Stephen King’s Advice On Writing the First Draft

stephenkingtop10I found a lovely new writer’s website the other day and it was by accident, as is always the case, because it featured an old article by Stephen King titled: “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully – in Ten Minutes”.

The article is a bit dated with some of the advice maybe not wholly applicable anymore, but the rules are solid and good to follow and given that I just finished a draft that was meant to be seven thousand words but ballooned to twenty-four thousand words, I found his writing rules both encouraging and true. But then the advice is coming from Stephen King. Of course it will be applicable.

The section that stood out for me, that mirrored my own recent experience is the following one:

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

You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule. You think you might have misspelled a word? O.K., so here is your choice: either look it up in the dictionary, thereby making sure you have it right – and breaking your train of thought and the writer’s trance in the bargain – or just spell it phonetically and correct it later. Why not? Did you think it was going to go somewhere? And if you need to know the largest city in Brazil and you find you don’t have it in your head, why not write in Miami, or Cleveland? You can check it … but later. When you sit down to write, write. Don’t do anything else except go to the bathroom, and only do that if it absolutely cannot be put off.

Normally I write by the seat of my pants, but in this case I wrote my storyEotD from a detailed outline. I did my research until I thought I was ready and then I began. But words… they don’t always come to you when you need them and I made the mistake of chasing them down. That affected my rhythm  and, in King’s own words, broke my “writer’s trance”.

I was also writing to deadline, churning out words at speed much faster than I usually do, and I found searching for words only wasted more time. But here is the thing, though, my normal way of writing is slow and cumbersome. I search for words because I usually get a feeling of what I’m looking for and because I can’t think of the word right there and then, I go look for it. This is contrary to King’s advice, I know. And yet it works for me. So the question is, how well does it work for me?

That, I can’t tell you yet because I don’t know yet. I can tell you this: with writing my latest story I eventually followed King’s advice. I ignored dictionaries. I ignored my thesaurus, and my homemade dictionary (which is still sparse).  I even ignored my research and just left markers at places I have to come back to. I repeated a lot of words and I know my sentences are weak and a lot of them are passive and there are errors, but my story unfolded in real-time while I wrote it, and that felt fantastic.

Oh, and I finished the story, which is a biggie.

Once I’ve revised this story and have other people look at it, I will take a moment and reflect on the experience and compare it to how I usually write. Maybe then will I know which way works best.

Cheers!

Woelf

Update: It seems my story did not turn out too terrible. It has now been critiqued by a number of people and I’m currently editing it before sending it to a professional editor. I enjoyed the process so well I am currently writing another story based on an outline. No, I am still a pantser.

8 thoughts on “Stephen King’s Advice On Writing the First Draft

  1. By all means, read these with an eye to learning, but be careful! What I’ve learned in half a century of putting words on paper is that many of these great and successful authors write books on how to write books, and all they really are is interesting documentaries, like reading about what made Patton a great general, or Fonteyn a great dancer. What is natural for them isn’t necessarily going to be natural for you. In fact, if you don’t like King’s advice, you can find another published author who will tell you about the success he’s had doing the exact opposite. We’re all wired a bit differently. Personally, I don’t believe that anyone can tell a coherent story writing by the seat of their pants, but obviously you are living proof that there are those who can. If you’re going to read these, read a lot of them, like you’re in a cafeteria, and choose the techniques best suited to your style. King’s genius, and Rowling’s, and Bronte’s and Dickens’ and Poe’s has far more to do with the stories they got onto the paper than the method they used to get them there. The most important thing, in my humble opinion, is to have fun, because if you shoehorn yourself into a system you don’t enjoy using because “Rudyard Kipling wrote that way,” that’s an express train to failure.

    1. Oh, I agree. I look at advice from established authors and I test them to see what works. I have always been like that. Writing as a pantser is exciting for me. There is discovery there and surprises. Having had to plot a detailed outline before starting took time and seemed unnatural to me, and yet, when I finished the outline it felt really good. Writing my story from the outline took some time getting used to, and I don’t yet know if it is successful, but the experience cannot be called bad.

      Thanks for your awesome comment.

  2. I agree with Brimprider that everyone of us has to find their own way to do it. And experimenting, as you do, Woelf, is certainly the best thing.

    Personally, I like to experiment too, but with my writing (as well as with other things, actually ;-)) if I feel it’s not working, I won’t go to the end. I’ll change in progress until I find the way that I feel confortable with.

    This said, I do as King suggests, always done. I’ve never consulted a thesaurus in my life, not even in English (which isn’t my native language) because I too think if you have to look a word up, that’s not the right word. Even when my English vocabulary was poorer than it is now, I never look up a thesaurus, not even a vocabulary. If the word doesn’t come to me naturally, it means I don’t really ‘own’ that word, and so I won’t use it in the ‘right’ way (right for me, I mean).
    I much prefer doing a lot of repetitions and then adjust them when I revise. My first drafts are truly horrible… but luckily, no one has to see them 😉

    1. I can’t do that. There are so many good words out there and I don’t always remember them, but I get a feeling of what I want. I cannot write without my dictionary or thesaurus. My crappy memory is not my story’s fault so in that regard I disagree with King. I take my hat off to you, though. I wish I could remember words better, and yes, English wasn’t my native tongue growing up.

  3. I started writing when I was 18, I’m 23 now. At first I made the mistake of not reading a great deal, half a dozen books a year (embarrassing), but one great book led to others and other authors. A friend of mine introduced me to Stephen kings memoir and since then I read about 40 – 50 books a year. I was a hardcore sci-fi reader, reading mostly philip k dick.

    Anyway, I am not a great writer but I do work hard on my writing and I enjoy reading. Here are some things that I do that have helped a great deal with my writing, although there is still much to be learned.

    1. Word collecting: everytime that I read and come across a word that I am not familiar with, I save it on my iPhone notes and find the definitions of that word. This has helped me shorten whole sentences to a single word 😊 and is great for improving the flow.

    2. I never use a thesaurus, although I made that mistake early on in my writing.

    3. Learn a second language that is Latin or Germanic based: I started learning french when I was 20 and I have also lived in France. Learning that language helped me understand my own language to the very core. Things I had long forgotten at school are now burned into my mind.

    4. Saving phrases: like the word collecting, if I see a clever metaphor or simile, I’ll save it onto my phone, along with the book and page number. I never use them but reading them gives me an idea of what scenarios and images I can paint into the readers mind.

    That’s all I can think of for now. Don’t be to critical of my punctuation. This is merely a quick post to share my own journey. The advice from others on this post is fantastic. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Daniel. You are definitely on the right track. I started my own dictionary/thesaurus earlier this year. Just a notebook that I keep updated with new words and phrases, but I’ll tell you this: the tactile experience of writing things down by hand is awesome and the words remain with you for longer.

      Good luck with your writing.

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