I often receive e-mails from young writers in high school and even younger, and I’m always so impressed with them and even a little bit jealous. I had no idea I wanted to be a writer when I was in high school and I rue all those years I could have spent honing my craft. And even if I had known I wanted to be a writer, I didn’t have the Internet to reach out to other authors and learn more about what it takes to write a novel.
These young people are getting such a head start on their careers, and I can’t wait to see the incredible books they produce.
There’s a long tradition of writers offering advice to young writers, perhaps none greater than Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. I can’t top that, but here’s my own modest contribution to the genre.
Here’s my advice for young writers:
Don’t write for the writer you are now. Write for the writer you’re going to become.
Writers aren’t born, they are made. It takes most writers years and years to hone their craft, and it’s helpful to have had years and years of reading experience now. By the time you’ve reached high school you have lived enough to have tasted the world and it may feel like you’re ready to channel it all into a novel, but don’t expect that your writerly success will come immediately.
Yes, there are occasional wunderkinds that defy this rule. But even S.E. Hinton, who published The Outsiders when she was sixteen, had already written several novels before that one.
Within the publishing industry, you won’t be judged based on your age, you’ll be judged against other writers who have spent years and even decades writing. Being good for your age isn’t enough. You have to be good period, and it’s difficult to achieve that level with limited experience.
Don’t judge your writing success by whether you’re able to find publication immediately. Instead, write to get better, write for catharsis and practice and fun. Your future self will be thankful for the time well spent.
Create the world you want, but don’t leave the one you’re in.
Teenage years can be incredibly difficult. You might feel trapped by parents, peers, or a school that doesn’t understand you or even mistreats you. You have limited control over your life even as you’re old enough to grasp that there is something more out there, if only you were allowed to go and get it.
Writing can be an incredible release. It gives you the ability to create a world that’s better than the one you’re living in. It gives you the power you don’t have in your day-to-day life.
Use it well. But don’t disengage with the world you’re living in. Writing can feel like a substitute for real life, but it’s important to find people in the real one who you can talk to, whether that’s friends, a teacher, or fellow writers. Don’t let your characters be a substitute for real-world relationships.
Don’t be afraid to imitate at first.
Nearly every writer who starts out can see the fingerprints of their favorite writers in their work. This is normal.
Don’t be alarmed if you feel like you’re writing someone else’s book at first. Push forward. Keep writing. Even take up fan fiction if you want to.
It takes time to learn how to craft a plot, to write sophisticated dialogue, to infuse your work with emotional depth. It takes many writers years to hone these skills.
One thing you can do in the meantime is to find your voice. Write, write, and write some more. In the beginning your work might sound like someone else. But eventually you’ll make it your own.
Don’t ever apologize for being a writer.
Adults often underestimate teenagers. They treat them as if they are still children, when it’s not true, and they may not think you’re capable of being a great writer when you absolutely are. Or, possibly worse, they might try to indulge you and be overly enthusiastic, when you know they secretly are not taking you seriously and think your writing is a phase you’re going to grow out of.
Your writing is worthwhile. Your writing is important. Don’t let anyone tell you any differently.
There are a lot of people in life who never try to achieve their dreams. They would rather sit back and be a critic than an artist, because it’s easier to see what’s wrong with someone else’s work than to create your own. There will always be naysayers. But…
So go for it. There is a whole world waiting for you to bring it to fruition.
Art: Schreiben der Knabe by Albert Anker