Friday, December 2, 2011

Nurturing the Young Writer

The Piggyback Ride, by William Bouguereau

All this talk of teen reading habits and the books that have influenced our writing has me thinking back fondly to those early, clumsy attempts at writing fiction.

It has also been on my mind recently as I watch a young friend of mine starting out on this magical journey for herself. Like the rest of us, she’s a reader and I don’t think I’ve ever seen her without something to read. Lately, however, the books have been replaced by notebooks filled with her scrawling handwriting.

When she discovered that I wrote fiction it was as if she’d discovered a kindred spirit. And we are, though I’m much farther along the writing journey than she is. We share the common writer’s drive, that indefinable something within that urges us to put words on paper. Maybe she thought she was alone in this feeling, or maybe she thought it was an odd thing to want to do, considering most teenage avocations lean toward fitting in, being one of the crowd, and writers are not typically crowd-seeking. She now knows scribbling in notebooks is a legitimate activity. She’s found a fellow writer and is delighted with her discovery.

When I was her age (about 14) I shared my writing with exactly one other person, a trusted friend who lived across the street. She and I often wove stories together - orally, not written - but as an extension of that, I began to write them down. It never occurred to me to share these with my mom or a teacher or any other person. In fact, I’d have been mortified. (Not that the content was anything but PG.) No, I was just intensely private about my writing. Still am, for the most part, though I’ve learned to share for the value of feedback.

My young friend, though, has absolutely no qualms about sharing her own fiction. Like an eager young pup she nearly leaped around my feet in her joy at finding another writer. Would I read her stories? Would I give her advice? Would I edit something of hers when she was done? Her questions bounded around us, tangled in a string of explanations of just how many notebooks (nine) she has and how many of those are only half-finished stories. (Ah! She’s the kind of writer who has to start a new story just as soon as the idea comes to her…)

Yes, I said, I would read something of hers. Pick ONE for me to look at. This seems to have spurred her into finishing one. She assures me it will be done in a few weeks. Then the ball is in my court and I must think carefully of how to proceed from here, for while I’ve given critiques to fellow writers, I don’t think I’ve been given this much trust by any of them. The responsibility of nurturing a brand new writer, such a young, impressionable one, and of being her mentor, weighs heavily on me.

Over the years I was encouraged enough by teachers (both creative writing ones and just those who read my essays and book reports) to know that I was good at this craft. I believe wholeheartedly that without encouragement and without mentors, this part of me would be left unexplored and I thank God for those wise souls who crossed my path at critical, influential times in my life.

What advice do you give a young writer? How much gentle correction vs unadulterated praise do you give?

Do you remember the advice you received when you started out? What kept you going, who boosted your morale and stoked the writing fires within you? If you’ve got wisdom to share, please help me out as I come full circle in the writer’s life and begin to nurture a young writer.


  1. No pressure right? I didn't show my writing at that age either so no help there. But when I did start showing my writing it was nice when people picked one or two things for me to work on. There were a lot more than that wrong but it kept it from being overwhelming. So maybe when you read her work, find the one thing that sticks out the most. Hope that helps.

  2. S.P. Bowers - great advice to pick one thing and work on that. I've heard it said that for every thing that needs working on, you should also give about 3-4 examples of things that went well. So will try to balance my critique that way. Thanks!

  3. I would never want to come off as patronizing, by giving praise, where perhaps a little criticism might help, but I think young writers(well all young artists actually), need to hear the words, "I like it! Now go write, paint, create some more."

    To me, this approach instills pride in perfecting their work, encourages trial and error and teaches self-confidence.

    Sometimes all a young writer needs is encouragement, in the form of a parent, a fellow writer, a friend, simply applauding the process.

    If there were one piece of advice I wish I'd been given at a younger age, it would have been to *Show, don't Tell* your story. Certainly one of the more difficult concepts for me to conquer.

    Love the painting! Great topic!

  4. Hmm, I don't think I *have* met any young writers recently. Older authors talk to me.
    I was pretty well encouraged when I was younger, and I'm grateful for it. Definitely helps a budding writer's confidence!

