20 Copywriting Lessons from Stephen King

by Sharon Hurley Hall

Last updated on July 27th, 2017

Shock! Horror!  That’s what Stephen King’s name calls to mind. But it’s not all he writes. In my opinion, Stephen King has written one of the best books around about writing. It’s about the development of his writing career and writing tips and it’s called On Writing. And I reckon, it’s not just good for learning about writing in general, but about conversion-centered copywriting. See if you agree with me.

King outlines 20 rules for good writing, described in detail on the Barnes and Noble and Open Culture blogs. Here’s how I think those rules apply to copywriting for conversions.

1. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience.

When you’re focusing on conversions, you have to think about the audience, but there’s another way to think about this advice. It’s all about focusing on the story you are telling. If you make it compelling even for you, then it will be compelling for your audience and that’s when you’ll see a conversion boost.

2. Don’t use passive voice.

Using the passive can weaken the story you’re telling, which is why most copywriting focuses on action verbs and the active voice. This isn’t a blanket rule, because sometimes you need the passive. Most times you don’t, so be ruthless about cutting it out.

3. Avoid adverbs.

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4. Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.”

Stephen King isn’t the only one to recommend avoiding adverbs. Scott McKelvey says:

“Flowery adjectives and adverbs are the enemies of content clarity and credibility.”

And Hubspot says that verbs are more effective than adverbs in getting people to take action. The bottom line: your copywriting will be stronger and convert better if you follow this rule.

5. But don’t obsess over perfect grammar.

As a grammar nerd, I tend to like my grammar perfect, but I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not appropriate in every scenario. If you’re creating copy that addresses a specific audience, you’ll need to write copy they will relate to, whether the grammar is perfect or not.

6. The magic is in you.

I find this rule particularly inspirational. It’s about tapping into the most exciting aspects of your product or service so you can convey those to your audience. And it’s also about harnessing emotions and waving a magic wand to dispel your audience’s fears and doubts.

7. Read, read, read.

All writers need to read, and that applies to copywriters too. Reading helps you educate yourself about your industry and learn what your audience is concerned with. The better your knowledge, the better and more successful your copy will be. These 25 books on marketing are a good place to start.

8. Don’t worry about making other people happy.

For me, this rule is about defying expectations, avoiding conformity and taking the occasional risk. As Hubspot points out, knowing your audience can help you feel comfortable doing something wacky with your copy, as Red Bull did.

9. Turn off the TV.

I don’t know if this applies so much to marketers, as TV might be one of your sources of information and inspiration. But this rule is all about looking inward for imagination and inspiration, which can help you deliver innovative, exciting copy.

10. You have three months.

This rule is more about writing novels. Stephen King suggests writers have three months to complete a first draft, but as a conversion-centered copywriter, sometimes you’ll be lucky to get three days. Look a little deeper, though and there’s some sound advice: don’t let the quest for perfection stop you from getting that draft done, even though you will have to edit later.

11. There are two secrets to success.

Stephen King’s secrets to success are staying married and healthy, which can be an advantage for some. My suggestion is to work out what your secrets for successful copywriting are and use these as your guide. Scott Martin has a couple of suggestions.

12. Write one word at a time.

This dovetails nicely with previous rules about getting the work done. It’s also a reminder to focus on the power of every word you write and avoid fluff and unnecessary words.

13. Eliminate distraction.

While this is similar to rule 9 about avoiding TV, it’s also a good reminder to cut out anything that distracts your audience from your message. That’s not just about the writing but about design and layout too. Eliminate distractions so prospects have no barrier to action.

14. Stick to your own style.

You want to know how to lose your audience? Make what you write sound like everything else ever written. Dex Media calls this “wallpaper copywriting” and it’s best avoided if you want your copy to convert. The more you write, the easier it will be to develop a unique style and tone that will resonate with your audience.

