuse the well – turned fragment but frags can also work beautifully to streamline narration, create clear images, and create tension as well as to vary the prose line.
  • A series of grammatically proper sentences can stiffen that line, and make it less pliable. Purists hate to hear that and will deny it to their dying breath, but it's true. Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace up shoes.
  • The object of fiction is grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story… to make him/her forget, whenever possible, that he/she is reading a story at all.  The single-sentence paragraph more closely resembles talk than writing, and that’s good.  Writing is seduction. Good talk is part of seduction.
  • I would argue that 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.  It is a marvelous 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.
  • We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style… but as we move along, you’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic.

On Writing

  • Writers form themselves into the pyramid we see in all areas of human talent and human creativity. At the bottom are the bad ones. Above them is a group which is slightly smaller but still large and welcoming; these are the competent writers. They may also be found on the staff of your local newspaper, on the racks at your local bookstore, and at poetry readings on Open Mike Night.
  • The next level is much smaller. These are the really good writers. Above them - above almost all of us - are the Shakespeares, Faulkners, the Yateses, Shaws, and Eudora Weltys.  They are geniuses, divine accidents, gifted in a way which is beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain. Shit, most geniuses are unable to understand themselves, and many of them lead miserable lives, realizing (at least on some level) that they are nothing but fortunate freaks, the intellectual version of runway models who just happened to be born with the right cheekbones and with breasts which fit the image of an age.
  • Good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of your toolbox with the right instruments. The second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.
  • I'm afraid this idea is rejected by lots of critics and plenty of writing teachers, as well.
  • A good deal of literary criticism serves only to reinforce a caste system which is as old as the intellectual snobbery which nurtured it.
  • 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; give smart people half a chance and they will ship their oars and drift.
  • But if you don't want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well.


  • 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.
  • What could be more encouraging to the struggling writer than to realize his/her work is unquestionably better than that of someone who actually got paid for his/her stuff?
  • One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose - one novel like Asteroid Miners is worth a semester at a good writing school, even with the superstar guest lecturers thrown in.
  • Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth–telling.
  • You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.
  • You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so.
  • If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.  Simple as that.
  • Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.  
  • The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows.  Waiting rooms were made for books - of course! But so are theater lobbies before the show, long and boring checkout lines, and everyone’s favorite, the john.  
  • I'd like to suggest that turning off that endlessly quacking box [TV] is apt to improve the quality of your life as the quality of your writing. And how much of a sacrifice are we talking about here? How many Frasier and ER reruns does it take to make one American life complete?  How many Richard Simmons infomercials? How many whitebody/fatboy Beltway insiders on CNN?  Oh man, don’t bet me started.  Jerry-Springer-Dr.-Dre-Judge-Judy-Jerry-Falwell-Donny-and-Marie, I rest my case.
  • If there's no joy in it, it's just no good.
  • The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate– 4 to 6 hours a day, every day –will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things.
  • The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing.
  • Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. 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 last apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.


  • He [Anthony Trollope] wrote for two and a half hours each morning before leaving for work. This schedule was ironclad.
  • If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name would you not do it?
  • Morning are my prime writing time.
  • 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 characters begin to stale off in my mind– they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. Worst of all, 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. Writing is at its best– always, always, always– when it is kind of inspired play for the writer.
  • The truth is that when I am writing, I write every day, workaholic dweeb or not. That includes Christmas, the Fourth, and my birthday.  For me, not working is the real work.
  • Still, 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 like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That's 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book.  Only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2,000 words.
  • The biggest aid to regular (Trollopian?) production is working in a serene atmosphere.


  • By the time you step into your new writing space and close the door, you should have settled on a daily writing goal. I suggest 1,000 words a day, and because I'm feeling magnanimous, I'll also suggest that you can take one day a week off, at least to begin with. No more; you'll lose the urgency and immediacy of your story if you do.
  • Whether it's a vignette or a single page for an epic trilogy like The Lord of the Rings, the work is always accomplished one word at a time.
  • For any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it's wise to eliminate every possible distraction.
  • This isn't the Ouija board or the spirit-world we're talking about here, just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks.


  • What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you've know like in favor of things you believe will impress your friends, relatives, and writing-circle colleagues. What's equally wrong is the deliberately turn 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.
  • 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.
  • If 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.
  • Stylistic imitation is one thing, a perfectly honorable way to get started as a writer (and impossible to avoid, really; some sort of imitation marks each new stage of a writers development).  
  • Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work. Especially work. People love to read about work.
  • What you need to remember is that there's a difference between lecturing about what you know and using it to enrich the story. The latter is good. The former is not.


