How Does Stephen King Write So Fast? Learn the Secret to the Master of Horror’s Success
The master of horror is an anomaly, but he still has valuable lessons for any writer who is willing to listen.
Renowned American horror novelist and short fiction writer Stephen King, born Stephen Edwin King, was born in 1947 in Portland, Maine—the state in which so many of his famous stories would someday unfold. He grew up poor and struggled financially in his young adulthood.
King graduated from the University of Maine in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in English. He supported himself while writing short stories by teaching and working as a janitor, among several other jobs. His first novel, Carrie, was published in 1974—and was an immediate popular success. It was the first of many novels in which King blended horror, fantasy, the macabre, and science fiction elements.
To date, Stephen King’s books have sold 400 million+ copies worldwide, with many of them also adapted to feature films, TV movies, and comic books. He’s not known as the “master of horror” for nothing, after all.
King, 75, has published 64 novels and counting, including seven under the pen name Richard Bachman, and five non-fiction books. He has written over 200 short stories, most of which have been compiled in collections.
The question here is, how on earth does Stephen King write so fast?
How Does Steven King Write So Fast?
In 2016, fellow bestselling author George R.R. Martin sat down for a deep-dive discussion with Stephen King, during which he asked the famously prolific novelist: “How the f— do you write so many books so fast?”
“I think, ‘Oh, I’ve had a really good six months — I’ve written three chapters!” Martin continued, “and you’ve finished three books in that time.”
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“Here’s the thing,” replied King. “There are books and there are books.”
He went on to explain that he writes for three or four hours every day and tries to produce half a dozen “fairly clean” pages in that daily period. “So if the manuscript is, say, 360 pages long, that’s basically two months’ work — but that’s assuming it goes well.”
How Many Words Does Stephen King Write per Day?
In 2002, Stephen King published On Writing: A Memoir of the Craftin order to share his writing philosophy and techniques with other would-be wordsmiths.
In his book, King addresses his writing pace. He sets a daily goal of about 2000 words, which aligns with what he later told Martin. This would add up to roughy 180,000 words produced in three months’ time.
Having a solid morning routine can make a world of difference, both with regard to staying in the right mindset, as well as trying to produce a specific number of pages or words per day.
King also wrote that three months was the maximum amount of time it should take (ideally) to finish the first draft of a novel, because if it takes longer, it becomes more challenging to dive back in with the right mindset.
Unsurprisingly, King has also participated in marathon writing sessions. Notably, he wrote The Running Man in just one week.
Applying King’s Techniques to Your Writing
First things first: understand that Stephen King is an anomaly, an exception to the usual rules. While budding writers can learn a ton from his process, you should never feel inadequate because you don’t write or publish at a comparable rate—no one does.
That said, there are still ways to apply Stephen King’s techniques and overall ethos to your writing endeavors. The following two foundational principles can help you form a healthy and fruitful writing practice:
Write for yourself, because you love it
King is an undeniable talent—his books have the ability to captivate a wide audience due to their realistic detail, and his incredible ability to engage (and therefore scare) the reader. Nonetheless, he has at times been criticized and dismissed as undisciplined and inelegant. Perhaps this is why he insists that writers must “write for themselves” instead of aiming to please others. How? By writing what they love and care about—according to King, if you love something, you should be able to do it forever…and enjoy the process.
Read and write…constantly
One of Stephen King’s most famous quotes is, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all else: read a lot and write a lot.”
If you’re a King fan, you’ll have heard this piece of advice many times. As prolific a writer as he is, King somehow still manages to read about 80 books a year.
According to King, ”If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
15 More Lessons From Stephen King to Help Turn You Into a Better Writer
If you’re working on a writing project of any kind (or any creative project), you can probably kick your process up a notch or two by borrowing a few strategies from Stephen King’s wheelhouse.
1. Ixnay on the Netflix
Particularly if you’re just starting out, TV should be the first thing to go, according to King, since it’s “poisonous to creativity.” Writers need to look inward, toward the life of the imagination. It should go without saying that the same goes for social media, YouTube, the internet in general, etc.
2. Tell the truth
When it comes to figuring out what to write about, King has an empowering answer: “Anything you damn well want…as long as you tell the truth…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…What you know makes you unique in some other way. Be brave.”
3. Write with the door closed
When in writing mode, do what you can to disconnect from the world outside and eliminate distractions. Writing should an intimate activity. King suggests, “Write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open.” Maintain total privacy between you and your first draft. King calls the first draft “completely raw…it’s the story undressed, standing up in nothing but its socks and undershorts.”
