Being Successful: 17 Proven Lessons From Stephen King

I’ve got one new favorite book: On Writing by Stephen King. It was a great experience reading it. Not only did I learn a lot from the book, but also I love the writing style. I wish I could write like that!
Moreover, I found that many lessons from the book are applicable not just to writing, but also to life and career in general. They are essential for being successful in what you do.
Here are 17 lessons I learn from On Writing:
1. Do what you love
I know that this advice has been repeated many times. But it’s true. And King put it in a way I’ve never seen before:

For me, not working is the real work. When I’m writing, it’s all the playground…

I love the way he put it. Not working is the real work. Writing time is all the playground. Can you say that about your work? I enjoy what I’m doing, but I still can’t say that not working is the real work. This guy loves his craft at a different level and he’s serious about it. He made similar statements several times throughout the book.
Now, what if you do something that you don’t love? King’s advice is to move to something else:

If there’s no joy in it, it’s just no good. It’s best to go on to some other area, where… the fun quotient higher.

How high is the fun quotient of your work? Is there joy in it? Or is joy the last word you would associate with your work?
2. Practice, practice, practice
Hard practice is a must for being successful. In fact, this is why it’s important for you to do what you love. If you enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll be able to endure the hard practice needed for success.

The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate – four to six hours a day, every day – will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things…
… practice is invaluable (and should feel good, really not like practice at all)…

If you don’t enjoy the journey, it’s unlikely that you will be able to pay the price for success. Joy is a big factor that makes the difference between those who make it and those who don’t.
3. Be serious

If you can take it seriously, we can do business.

Only if you are serious about what you do can you expect to achieve meaningful results. Many people enjoy what they do but they do it only as a hobby. Being serious means being committed to master your field.
4. Ignore naysayers

If you write… someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.

Naysayers are there. It’s just a fact of life. There are always people who try to discourage you no matter how hard you’ve tried. So rather than getting discouraged by them, simply ignore them and move on.
5. Have a supporter

Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference.

This applies not just to writing. Whatever field you choose, you need to have someone who support you. You need to have someone who still believes in you when others don’t.
6. Immerse yourself in the field

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

Do you want to get good at something? Fill your life with it. Live it and breathe it. More than just making you familiar with the field, it sharpens your intuition to the point where you can make sound judgment intuitively (like what Malcolm Gladwell discussed in Blink).
7. Be consistent

I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words… only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shutdown before I get my 2,000 words.
The longer you keep to these basics, the easier the act of writing will become.

Being consistent isn’t easy, but it pays off. While what you do daily might seem simple, doing it consistently will make a big difference in the long term.
8. Study the work of others

You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so.

Studying the work of others gives you two important benefits. First, it teaches you about the right way to do things. Second, it teaches you about the wrong way to do things. Both are useful.
9. Study the market

You should also pick up the writers’ journal and buy a copy of Writer’s Market…
… the most important thing you can do for yourself is read the market.

In addition to studying the work of others, you should study the market. You need to know what the current state of the market is. What are the opportunities? What are the challenges? Where is the market going? By understanding the market, you’ll be able to make the right decisions.
10. Spot ideas

Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.

To get ideas, rather than trying to find something new on your own, you just need to spot the ideas around you. That’s why one key to innovation is being a good observer.
11. Keep the momentum going

Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to.

When the momentum is there, you can complete your work with much less time and energy. So keep the momentum going and don’t lose it.
12. Get the first draft out as quickly as possible

…downloading what’s in my head directly to the page, I write as fast as I can…

Don’t try to be perfect the first time. Simply get the first draft of your work out and refine from there. Working in iterations is the best way to get something done.
13. Get rid of the inessentials

When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.

In your first iteration, there is a good chance that many unnecessary things are still there. That’s fine because your job is to get the first version done as quickly as possible. But in the next iterations, you should get rid of them. Leave only what needs to be there and nothing else.
14. Be your own first customer

I am, after all, not just the novel’s creator but its first reader.

When you become the creator of a work, it’s often difficult to see from the perspective of the customers. But that’s important because otherwise your work might go to the the wrong direction. So be your own first customer. Take a critical look at your work. Is it something that you want to use? Is there anything that you need to change?
15. Don’t do it for the money

Do you do it for the money, honey? The answer is no. Don’t now and never did… I never set a single word down on paper with the thought of being paid for it.