  • In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point a to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; in dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech.
  • My basic beliefs 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.
  • Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground. The writer's job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small, sometimes it's a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth.
  • No matter how good you are, no matter how much experience you have, it’s probably impossible to get the entire fossil out of the ground without a few breaks and losses.  To get even most of it out, the shovel must give way to the more delicate tools:  airhose, palm-pick, perhaps even a toothbrush.  
  • Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.  The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.  
  • The situation comes first. The characters– always flat and unfeatured to begin with– come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. 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. In some instances, the outcome is what I've visualized. In most, however, it's something I never expected.
  • The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question:
    What if vampires invaded the small New England Village? (Salem’s Lot)
  • Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.
  • Honesty and storytelling makes up for a great many stylistic faults, as the work of wooden– prose writers like Theodore Dreiser and Ayn Rand shows, but lying is the great unrepairable fault.


  • Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It’s not just a question of how-to, you see; it's also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing.
  • Description begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience. It ends with you're translating what you see in your mind into words on the page. It's far from easy.
  • If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition. If you can do this, you will be paid for your labors.
  • Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Overdescription buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium.
  • Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.
  • I think locale and texture are much more important to the readers sense of actually being in the story than any physical description of the players.
  • For me, good description usually consists of a few well – chosen details that will stand for everything else. In most cases, these details will be the first ones that come to mind.
  • …mind’s eye, an eye whose vision grows sharper the more it is used.  I call it a mental eye because that's the phrase with which we're all familiar, but what I actually want to do is open all my senses. This memory search will be brief but intense, a kind of hypnotic recall. And, as with actual hypnosis, you find it easier to accomplish the more you attempt it.
  • When it comes to scene-setting and all sorts of description, a meal is as good as a feast.  
  • It should be good if I’m being paid to do it. What I’m not being paid to do is be self-indulgent.  
  • By comparing two seemingly unrelated objects - a restaurant bar and a cave, a mirror and a mirage - we are sometimes able to see an old thing in a new and vivid way. Even if the result is mere clarity instead of beauty, I think writer and reader are participating together in a kind of miracle.
  • The most common–and again, landing in this trap can usually be traced back to not enough reading–is the use of clichéd similes, metaphors, and images.
  • My all-time favorite similes, by the way, come from the hardboiled detective fiction of the 40s and 50s.
  • 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.
  • I gained perhaps even more respect for the power of compact, and descriptive language from reading T.S. Eliot.
  • Practice the art, always reminding yourself that your job is to say what you see, and then to get on with your story.


  • It's dialogue that gives your cast their voices, and is crucial in defining their characters.
  • … and one of the cardinal rules of good fiction is never tell us anything if you can show us, instead.
  • Well-crafted dialogue will indicate if a character is smart or dumb.
  • When dialogue is right, we know. When it's wrong we also know– it jags on the ear like a badly tuned musical instrument.
  • Dialogue is a skill best learned by people who enjoyed talking and listening to others– particularly listening, picking up the accents, rhythms, dialect, and slang of various groups.
  • Writing good dialogue is art as well as craft.
  • Many good dialogue writers simply seem to have been born with a well-tuned ear, just as some musicians and singers have perfect or near-perfect pitch.
  • As with all other aspects of fiction, the key to writing good dialogue is honesty. And if you are honest about the words coming out of your characters’ mouths, you'll find that you've let yourself in for a fair amount of criticism. Not a week goes by that I don't receive at least one pissed-off letter.
  • You must tell the truth if your dialog is to have resonance and realism…
  • If you substitute “Oh sugar!” for “Oh shit!” because you're thinking about the Legion of Decency, you are breaking 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 Decency for the Christian Ladies Reading Circle may approve of. To do otherwise would be cowardly as well as dishonest.
  • In the end, the important question has nothing to do with whether the talk in your story is sacred or profane; the only question is how it rings on the page and in the ear.


  • Everything I've said about dialogue applies to building characters in fiction. 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.
  • I think that in the end, the story should always be the boss.
  • In real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us, baby.  If you can bring this attitude into your fiction, you may not find it easier to create brilliant characters, but it will be harder for you to create the sort of one – dimensional dopes that populate so much pop fiction.
  • If you continue to write fiction, every character you create is partly you.
  • My job (and yours, if you decide this is a viable approach to storytelling) is to make sure these fictional folks behave in ways that will both help story and seem reasonable to us, given what we know about them (and what we know about real-life, of course).


