Ten Tips for Teen Writers

This was first published on my personal blog in May of 2011, but I think still holds just as true today, as more and more young writers realize just how accessible writing and publishing is to them.

In a little over an hour, I’ll be heading to Rockland District High School to have some one-on-one sessions with a few young writers who heard me speak at the school a couple of months ago. Now, we’re meeting to talk specifics about their work. In googling “Tips for Teen Writers,” I came up with some great ones – most notably this hilariously frank post by John Scalzi. Since I, however, do not have the cajones to tell these young writers that their work sucks (which it of course does not), I had to come up with something slightly more diplomatic. Here’s my advice to all the young writers out there.

1. Find Fellow Writers. Join a writing group online or in person, and make friends. Writing can be very lonely, but if you start making friends early, it will make it a whole lot easier when you’re discouraged or wondering why you’re wasting time putting words on a blank page (or screen.)

2. Write Every Day. The general consensus is that it takes writing a million words before a writer is any good. A Million. That’s a lot. So… Set aside an hour a day, and just write. Don’t worry about whether or not it’s any good – Just get the words down. The simple act of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard is all it takes to get you started.

3. Read Everything.Books you love. Books you hate. Read the classics. Read bestsellers. Read books, magazines, blogs. Learn to be a reading scientist – dissect the words in front of you, to figure out why a book keeps you turning pages. Look at paragraphs to figure out how sentences are structured. Look at chapters, action scenes, dialogue. Writing isn’t Magic – it’s about understanding how books work, and being able to replicate that.

4. Submit Your Work. Enter competitions; submit short stories or poetry to teen-friendly venues; write and post fanfiction to a forum like Get used to rejection – it’s part of every writer’s life. Look at it this way: Every rejection you get gets you closer to your first acceptance letter.

5. Find a Critical Reader, Beta, or Writing Group. Just writing and submitting your work without having someone you trust go over it first does no one any good – it frustrates you because you will inevitably be rejected; it frustrates the people to whom you are submitting you’re work, because without some kind of critical reader to go over it first, you’re probably submitting something with a lot of mistakes in it. Try to find a writing mentor or a writing group, where you can exchange your work and provide critiques and encouragement for each other.

6. Do Other Things. You’re just developing as a writer – all those tips you read about sacrifice, and writing no matter what, and skipping vacations and never sleeping just so you can finish your novel? Those tips aren’t for you yet. Your Number One Goal as a writer and as a teen and as a teen writer, is to live your life. Have experiences. Do bad things. Do good things. Play sports. Be in a play. Fall in love. Travel. Get a job. Get fired from a job. All of these things may sound alternately lame or downright horrible, but, I swear, all of them will make you a better writer. And a better, more interesting, more compassionate human being.

7. Get a Job Writing. Get one now. If you have a school paper, write for it. If you don’t, talk to someone about starting one. If that fails, check in with your local paper, and find out whether or not they offer internships. Learn what it’s like to write under deadline. (A hint: It pretty much sucks). Get used to it. For writers, deadlines are a way of life.

8. Take a writing class or go to a writing conference. There are actually a lot of teen writing programs around the country right now – two great ones are right here in Maine. One,, is currently accepting applications for their summer program – it’s five days long, and takes place in Portland, Maine, in August. If you don’t think you can afford it, scholarships are available. Whether you go to the Hive or some other writing program, you’ll have an opportunity to meet other young writers like yourself, and to work with professional, award-winning, published authors.

9. Make writing dates with friends. If you are lucky enough to have a friend who’s a writer, step outside your usual routine sometime and set a lunch date to write. Go to your favorite coffee shop or restaurant (even if it’s just McDonald’s), and sit there and write for half an hour. You can pick a topic to write about, like the color red or the smell of French fries or how that guy sitting next to you got the scar above his eye… Then, don’t talk, don’t eat. Just write. NOTE: You have to order something if you’re doing this, even if it’s just a soda. Otherwise people think you’re an ass.

10. Get to know writers. Subscribe to Writer’s Digest. Read On Writing, by Stephen King. Follow writers, publishers, and agents on Twitter. Go to readings or book signings whenever you can. Make friends with published writers. The writing community is a friendly one, and most authors are happy to give young writers a little bit of their time.

ABOVE ALL ELSE!! Have fun. Whether you’re destined to become the next Amanda Hocking or the next F. Scott Fitzgerald, it probably won’t happen in the next three years. So, relax. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy the craft of writing, and have a blast with the characters you create. The more fun you have, the more likely you’ll be to stick with it… And the more likely it will be that, when your time comes, you will be the next Amanda Hocking or F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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