I published my first novel when I was fourteen, and I’m still writing now, at age thirty-four. Like other young published authors, I learned a lot from my early experiences; I also faced roadblocks that people who begin writing in adulthood might not understand. Here are tips for beginner writers–and especially for teen writers–from someone who’s been there!
1. Read, read, and read
To become a better writer, you have to read a lot. Read what you enjoy–YA, fantasy, poetry–but read books that challenge you, too. Read the classics–start with these lists from Goodreads or PBS . Read the stuff they make you read in school even if you hate it; someday, a fellow writer might ask you about it, and you’ll have evidence to give good ol’ Hawthorne a thrashing. But PLEASE don’t read garbage (you know which books are garbage). Sentence structure and word choice get stuck in your head; if you read bad writing, you’ll write badly.
2. Make writing a priority
You probably pack your schedule with extracurricular activities that will look good on a college application. But writing is an extracurricular activity too, and it takes time and discipline to be good at it. Try to write every day, or at least several times a week; if you’ve scheduled time to write, don’t let anything else get in the way. Maybe you won’t do as many sports or clubs as your friends, but if you end up publishing a novel, or writing a story that wins an award, that will impress colleges, too.
3. Surround yourself with creative people
In high school, my friends were artists–whether they were involved in theater or drawing or music, they were bursting with creativity. It was encouraging for me to be around people who valued imagination. We were weirdos. We were unpopular. But we inspired each other–and we inspire each other to this day (we’re STILL friends.) Seek out people who believe in art, and they’ll rejuvenate you when you’re in a rut.
4. But don’t talk about writing TOO much
It’s helpful to talk to other artists about the creative process, or to analyze books/songs/movies you love and why they work. But don’t share every detail of your unfinished stories with your friends. If you talk too much, you can talk the need to write straight out of you. Why would you bother sitting alone at the computer when you could be chatting about your ideas? The joy of writing must come from WRITING–typing word after word after word, and trying and failing–not from anything external. Plus, if you swap ideas with other people too often, you’ll lose your voice and your vision for your work.
5. Put away your phone
Good writing takes focus–but we live in a world of distractions! When you’re writing, turn off your phone (really!!) or put it in another room. Disconnect from the internet and type your stories in a word processor that can be used offline. It may sound extreme, but consider this: studies have shown that multitasking reduces productivity by FORTY percent. Eliminate the temptation to use the internet or you may end up scrolling through Instagram instead of writing.
6. Write what you know–but don’t limit yourself to one topic
The teen years have an emotional intensity unmatched by any other time in our lives. Write about what you’re going through now so you don’t forget it! If romantic relationships are a big part of your life, write about them–but don’t let romance dominate all of your writing. I remember a poetry workshop in high school where we had to write about someone important to us, but it COULDN’T be a love interest. My dad was a firefighter in a dangerous city; I wrote about how much I admired him, and how I feared for his life every time he went to work. It was the best poem to come out of my teen years, and it was different from my other writing.
Maybe, on the other hand, you’re writing about something you don’t know–a job or a life stage you’ve never experienced, or a place you’ve never been. You can learn about things you haven’t lived–the key word is RESEARCH. Read memoirs and blog posts. Interview people who are experts on the topic. The more personal your research is, the more easily it will translate into stories.
7. Don’t let ANYONE discourage you from writing
You probably won’t make a living from writing alone. But that doesn’t mean you should stop doing it! You can write and have another career at the same time. I’ve worked as a TV producer, teacher, bartender–and, most recently, a stay-at-home mom–all while continuing to write. Writing will always be my calling–my “real job”–even if it isn’t my main source of income.
No matter what, keep writing! My teen years were when I developed skills I use today; in fact, the main characters in my novel Games of Chance were born in a novel I started in high school. You might be on the cusp of the greatest story of your career. Write it!