  • Skills in description, dialogue, and character development all boil down to seeing or hearing clearly and then transcribing what you see or hear with equal clarity (and without using a lot tiresome, unnecessary adverbs).
  • You should use anything that improves the quality of your writing and doesn't get in the way of your story.
  • Try any god damn 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.
  • Two examples of the sort of work second drafts were made for are symbolism and theme. Symbolism doesn't have to be difficult and relentlessly brainy. Nor does it have to be consciously crafted.
  • If you can go along with the concept of the story has a pre-existing thing, the fossil on the ground, then symbolism must also be pre-existing, right? Just another bone (or set of them) in your new discovery. If it is there and if you notice it, I think you should bring it out as well as you can, polishing it until it shines and then cutting it the way it your would got a precious or semiprecious stone.
  • It is the ability to summarize and encapsulate that makes symbolism so interesting, useful, and – when used well– arresting. You could argue that it's really just another kind of figurative language.
  • 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.
  • It [symbolism] can serve as a focusing device for both you and your reader, helping to create a more unified and pleasing work.


  • When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you're done, you have to step back and look at the forest.
  • But it seems to me that every book – at least every one worth reading – is about something.  Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide what something for somethings yours is about. Your job in the second draft – one of them, anyway–is to make that something even more clear. This may necessitate some big changes and revisions. The benefits to you and your reader will be clearer focus and a more unified story. It hardly ever fails.
  • If there is any one thing I love about writing more than the rest, it's that sudden flash of insight when you see how everything connects.
  • Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story.


  • How much and how many drafts? For me the answer has always been two drafts and a polish.
  • Kurt Vonnegut, for example, rewrote each page of his novels until he got them exactly the way he wanted them.
  • If you are a beginner, though, let me urge that you take your story through at least two drafts; the one you do with the study door closed and the one you do with it open.
  • 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; it's like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub.
  • The first draft –the All-Story Draft - should be written with no help (or interference) from anyone else. There may come a point when you want to show what you're doing to a close friend.
  • My best advice is to resist this impulse. Keep the pressure on; don't lower it by exposing what you've written to the doubt, the praise, or even the well-meaning questions of someone from the Outside World.  
  • How long you let your book rest– sort of like bread dough between kneadings - is entirely up to you, but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks.
  • When you come to the correct evening (which you will may have marked it on your office calendar), take your manuscript out of the drawer. If it looks like an alien relic bought any junk shop for yard sale where you can hardly remember stopping, you're ready. Sit down with your door shut (you’ll be opening it to the world soon enough), a pencil in your hand, and a legal pad by your side. Then read your manuscript over.
  • Do it all in one sitting, if that's possible. Make all the notes you want, but concentrate on the mundane housekeeping jobs, like fixing misspellings and picking up inconsistencies.
  • With six weeks’ worth of recuperation time, you'll also be able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development.
  • If you spot a few of these big holes, you are forbidden to feel depressed about them or to beat upon yourself.
  • Underneath, however, I'm asking myself the Big Questions.  The biggest: is this 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 I want most of all his 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.
  • When I've finished reading, and making all my 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. I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of the story, the writer is thinking, “I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part?” For me the first reader is my wife, Tabitha.
  • In addition to Tabby's first read, I usually send manuscripts to between four and eight other people who have critiqued my stories over the years.
  • If some people love your ending and others hate it..it's a wash, and tie goes to the writer.
  • If everyone who reads your book says you have a problem…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.
  • Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader.  He or she is going to be in your writing room all the time.
  • The truth is that most writers are needy. Especially between the first draft and the second”


  • 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 backstory in satisfactory fashion.
  • Pace is the speed at which your narrative unfolds.  There is an unspoken (hence undefended and unexamined) belief in publishing circles that the most commercially successful stories and novels are fast-paced. Like so many unexamined believe in the publishing business, this idea is largely bullshit…”
  • But you can overdo this speed thing. Move too fast and you risk leaving the reader behind…” As for myself, I like a slower pace and a bigger, higher build.
  • The best way to find the happy medium? Ideal Reader, of course.  Try to imagine whether he or she will be bored by a certain scene…”
  • Formula:  2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%.
  • If you can't get out ten percent of it while retaining the basic story and flavor, you're not trying very hard.
  • I think it's important to get the back story in as quickly as possible, but it's also important to do it with some grace.
  • You've probably heard the phrase in medias res, which means "into the midst of things." This technique is an ancient and honorable one, but I don't like it.
  • The most important things to remember about backstory 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.


  • You may be entranced with what you're learning about flesh-eating bacteria, the sewer system of New York, or the I.Q. potential of collie pups, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.
  • When you step away from the "write what you know" rule, research becomes inevitable, and it can add a lot to your story. Just don't end up with the tail wagging the dog; remember that you are writing a novel, not a research paper. The story always comes first.


