Photo courtesy of milena mihaylova
By Leo Babauta
I have a son and a neice who are both middle-school-aged and both fantastic writers. It’s amazing to see talent blooming at such an early age, and while talking with my sister about it, I began to think about the best way to develop a kid’s emerging interest in writing.
How do you go from being a reader of great writing to a writer yourself, when you’re still young and don’t know where to start?
Today we’ll look at some of the best things a young writer — or a parent or teacher of a young writer — can do to develop writing talent.
My Background as a Writer
I’ve been a professional writer for about 18 years now, since my senior year in high school when I was a sports freelancer for the local daily newspaper. I was editor of my college newspaper, later became sports editor of the daily paper as well as a news reporter who covered politics and crime (sometimes in the same articles!). I’ve also been a freelance writer for magazines, newspapers and websites, a political writer of speeches and legislation, and now a professional blogger.
But I didn’t start out as a professional. I started out as a reader, in elementary school, devouring mystery novels, fantasy books, and just great fiction. I lived in the world of books, and when I started writing short stories in fourth and fifth grade, it was only natural.
In middle school, my English teachers singled me out as a writer, and that encouraged me. By high school, it was one of my aspirations to be a writer some day, and when I got a job as a freelancer, it was scary but a step toward a dream.
Start Out As a Reader
It’s been my experience, and I would guess the experience of all writers, that an interest in writing comes from an interest in reading. You don’t just start writing fiction and poetry without having read plenty of good examples of it first.
Reading good writers is the first and one of the most important steps to becoming a good writer yourself. All good writers are book lovers, with favorite authors and beloved childhood books.
If you’re a kid or teen-ager looking to become a writer, you’re probably already a reader. Continue that, and expand it. Read as much as you can, every day, during your spare time. Read new books and writers and genres you haven’t read before. Pay close attention to what the writers do to achieve the magic they create — their plot devices, the way they shape a character, the way they craft the language.
Enjoy a good book, and you’ve already come a long way to becoming a good writer.
Getting Started in a Writing Career
One of the most important question young writers have is, “If I want to become a professional writer, how do I get started?”
Well, first of all, there’s no rush. If you’re still in elementary, middle or high school, you have lots of time. For now, just enjoy reading good writing and exploring the craft of writing. Have fun with it — try out new things and just go crazy. Don’t put any pressure on yourself.
Write a lot, because practice helps you get better.
That said, here are some tips on getting started in a writing career:
- Try writing for a school paper. It’s good experience. If your school doesn’t have a paper, make your own.
- Try writing a blog. It doesn’t have to be popular — it’s just a good way to explore your writing.
- You might consider trying out a youth internship at your local paper. There’s one such program at the local paper where I live and it’s a great idea for getting your foot in the door.
- If you go to college after graudating from high school, take some writing classes. Also write for your college paper.
- After high school, consider applying to be a freelancer for a newspaper in your area (or near your college). Many newspapers will take less experienced writers as freelancers and even train them in the art of newspaper reporting and writing. Even if newspaper writing isn’t your ultimate goal, it’s great experience — the more you work with words, the better. Great writers such as Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway started as newspaper writers.
- After high school, definitely start your own blog. Again, it doesn’t have to be popular, but 1) it’s a great way to explore and hone your writing and 2) it’s a great way to show other people what you can do.
- Consider freelancing or writing guest posts for other blogs — it’s great exposure.
- Write short stories, poems, and other fiction and non-fiction whenever you can. Take a shot at a novel — who knows, your first attempt might be a masterpiece. Even if it isn’t, it’ll help you understand what’s involved in writing about a novel.
- Read about writing when you can — online and in print.
- When you have a little experience, try freelancing for magazines. It’s a great way to try new kinds of writing.
- Once you have some freelance experience under your belt, and have a blog of your own, and have written fiction, you’re a writer. You can go anywhere you want from there.
Writing Tips for Young Writers
Besides reading a lot, writing a lot is the next important step to becoming a good writer. Here are some tips that will help you find your way:
- Steal from your favorite writers. Don’t be afraid to steal — imitation is the best way to incorporate good techniques into your writing. Later you’ll take these tools and make them your own, but at first you should feel free to mimic the best writers.
