For fifteen years, I’ve been parceling out advice and wisdom on writing and publishing, all squarely directed at the adult writer.
As the years pass, more and more young writers have sought my insight, and I’ve had to face a difficult question. Should the advice I give to children or teenagers differ from the advice I give to adults?
Yes and no.
I’ve written this post specifically for young people. I’ll leave you to decide what advice applies to adults as well.
First things first: keep writing.
A writer is someone who writes. If that describes you, call yourself a writer. You are one.
If you want to be any good, you have to keep writing. Now’s not the time to ask questions about the quality of your work, because I can guarantee it’s not as good as it will be in three years, five years, or ten years.
This shouldn’t be upsetting, but exciting. You have the power to make progress simply by writing more. What you write now is immensely important to your overall development and progress. Don’t consider your early work as wasted time and effort. It’s part of the journey to become the artist you’re meant to be.
There’s something called the Helsinki Bus Station Theory. It goes like this: you pick a career direction and set off (in other words, you get on a particular bus). Within a short period, you produce some work—and it’s very early work. It will look like the work produced by everyone else on that bus. So if you show that early work to someone, they’re going to wave you off; they likely won’t take notice. At this point, you may get discouraged and give up or change paths. But you didn’t realize: everyone who’s ever been great goes through this. Everyone. The answer is to keep doing the work, or to stay on the bus. Most people get off the bus too soon.
Ta-Nehisi Coates says, “The older you get, that path [of writing] is so tough and you get beat up so much that people eventually go to business school and they go and become lawyers. If you find yourself continuing up until the age of thirty-five or so … you will have a skillset … and the competition will have thinned out.”
Ira Glass says, “The thing that I just would like to say to you, with all my heart, is that almost everybody I know who does interesting, creative work, they went through a phase of years where … what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short.”
Don’t ask: Should I keep writing?
That’s the wrong question. Ask instead: Do I enjoy the process? Would I keep doing it whether I’m paid or not?
Let’s say I was your mentor, and we worked together for several years, and one day—after I failed to offer you any praise—you asked me, “Is it worth it for me to write, to keep going like this?” And I answered, “No, you should stop.”
If you responded, “Screw you, I’m going to write no matter what you say,” then you have the right mindset to continue.
I remember as a young person being told I was too lazy to go to college. My immediate thought was, “You’re wrong, you don’t know me at all.” That—that’s the gut feeling you’re after.
If someone could discourage you from writing, then perhaps you should be discouraged. The more you’re obsessed with writing and keep returning to it and are excited by it, the better—pay attention to that. It’s important. You’re drawn to something that sparks energy and enthusiasm, and that means you could become great at it.
You should be driven and motivated to do the work without someone watching over your shoulder and telling or encouraging you to do the work. It’s nice when we receive encouragement, but it’s momentary and doesn’t help us produce our best work.
Don’t try to figure out if you have talent. That’s useless. Talent is boringly common; unknown talented people surround us, but few persevere and do the work. Erica Jong says, “Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads.”
Along the way, you’ll encounter many traps set by your friends, family, and society. Paul Graham talks about those traps eloquently in his essay “How to Do What You Love”: “You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world.… Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.”
Now is the time to try it all, without risk, without commitment—see what you like and what you don’t like. Try it all before you end up in a situation or program that dictates what you have to create, or the standards you have to write by. Cross as many boundaries as you can; examine and consider all modes of expression.
While you could let writing become your whole world, pursue other interests, too. The story about Steve Jobs studying calligraphy and how it informed his approach to technology and design is now legendary. Having diverse interests, and allowing these interests to inform each other, contributes to stronger work with more vitality. Travels and varied life experiences help a lot, too, but they’re not required. You can allow yourself to be consumed by what you want to know, especially what’s foreign and strange and fascinating to you. Go out of your comfort zone whenever you can. Stay curious. Learn new stuff.
Read beyond what you’re assigned in school. It really doesn’t matter if you read widely across many genres or deep into a single genre. Go where the path seems to lead; read what adds to your energy and creativity.
Study what catches your attention, underline things you love, decorate your Tumblr or Pinterest or Instagram account with quotes and lines and wonderful words from books and writers you admire.