  • I'm often asked if I think the beginning writer of fiction can benefit from writing classes or seminars. The people who ask are, all too often, looking for a magic bullet or a secret ingredient…I'm doubtful about writing classes, not entirely against them.
  • …it’s [distraction-free writing] so far from my own experience, where the creative flow is apt to be stopped at any moment by a message from my wife that the toilet is plugged up and would I try to fix it, or a call from the office telling me that I'm in imminent danger of blowing yet another dental appointment. At times like that I'm sure all writers feel pretty much the same, no matter what their skill and success level: God, if only I were in the right writing environment, with the right understanding people, I just KNOW I could be penning my masterpiece.
  • In truth, I found that any day’s routine is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into oyster’s shell that makes the pearl…
  • One serious problem with the writers’ workshop is that I hafta becomes the rule.
  • When, on the other hand, making sure the kid gets to his basketball camp on time is every bit as important as your work in progress, there's a lot less pressure to produce.
  • And what about those critiques, by the way?  How valuable are they? Not very, in my experience, sorry. Non-specific critiques won't help you when you sit down to your second draft, and may hurt.
  • Also, daily critiques force you to write with the door constantly open, and in my mind that sort of defeats the purpose.
  • What you should probably be doing is writing as fast as the Gingerbread Man runs, getting that first draft down on paper while the shape of the fossil is still bright and clear in your mind.
  • Writing courses and seminars do offer at least one unidentifiable benefit: in them, the desire to write fiction or poetry is taken seriously.
  • In writing classes, and nowhere else, it is entirely permissible to spend large chunks of your time off in your own little dreamworld.
  • There are thousands of talented writers work in America, and only a few of them (I think the number might be as low as five percent) can support their families and themselves with their work.
  • With the exception of Norman Rockwell and Robert Frost, America has never much revered her creative people; as a whole, we're more interested in commemorative plates from the Franklin mint and Internet greeting – cards. Americans are a lot more interested in TV quiz shows than in the short fiction of Raymond Carver.
  • You don't need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this or any other book on writing. Faulkner learned his trade while working in the Oxford, Mississippi, post office.
  • 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.


  • The underlying assumption is that publishing is just one big, happy, incestuously closed family. It's not true. Neither is it true that agents are a snooty, superior bunch that would die before allowing their ungloved fingers to touch an unsolicited manuscript.  The fact is that agents, publishers, and editors are all looking for the next hot writer who can sell a lot of books and make lots of money.
  • Not all agents are good agents, and that a good agent is useful in many other ways getting the fiction editor at Cosmo to look at your short stories. But as a young man I did not yet realize that there are people in the publishing world–more than a few, actually–who would steal the pennies off a dead man's eyes.
  • You should have an agent, and if your work is salable you will have only a moderate amount of trouble finding one. You'll probably be able to find one even if your work isn't salable, as long as it shows promise.
  • You're very likely find someone to handle your work even if your publishing credits are limited strictly to the “little magazines," which pay only in copies–these magazines are often regarded by agents and book publishers as proving grounds for new talent.
  • You must begin as your own advocate, which means reading the magazines publishing the kind of stuff you write. You should also pick up the writers’ journals and buy a copy of Writer’s Market, the most valuable tools for the writer new to the marketplace.
  • Both the mags and WM (it’s a whopper of a volume, but reasonably priced) list book and magazine publishers, and include thumbnail descriptions of the sort of stories each market uses.
  • As a beginning writer, you'll be most interested in the “little magazines,” if you're writing short stories.
  • Submitting stories without first reading the market is like playing darts in a dark room…
  • …it’s [story being published] a validation of his ambition, and that– any newly published writer would agree, I think– it is priceless: someone wants something I did! Yippee! Nor is that the only benefit. It is a credit, a small snowball which Frank [would-be writer] will now begin rolling downhill, hoping to turn it into a snow boulder by the time it gets to the bottom.
  • Frank was also intelligent enough to ask Richard and all the other agents he queried for list of their bona fides–not a list of clients, but list of publishers to whom the agent had sold books and the magazines to which he had sold short stories. It's easy to con a writer who’s desperate for representation.
  • You should be especially weary of agents who promised to read your work for a fee.


  • I have written because it fulfilled me.… I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.

On Living :  A Postscript

  • I feel the buzz of happiness, that sense of having found the right words and put them in a line.  
  • Writing did not save my life… but it has continued to do what it always has done: it makes my life a brighter and more pleasant place.
  • 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.
  • Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art.  The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.