15. Dig.

This is about unearthing stories. Storytelling is at the heart of copywriting for conversions, because if your readers relate to what you tell them, they will want to take action. Find a human element to hang your story on and you’re sure to notice an improvement in conversions.

16. Take a break.

Stephen King takes a six-week break after writing a draft. You should be so lucky. But the point is that letting your copy sit for a couple of days so you can assess it with fresh eyes will help you make it better.

17. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings.

Every copywriter knows that it pays to tighten your copy and that’s what this rule is all about. It’s about keeping your copy interesting for the audience and eliminating those verbal tics that weaken its impact. The golden rule is: if it kills the flow, it has to go.

18. The research shouldn’t overshadow the story.

Using data can really boost conversions, but don’t use statistics at the expense of the story. Excessive focus on the background research can result in boring copy. Instead, marry data and story to create a synergy that gives people the information they need while skillfully drawing them into the tale you are weaving.

19. You become a writer simply by reading and writing.

This is all about practice. The more copy you read and write, the more you will develop your skills so you can deliver a polished piece of conversion oriented copywriting.

20. Writing is about getting happy.

Finally, Stephen King says that writing is about getting happy. He thinks of it as magic. As a copywriter, it’s your job to share that magic with your audience to win conversions.

Do you see any other ways in which these rules can apply to copywriting for conversions? Which one is your favorite?

Read other Crazy Egg articles by Sharon Hurley Hall.

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Sharon Hurley Hall

Sharon Hurley Hall is a professional writer and blogger. Her career has spanned more than 25 years, including stints as a journalist, academic writer, university lecturer and ghost writer. Connect with Sharon on her website.

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  1. September 28, 2015 at 10:08 am

    Hey Sharon, your blog post is quite informative but what most impressed me is the last point i.e writing is about getting happy.

    After reading this, I abruptly, started commenting. Stephen King is definitely a treat to read. His writing skills and tips are very accommodating.I used to apply lot of passive voice sentences in my writings earlier, but now for sure ,I am not going to use it. I will focus on action verbs and active voice more. Next thing I liked in this article is point number 14. I think your writing style and tone depicts your personality so it’s very essential that we must cling to our style that fits and appeal to our audience.

    Happy writing!

  2. September 28, 2015 at 3:41 am

    Hi Sharon

    Great summary – I’ll buy the book. My first King book – I’m more a fan of his movies. Particularly The Shining, which interestingly was an adaptation King hated. Something I didn’t know until I came across his comments in Rollingstone: ‘In the book, there’s an actual arc where you see this guy, Jack Torrance, trying to be good, and little by little he moves over to this place where he’s crazy. And as far as I’m concerned, when I saw the movie, Jack was crazy from the first scene’.

    And he’s spot on. In all great stories, there are always two stories being told: an outer story – simplistically, the hero stopping the bad guy doing bad things – and an inner story of how this action changes the hero psychologically or morally. In most stories – and movies – that’s why we are often introduced to our hero as someone flawed and stuck-in-a-rut. And at the end, we leave them fulfilled. On a new and better path. Changed for the better (or worse).

    How does this character arc stuff impact on copywriting? It certainly applies to brand stories. I love brands who do great things, but I love them more if the ‘hero’ behind the brand overcame adversity and was personally changed as a result.

    One last thing I’d like to add. Point 7 Read, read, read. Yes, yes, and yes. But I wouldn’t just read marketing books. Stephen King’s book is about the writing process and storytelling. And there are many other great books out there on storytelling – Cambell’s well-known The Hero with a Thousand Faces being an oldie but a goodie.

    • September 29, 2015 at 7:45 am

      Everyone loves a hero, Stuart; great point. And I agree that you should read widely – you never know what will provide inspiration. 🙂

  3. September 26, 2015 at 11:05 am

    Hi Sharon,

    my favorite is “19. You become a writer simply by reading and writing.” personally, i think my writing has gotten better over time because i do quite a lot of reading.

    great piece and thanks for sharing.

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