- Try different forms. Don’t just stick to one form of writing. Have fun with different forms — short stories, novels, plays, TV or movie screenplays, poems, essays, newspaper articles, blog posts.
- Start your own blog. No matter what age you are, a blog can be a lot of fun. It can be like an essay, a journal entry, a newspaper article, an online conversation — whatever you want it to be. And it’s free and relatively easy. Try a free Blogger or WordPress account.
- Share your stuff with others. It’s pretty scary to allow other people to read your work, but it really helps you grow and learn. Blogging is a good way to share your writing, but there are other ways: you can email stuff to family and friends, you can read poems out loud to family (as my niece Samantha recently did — she’s an amazing poet!), you can put on plays with friends or relatives for a small audience, you can pass out a newspaper to family. The feedback you get will probably encourage you or help you learn what you need to improve.
- Read about writing online. There’s a huge wealth of information about writing on the Internet. Do some Google searches for writing blogs, writing tips, and the like. Subscribing to Write To Done is a good start. :)
- Make writing a daily habit. Whether you write in the morning before school, or during lunch, or after school, or just before you go to bed … choose a time and try to write every day during that time if you can. Even just 20-30 minutes a day is a good start. An hour is even better if you can manage it.
- Write what you know about. While it’s fun to use writing as a way to explore your imagination, the most realistic writing comes when you write about things you know. Write about characters who are similar to you in some ways, with similar lives or interests. Write about the city or town or island or area you live in. Take elements of people you know, settings that are familiar, events you’ve lived through.
- Write what you’re interested in or love doing. Are you passionate about a sport, or a hobby, or a particular topic? Write about that — your passion and knowledge will shine through your writing.
- Join an online writing group. There are tons of them out there — just do a search. Some of them are even aimed at young writers. Check out a few that look interesting, read through a bunch of posts for a few days, and then take the plunge and introduce yourself. Get involved in discussions, ask questions, and learn from the people in the group. Eventually you can share your own writing and get critiqued and get suggestions.
- Don’t get discouraged. If you’re not a good writer at first, don’t worry — no one ever is in the beginning. Good writing comes with practice, with experience, with time. Just keep doing it. If you get bad comments from people, don’t sweat it — you’ll get better, and sometimes people just make bad comments because they feel like it, not because the writing is bad. If you read writers who are your age and who seem better than you, don’t worry about it — it’s not a competition. Don’t compare yourself to them, but instead learn from what they’re doing right. You’ll get better.
- Yes, grammar and spelling are important. These might seem like boring subjects to you. I know I wasn’t interested in grammar in school, and I’m paying for it now (I make grammar mistakes all the time). But I recommend you pay attention to these subjects, in school, in the things you read, and in your writing. They’re important because while good spelling and grammar won’t win you many writing awards, bad spelling and grammar will cause people to stop reading your writing. It gets in the way of writing, and you’ll fail if you can’t do reasonably well at spelling and grammar. The good news: if you pay attention, you’ll get better at it. You’ll learn from experience and from reading.
- And yes, editing and revision are important too. These are two other things I didn’t like when I was younger. When I was done writing something, I never liked to read over it again and revise my writing. It was such a pain! But let me tell you something: it improves your writing. In your first draft, just let the writing flow, and don’t worry about editing or revising as you go. But then go over it, and read it aloud, and see what sounds awkward, what doesn’t flow, what is unclear. Then revise, and read it again. You’ll learn to improve with each revision.
- Avoid cliches. I’m actually bad at this, because I often forget I’m using a cliche. But when I can catch a cliche, I will kill it. Writing that’s full of cliches is bad writing. If you’ve read a phrase a number of times, avoid using it. Come up with something new.
- Keep a notebook. This isn’t necessary, but I’ve found that it helps. Keep notes about characters and stories you want to write about. Jot down little snippets of dialog you’d like to use. Write descriptions of scenery you can use later. Write down your thoughts on writing. Go back over all of it later when you’re bored.
- Observe. Become an observer of life, and of human nature. Listen to people’s conversations to improve your dialog writing. People-watch at busy places and take notes. When you’re going through something tough in life, reflect on it in your writing. Wherever you are, notice details.
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