If you don’t like reading much, ask yourself why that is, and why you want to be a writer. Great artists of all backgrounds start their early careers by imitating the styles and voices of others, until one day they find themselves with a voice that is uniquely their own. Yes, you can copy your way to originality. And if you don’t read, how can you begin the process of doing that? Read Billy Collins on finding your voice.
Mentors speed your growth.
You can accomplish a lot on your own; you can accomplish it more quickly if someone is following your progress, providing critical feedback, and pointing out next steps. It’s hard to accept criticism at first, but you get better at it. You realize it’s not about whether you should be a writer or not, it’s about growing as a writer and sharpening your skills. Good mentors shorten the path to understanding your strengths and weaknesses. They can help cut through the noise and provide clarity when everything feels confusing. They can help introduce you to the right people or opportunities at the right time.
When it comes to a mentor, you don’t want a cheerleader, and you don’t want a parent. You want someone who has accomplished more than you and shares a vision for where you need or want to go.
Don’t ask a famous person to be your mentor or give feedback on your work. You don’t need someone really famous. That said, if you have a chance to meet a well-known author you love, go see them, hear them, ask questions, get them to sign your book, tell them of your admiration. You never know what you might learn from them even if they aren’t your mentor.
There’s no such thing as writer’s block.
Writer’s block is nothing more than fear or lack of confidence. It indicates you don’t feel ready to take the next step with your project. It’s up to you to figure out why. Maybe it’s not the right project to be working on. Or maybe you know there’s a problem that you haven’t resolved, and that problem needs to be fixed before you can continue. Look for the reason—it’s there.
If you feel like the “muse” hasn’t visited you, or you feel uninspired, it’s usually the same problem as writer’s block. You’re afraid of something, or you’re working on the wrong thing for you.
There are some dumb myths about writers.
Some people think writers sit alone all day or spend their lives in isolation. I like to call this the “solitary genius in the garret” myth.
Writing doesn’t have to be like that. Some writers work alone. Some writers collaborate with others, especially when writing movies or TV. Some writers are part of a publishing team. Some writers are performers.
Don’t ever believe anyone who tells you that to be a writer you need to spend time in solitude. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. That’s up to you.
Recognize your enemy: impatience.
When you start thinking about or focusing on publishing, your creative energy gets channeled differently. You have to package and present your stories in a way that makes them appealing to a publisher. You have to start thinking of your work as a product to sell—because publishing is a business.
Maybe you’ll have a knack for doing that, but some writers have a hard time doing this no matter how old they are, and they feel diminished and discouraged by rejection and the selling process.
The most important thing you need to learn in this regard—and what every writer needs to learn—is patience. Be patient with yourself and the process.
John Green says, “My publishing advice to teens is: Generally, don’t. What is the point of trying to publish now? There is so much to be gained from waiting and so little to be gained from not waiting. I think that not worrying about publishing a novel by the age of 16 will free young writers from the constraints of the literary marketplace. And if you write a novel that’s really wonderful, then you can always revise it and publish it later.”
If you must think about publishing: It doesn’t matter how old you are—you’ll follow the same steps to publication as everyone else. Here are the basics steps to get a book published. When you contact agents or publishers, it’s not necessary to disclose your age as part of the submissions process—your age doesn’t matter as much as your writing. However, an experienced agent or editor will probably be able to tell you’re a young writer. If you’re under the age of eighteen, your parents or guardian will have to get involved if you’re asked to sign any kind of contract.
Take advantage of your youth.
You have time. You have time to practice and to experiment—without obligation to make writing something that pays. It should be fun, and you probably don’t have any preconceived notions about what you should write, or what the writing life is supposed to be like. You probably don’t carry a silly, arbitrary burden about how much you should write, or when, or where. You haven’t yet fallen into the trap (I hope) of calling yourself an “aspiring writer.” You create because you have ideas you want to express and play with, and it feels satisfying and exciting. Follow that impulse.
When I was in the sixth grade, one of my English class assignments was to produce a twenty-five-page writing portfolio—we could write short pieces, long pieces, or both, in any genre or category. It was one of my favorite assignments, because we had complete freedom. When the portfolio was returned to me, the teacher included the following note.
I have always remembered, “Jane, don’t change.” At the time, I felt (as sixth graders do) that just about everything about me was ill-fitting and wrong. From that point on, I took permission to be myself, permission to write, and ultimately permission to say I was a writer.
Allow me to give you that same permission. Now, get back to your writing.