Twelve Tips for Young Writers

young writer

[Guest Post by Alissa Knop]

Summer reading for kids? How about summer writing! Here are some great tips for young writers.

[These tips are brought to you by Crickhollow Books, publishers of The I Love To Write Book: Ideas & Tips for Young Writers, by Mary-Lane Kamberg. Click on the title to find out more, or see the info at the end of this post.]

1. Take ideas from your own life.

“I believe that the best ideas are living inside you. Your challenge is to dig them out.” – Ralph Fletcher

The things you see, feel, and experience in everyday life are the things you know best. These can become pieces of stories and poems you’ll write. The first job of a writer is to notice things. Look, listen, and remember. Scenes, characters, traditions, memories, or experiences from your own life can be great places to start a story or poem – or add as details to any piece of writing.

2. Keep a journal.

“If you want to write . . . keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair.” – Madeline L’Engle

A journal is a great place to write down any idea, about anything. The writing does not have to be grammatically correct, in any certain order, or even make sense at all. Write down the thoughts that pop into your head and things you saw or heard during the day. You never know when they might be useful in future writing!

3. Keep two journals!

“The first journal is for real-life observations. What are you and your family doing each day? Be sure to use all of your senses. Report on what you see, hear, smell, and feel.

“The second journal will be your fantasy journal. Here you will take a trip and let your imagination run wild.” – Elvira Woodruff

If one journal is good, two might be better! Journal 1 is a diary of your real life, your thoughts and feelings.

Journal 2 is a diary of your imagination. This journal (a 3-ring binder can work well) is a place to jot down creative ideas – first lines of stories, favorite words, imaginary character profiles, made-up dialogue, sentence and phrases that you want to remember, bits of poems, sketches.

Separating the two journals is a clever idea; it lets you practice on recording things in one place (observations, feelings, whatever) that are real and honest, while also being freely creative in the other place. Then, your stories or poems might draw from both.

4. Worry about the story before the details.

“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” – Ernest Hemingway

You don’t decorate the room before you create the house. A good story needs a shape: a catchy start, a good middle, an engaging ending. If pieces of the plot do not match up, all the colorful language in the world will not make it better.

Likewise, a good poem isn’t just a flow of words. It has a form: a structure, line breaks, its shape on the page.

Create a solid foundation, then work out the details in the rewriting stage.

young writer

5. Write in scenes.

“I wrote out whichever scenes I was interested in, rather than starting at the beginning and working through to the end.” – Stephenie Meyer

Once you have a backbone of a story, you do not have to write it in order. Start with the scenes that change the story, have the most impact, or excite you most in the planning stage. Then go back later to tie them together with transitions, more detail, or extra chapters if needed.

6. Write like you speak. 

“If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.” – Elmore Leonard

It’s important not to overwrite (too flowery, too much information) or sound stiff or formal. Characters who seem the most human to readers are the ones who think like us. Don’t gum up a sentence with adverbs and large vocabulary just for the sake of it.

And when writing dialogue between characters, read what you write out loud to see if it sounds like something your character would actually say! When it doubt, cut it out. (Shorter is almost always better.)

7. Put some Real Toads in your Imaginary Gardens.

“It’s not poetry, till the poets can offer ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them.’” – Marianne Moore.

This is a (slight altered) version of what poet Moore said. She also said “We can not admire what we don’t understand.” Try to create stories or poem that have something clear and tangible that the reader can connect to.

Even fantasy stories work because there are “real” things in them. (Why do you think C.S. Lewis had the children in his series first enter Narnia through a wardrobe full of fur coats?)

8. Help us see the setting.

“Give weather reports. It helps the reality of a scene if foghorns are blowing or kites are in the sky on a windy afternoon or the day’s so hot wallpaper is peeling off the walls.” – Sid Fleischman

Just a few details help us picture a scene. If you use a few descriptive words to sketch the setting, the room, the view, or the weather, readers will start to believe your scene really exists.

9. Ask “What If . . . ?”

“I get my ideas from everywhere: from things I hear and things I see, from books and songs and newspapers and paintings and conversations–and even from dreams. [Then,] the storyteller in me asks: what if? And when I try to answer that, a story begins.”  – Jane Yolen

Great writers create the best stories not because of a starting idea, but because they ask follow-up questions like “What if . . . ?”

“What if some happens in my story that is wildly different than what everyone expects?” (And “How do my character feel about that?”)

10. Don’t try to imitate your favorite authors.

“You can’t ‘try’ to do things. You simply ‘must’ do things.” – Ray Bradbury

You may have gotten into writing because of a few amazing novels or stories you’ve read from your favorite authors. However, just because you love them doesn’t mean you can be them. The best writing you can do comes from writing from your own thoughts, with your own voice.

“Don’t worry about things. Don’t push. Just do your work and you’ll survive. The important thing is to have a ball, to be joyful, to be loving and to be explosive. Out of that comes everything and you grow.” – Ray Bradbury

Of course, maybe you’ll start by writing scenes that sound like a favorite author. But as you grow as a writer, look for ways to make the stories your own. What do you care about most?

11. Get as much feedback as you can.

“I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his [or her] talent, he [or she] would be wise to develop a thick hide.” – Harper Lee

If you’re writing to be published, get comfortable with getting feedback from some sort of audience. Honesty is best when it comes to opinions, and every piece of criticism you receive can make your writing become a little better.

Of course, not everyone will understand or like what you write. But any criticism might help you see that something you thought was working well isn’t – and may need a little fixing.

But never take any criticism as absolute. Remember, it is always your own work! Just thank the person for their feedback, and tell them it helps to hear their comments. And then think over what they said, on your own, and then do what you think is right for the story or poem.

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12. Just keep writing.

“Don’t write it right, just write it, and then make it right later.” – Tara Moss

Don’t worry about getting everything perfect on your first draft—that’s why it’s called a first draft! You have more freedom when you’re first sketchings thing out if you don’t worry too much about grammar, punctuation, or even if something is making sense. Lots of great writers said they wrote stuff that at first was mysterious – even to them! But later, they were able to weave it into their story in a rich, surprising way.

You can always add, subtract, or change anything when you look back over the story as a whole.

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” – Robert Frost

Ready, Set, Write!

Get a journal, get a notebook, get a binder. (The physical forms of pen and paper may offer more lasting encouragement than just noodling on an electronic device. And those journals will last and inspire long into a wonderful writing career.)

More Great Tips
Ralph Fletcher.
Elvira Woodruff.
Sid Fleischman.

A Short List of Good Magazines That Publish Young Writers

Stone Soup.
Skipping Stones.
New Moon (Girls).

For more writing tips and techniques, check out:

The I Love To Write Book, by Mary-Lane KambergThe I Love To Write Book: Ideas & Tips for Young Writers, by Mary-Lane Kamberg.

“An ideal gift for the young potential author in one’s life.” – Midwest Book Review

“A most welcome source for educators and children – both inspiring and practical. Her enthusiasm for teaching young people to write will grab the attention of teachers, librarians, and kids themselves.” – Jan Irving, children’s literature and library services consultant

[The author of this post, Alissa Knop, is a freelance writer from Pewaukee, Wisconsin. Additional contributions to this piece came from Philip Martin.]

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