How to Give Advice to New Writers

Nephew of mine is 11-going-on-12 years old, and he’s writing a story for his school’s something-or-other-writing-project thing. As the resident writer-person in our family (written a few books so far, published none), he has—in a terrifying turn of events—started coming to me for advice.

My inside anxiety voice says: YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DREAMS OF CHILDREN. PROCEED WITH CAUTION. AND FEAR. (This feels a lot like putting a 7-year-old in charge of the 4-year-olds.)

Those responsibilities include: coffee, car, bills, and coffee.

 

My slightly-more-rational inner voice says: Kids are malleable and elastic, right? Sort of like a gold rubber-band?

Anyway.

Nephew is writing a story for school-something. He wrote a good chunk of his story, and then prompted his mother (my Eldest Sister) to read and help him edit it.

The problem?

He didn’t use any punctuation.

when i say that i mean he didnt use any at all for example stop he said there was a lot there were no pauses that made it hard to understand it was hard to focus he said he didn’t want to waste time now he needs to fix it seriously

How do I know this since I’m away at my apartment? Well… sorry if you’re reading this, Eldest Sister, but Nephew actually said these words to me:

“Hey, Auntie Becky,” Nephew said whilst typing away at his story about Houdini+portal+island as I worked on my book, The Nameless Queen. “Is it okay if I just keep writing and then go back and fix the mistakes later?”

Awkward responsibility-struggling-with-truth moment, then I said, “That’s sometimes what I do when I’m transcribing dictation, so if you need to just tap out the keys to keep up the momentum of writing, go ahead. Just make sure that you go back in and fix it up later.”

So… did I sort of give him permission to ignore grammar and spelling? Maybe. And that was probably an oversight, because when I was his age, I definitely spent a lot of time on grammar and spelling (because I was still learning, etc.)

BUT! In my defense, I stressed the importance of going back in and editing it properly. (Though that might be slightly undermined by the fact that he and his mother are reading unedited first drafts of The Nameless Queen.)

Was Nephew so excited that he couldn’t wait to show off his work to his mom? Or did he just want an adult to come in and fix up all of the blatant errors?

Probably both.

This brings up an interesting and exceedingly difficult question:

 

How can we toe the line between encouraging young writers to write and helping them to improve while not crushing their spirits?

 

A lot of people in the writing industry and publishing industry will inform you that writers need to have thick skin. This is because revision is the most important and difficult aspect of writing. Writers need to be able to view their own work critically without the rose-tinted glasses.

People in the industry, however, do NOT tell us how we’re supposed to transition from rosy frilly writerly creation to a serious, critical, professional, and otherwise thick-skinned objectivity.

Beyond that, how are we supposed to act toward children/malleable rubber-gold-people when they ask us to read and edit/critique their work?

Well, I’ve been on the receiving and giving end of writing/reading new work. That’s what happens when you write things. People in your life tend to notice. Why are you spending all that time on your computer? Tumblr? Twitter? YouTube? Nope. Writing.

Eventually people start assuming that’s what you’re doing (even when you’re mid-Netflix-binge).

This means that people also start bringing their writing to you. If you’re receptive and enthusiastic, they will continue to do so. If you’re hyper-critical, they’ll stop. Take from that whatever advice you prefer.

As I learned more and more about writing and poetry and fiction, I became more critical of other’s works and somehow not more critical of my own. Then, through the magic of college, I took fiction and poetry groups where others critiqued my work and I was forced through the fear of failing to do REVISION.

A hop, skip, and years of practice, classes, and multiple book-writing later, and Nephew is coming to me for advice.

So how does Eldest Sister encourage him to keep writing when she also needs him to know that he’s got to spend more time revising and editing?

My advice was:

Tell him that before he has anyone else read and edit it, he has to read it first. Out loud, to himself, and he needs to add punctuation and periods when needed.

Remind him that he is still learning and he needs to edit it first by himself because it is an important step in learning.

Then of course, show encouragement and appreciation of the story, asking him what his favorite parts are and what he’s most excited about. Then ask if he wants any advice or if he wants to talk about what it means to revise.

It’s IMPORTANT to do the encouragement step FIRST! And only proceed into the steps of how to improve (including opinions and critiques) IF the writer wants to.

From my experience, when people bring you something to read, they want one of three things:

  1. Unadulterated praise for their good work.
  2. Encouragement to write more.
  3. Help to improve.

Notice I say “help to improve” instead of “critique.” Also notice that it’s last on the list. A new writer doesn’t have enough thick skin in order to handle a straight up critique, even if you did just learn how to formally critique a story in your super-cool-college-class.

It was pretty hard for me when a sibling or friend would present me with a poem or story, asking what I thought. My instinct was to say what I liked about it and then dive into the things that need fixing or don’t make sense. Then I got grade-A-sad-face. 😦

And I realized that my family/friends didn’t want feedback. They just wanted acknowledgment and encouragement.

 

How to not alienate young writers and to encourage them to keep writing:

  1. When they ask you to read something, be upfront. Ask them if they want you to read it just for content, or if they want feedback/suggestions.
  2. Even if they want feedback, make sure the first and last thing you tell them is something positive.
  3. Engage them in the discussion. Ask them what they liked best, what they’re nervous about, and what they think they want advice on.

If you manage to help someone tumble from all-we-want-is-gold-stickers to tell-me-what-sucks mode, then praise be to the almighty muse.

and use proper grammar and spelling, because editor’s ain’t gonna fix nothin’ if they can’t read it, and agents ain’t gonna represent if they don’t understand.

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3 thoughts on “How to Give Advice to New Writers

  1. This is great advice. My two younger cousins love writing stories (mainly about our cat Hunter) and I always enjoy reading them because it was just obvious it was written by young kids. They were cute and I loved mistakes and watching them improve because it meant they were learning.

  2. Pingback: Giving Advice to Writers | words — and other things

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