Money is a bad motivation to have. It could make you ignore your heart and you might end up living someone else’s life instead of your own.
16. Do it for the joy

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

This is perhaps the most important lesson in the book. If you do something for the joy of it, not only can you endure the difficult journey to success but also your life will be fulfilling. What’s better than that?
17. Do it to enrich others and yourself

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous,… In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.

A nice conclusion of the book. If you live a life that enriches others and yourself, you’re living a great life.
Photo by Reinante El Pintor de Fuego

18 Comments

  1. Hey Donald,
    I recently bought “On Writing” for my girlfriend who is an author.
    She has been raving about it just like you, what I didn’t know was that it had so many tips about success and personal development, I guess I should read it myself 🙂
    Thanks for the heads up Donald and keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks for this post, Donald. Reading it was a wonderful rediscovery of King’s book, which I read almost 8 years ago.

  3. Yes this is a great, great book. King is completely consumed with being a writer. It is a great state of existence. I’ve observed Stephen King when he frequents Red Sox games… whenever there is down time he has head in a book. His dedication is such that he will not miss a moment to become a better writer.

  4. These are some great pointers. You’re right that it should be about enriching others and doing it for joy as well as doing what you love. They are all separate steps, yet they all tie together at the same time, and one sort of leads into another. Thanks for the post.
    -Gabe

  5. Daniel,
    So I’m not the only one who loves the book 🙂 Indeed, there are many things to learn from the book. In fact, there are some lessons I didn’t include in this post because I chose only the best and most relevant ones.
    Jehangir,
    I wish I had read it earlier. I’ve heard about the book for long time but only recently did I read it.
    Rob,
    Wow, that gives me another way to look at his dedication. Thanks for sharing it.
    Gabe,
    Yes, they all tie together. That’s a great way to live, isn’t it?

  6. Who knew such amazing advice would come from Mr. King?
    It is so absolutely true that if you do what you love the journey will be that much sweeter. I took a lot of different routes and paths in life before I came back to what I was great at – which is also what I love….doing design work on the web. And I take pride to share it with other people as well – http://infinitecomm.net
    Thanks for this amazing post!

  7. Dear Donald,
    Great Post! I especially like your insight on “getting rid of the unessentials.” I think it’s true not just in your own life, but also in how you interact with others.
    I actually just wrote a blog post called “getting to the point” that talks all about this. The basic idea is that we spent a lot of time dancing around issues instead of zeroing in one what’s truly important. We could definitely optimize better by fixing this problem.
    Would love to hear your thoughts!
    Vik

  8. Yes such a great book for sure. I like number 11. Having the momentum continuing to flow has been a major part of my success online.
    Thanks so much for this post Donald.

  9. Your post reminds me of a book I read a few years ago: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (http://www.stevenpressfield.com/the-war-of-art/). I think you’d enjoy this book as well.

  10. Thanks for this list. I first heard of On Writing in a college class, but never realized it would have been such a powerful personal development tool. I keep loving to hear “don’t do it for the money” repeated time and time again, because it is so true. We are doing it to enrich the lives of others. All this writing we are doing is serving some great purpose that has yet to manifest.

  11. Donald,
    Love this list (I really like how you messed King’s quotes in with each bullet point as well).
    King’s lessons seem so simple, but not simplistic. That is the key. To overthink is often a downfall for many, but when you stay the course with fluid methods of achieving those goals, anything can happen.
    Love and peace,
    Dave

  12. Kayan,
    It’s great that you’re now doing what you love, especially after taking many different paths before. Many people never do that.
    Vik,
    In social setting, sometimes we need to talk about inessential things to make the conversation more friendly. But, of course, it’s important to get the point across without wasting time.
    Ryan,
    Glad you can keep your momentum going. That’s not easy to do.
    Lori,
    Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll check it out.
    Mathieu,
    That’s right. Doing that will definitely make your life fulfilling.
    Dave,
    I like your term “fluid methods”. You do need to be flexible in achieving your goals.

  13. Nice post – something different too. I can’t say I’ve heard of many quotes from Stephen King before, very interesting.

  14. Great post. I especially enjoyed the following points:
    11. Keep the momentum going
    12. Get the first draft out as quickly as possible
    13. Get rid of the inessentials
    14. Be your own first customer
    Usually it takes a lot of effort to start working on an article. By trying to achieve the above points, I hope to write faster and better.

  15. Craig,
    Yes. And they contain great lessons.
    Kevin,
    I’m sure you can make it. Good luck!

  16. […] Stephen King: “read a lot and write a lot” […]

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