4. To plan or not to plan
While writing schools and universities around the world teach that one should plan their story around a standard structure, King says he doesn’t plan his books. Instead, he simply begins with a situation, eg: two children lost in the woods find something shiny sticking out from under the leaves. From that scenario, he writes, allowing the story to develop. The absence of advance preparation allows him to write more quickly, too.
5. Don’t be pretentious
According to King, one of the worst 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.” He compares this to dressing up a family pet in fancy clothes—it’s excessive. Similarly, symbolism “exists to adorn and enrich, not to create an artificial sense of profundity,” he writes.
6. Avoid adverbs…unflinchingly
King believes that, “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” As he emphasizes numerous times in his memoir, “the adverb is not your friend,” and they’re a special kind of overkill after “he said” and “she said”—phrases best left unenhanced by tell-all words like angrily, mercilessly, sorrowfully, joyfully, or suspiciously.
7. Hone your descriptiveness
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s,” writes King. Mastering the art of description entails limiting what you say rather than writing “enough.” Envision what you want your reader to experience, and transcribe what’s in your head to the page. Describe things “in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition,” he says. Don’t become overly enchanted with your powers of description and lose sight of the story—be clear, and use fresh images and simple vocabulary.
8. Don’t get lost in the background
Limit the background information that you provide. “There’s a difference between lecturing about what you know and using it to enrich the story,” writes King. Only include details that move your story forward and that compel your reader to keep reading. If research is necessary, don’t let it steal the story’s thunder. Even if what you’re learning is fascinating, says King, your readers will care a lot more about your characters and your story.
9. Create multi-dimensional characters
Bad writing is often born from an obstinate refusal to tell stories about the things people actually do, as they do them—to face the fact, for instance, that psycho killers “still help old ladies cross the street,” writes King. The people in your stories are what readers become most invested in, so be sure to address the many dimensions your characters might possess.
10. Dig deep
King writes that tackling difficult topics can make you “ashamed,” because “words diminish your feelings.” He likens writing to “refined thinking,” beseeching writers to dig deeply when tackling challenging issues. “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world,” he says, and writers should act as archaeologists, unearthing as much of the story as they can.
11. Take risks
First and foremost, begs King, stop using the passive voice—it’s the biggest sign of fear in a writer. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing,” he says. Writers should throw caution to the wind and let their writing take charge. “Try any goddamn thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it,” he says.
12. Don’t copy someone else
Resist trying to steal or emulate someone else’s voice unless it’s just for practice. When you try to mimic another writer’s style for any other reason, King insists it you’ll only produce “pale imitations” because you can never try to replicate the way someone experiences truth, which is what good (nay, great) writing is based on.
13. When you’re done, let it breathe
The text, that is. King suggests six weeks of “recuperation time” after you’re finished a draft, so you can return to it with a clear mind and be able to spot any glaring holes in plot or issues with character. When you do find your mistakes, he says (and you will), “You are forbidden to feel depressed about them or to beat up on yourself. Screw-ups happen to the best of us.”
14. Cut like a knife
In the process of revision, writers often have a hard time detaching from words and phrases they spent a long time writing. But, as King counsels, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” You’ll want to cut the boring parts of course, as well as anything that simply isn’t part of the story you’re telling.
15. Expect failure and criticism
Not only will you doubt yourself, says King, but other people will doubt you, too. Often, you’ll need to keep writing even when you’d rather be doing anything else. “Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea,” he writes. When you fail (we all do), King suggests staying positive. “Optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure,” he insists.
When all is said and done, King attributes his ongoing success to two things: his physical health and his longterm marriage to fellow novelist, Tabitha King.
“The combination of a healthy body and a stable relationship with a self-reliant woman who takes zero shit from me or anyone else has made the continuity of my working life possible,” he writes.
In other words, even for a writer as astoundingly prolific as Stephen King, a strong sense of balance is key, because if writing consumes you, then, well, there’s nothing left—not even writing.
Although no one but Stephen King can be Stephen King, know this: nothing you write is ever a waste of time. Your efforts can’t not positively impact your talents as a writer and get you closer to where you want to be, even if it takes you longer than, well, Stephen King.
After all, while learning tips from other writers on how to write a book or be a better writer can be invaluable, every writer has their own unique path and process.