Want to Be a Writer? Adhere to the King’s Advice

According to Stephen King, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things: above all others, read a lot and write a lot.” This advice is straightforward and simple advice. But unfortunately, it’s advice often ignored by beginning and experienced writers.

I know people who spend their time attending writing courses and conferences, participating in writers’ groups, or spending day after day “planning” their Great American Novel rather than writing their Great American Novel. They think they’re writers, but they haven’t written anything.

The only thing that makes you a writer is writing.

You don’t need to create perfect prose; you just need to write. The way to do this is to set a daily word count and aim at getting that word count written each day. Some days you may not meet that word count; other days you’ll exceed it.

So how many words should you aim at?

That all depends on you.

Stephen King aims at writing 2,000 word every day. On the other hand, Ernest Hemingway’s goal was 500 per day. The late Michael Crichton wrote an incredible 10,000 words a day. Yet Crichton realized writing so fast didn’t generate publishable prose. “Books aren’t written,” he said, “they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”

That’s also the mark of a good writer—reworking your pose. As a freelance book editor, I can’t tell you the number of aspiring authors who hire my services and present me with what is obviously a first draft. Rewriting is the core of being a writer. As I always say, the art of writing is in the rewriting.

My writing schedule is this. I write in the morning for about two hours (after that I edit other people’s books). I aim for 500 words a day. I chose that number because when I worked a “day job,” I only had an hour a day to write. Now I usually write more than 500 words, but I still limit my time to just two hours.

My practice is to review and revise the previous day’s work before launching into new writing. When I finish a chapter, I rework the whole chapter again before moving on to the next chapter. When I finish the first draft of a book, I put it aside for a couple of weeks before starting the second draft. When that’s finished, I again put it aside for a while before starting the third rewrite. As part of the third rewrite, I run the full manuscript through ProWritingAid, a grammar checker and more. (There are similar programs, such as Grammarly. I recommend to all my clients they invest in one.) Only then do I send it to my editors.

When I’m not working on a novel, I write short stories and posts for two blogs—this one you’re reading, and a blog about politics with a historical perspective.

But still there are days when I just don’t write. Usually it’s due to illness, sleepless nights, or just because I don’t want to do s**t. It happens. Don’t hate yourself. Sometimes we all need a break. Just suck it up and get back into your writing groove the next day.

The second part of King’s advice— “read a lot”—is just as important as writing every day. Read books or articles about writing. Research your plot. But most of all, read books in your genre. How can you write a mystery if you’ve never read one? Don’t confuse watching a mystery movie or TV show as the same as reading one. Scriptwriting has entirely different requirements than book writing.

Don’t just read for pleasure. Study how successful authors in your chosen genre develop their plots and characters, structure their story lines, and write dialogue. Don’t just read one or two of your favorite contemporary authors; explore the history of your genre. If you write private eye novels, read Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Robert Parker. If you write sci-fi, reread some of those greats you were forced to read in high school—Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Robert Heinlein.

Besides looking at writing style, look for the theme. Every great book needs a theme. Chandler wrote about the corrupting effects of wealth. The theme of Wells’ classic War of the Worlds was the evils of imperialism. (See: What Is the Primary Job of a Thriller?)

If all this sounds like you’re going back to school—well, you are. You are learning skills and training for a profession. To be a writer, act like a writer—and write.