  5. Deniz, my husband dropped in to get his haircut the other day at his barber's and met an author, Marc Cameron (National Security is his latest book), who encouraged me via my hub. It seems that the writing community is pretty good about lifting up fellow writers and aspiring writers.

  6. It's difficult because you're torn between showing them respect by not patronising them (and thus being critical) and pouring high praises on them - which might not be the best thing for their development.

    I think any criticism should be accompanied by a reminder of how subjective such criticism is, that it's motivated in large part by opinion rather than some objective set of rules whereby EVERYONE IN THE UNIVERSE thinks what you just wrote isn't great. That's a way to make them aware of the variety of feedback they'll get from different people and to not take that feedback too personally.

    Something that might be nice is to write a story together? She does a paragraph, you continue the story with a paragraph, experiment with different styles - share the journey.

    Finally, encourage her to tear into your own fiction writing brutally. She'll learn about criticising constructively and watching you react neutrally to her criticism and engaging with it rather than getting offended will show her its something to have fun with and learn from rather than be upset by!

    Good luck =)

  7. London, love your ideas! And absolutely - criticism is subjective and every writer should take what she needs from it and discard that which is not helpful. But when a writer is just starting out, it's hard to know what advice is sound and what isn't. But yes, we need to be open to suggestions and crits, yet wise enough to know what to take away from it for our own use. (There is the danger of discarding all advice and Kristen just recently wrote a blog on that.)


  8. That's great Susan! Meeting authors at the barbers sounds kinda cool :-)

  9. It is a terrible burden critiquing the work of a young writer. The prose is generally like an impression of someone writing, a half remembered pastiche of adult writing styles with none of the underlying understanding. And things just happen for no reason, the plots... Well there are no plots.

    I would probably suggest that you, as suggested by other commenters, heap praise on the fact she got the writing done in the first place because that outs her ahead of many adults. But to introduce the idea of a first draft and what writers do is rewrite until its better. Get her to transcribe a chapter of her favourite writer's book in her own handwriting to program good writing habits in her mind. And suggest that she works out the plot beforehand as elaborately as possible as a timeline, probably with drawings. And finally to think more about the end that about how the book starts and how to say one important thing per chapter.

    Just my 2p.

  10. Hi - I have just logged onto your site and what I am about to say may be 'teaching my grandmother to suck eggs.'
    I spent a lot of my working life teaching young adults - mostly the 'bad ones' that nobody else was willing to teach. I found that the way to get the best from them through constuctive criticism was the 'Feedback sandwich' but with a slight difference. Feedback sandwich - praise good parts/ critique the not so good parts/ end with praise for good parts. The difference that I used was in the middle part - instead of pointing out mistakes, etc. I would ask questions, such as 'Which parts do you think you could improve?' 'How do you think it could be improved?' 'Do you think that this part could be shortened/lengthened?' and similar questions - this opened up a dialogue for discussion of the content and did not involve the person thenselves
    Well that was my two peny worth.

  11. Going Down Writing: (Love your name, btw.)

    Excellent advice. It IS a Very Good Thing to actually finish a first draft. I will certainly mention how wonderful it is that she's ahead of the game right there. But just as important as finishing is polishing it into a second/third draft.


  12. Dear Magi - love your suggestions. Feedback sandwiches will be served. :) Like the idea of asking her questions to get her thinking on her own, about her skills and where she'd like to her story to be.

    Thank you!

  13. Hey Susan,

    I'm sooo far behind on reading blogs, and even farther behind on commenting, but I might have something useful to input here. I started writing when I was about 10, and hardly showed anybody until about 12-13. What can I say? I was shy. I am still shy. I will probably always be. [g]

    The most helpful feedback when I _did_ show my work was simple, unconditional positive regard. It was terrifying and thrilling for me to have someone point out specific things they liked about it, whether it was an adjective or a sentence or dialogue or whatever. Anything that gave me momentum to write was more than enough of a help.

    I look back and realize that I was very fortunate; the people I did show my work to were so kind, and patient, and encouraging. When she starts this young, it will be a given that she will improve on her own. Instead of saying "x needs work" I would ask her questions to get her thinking about developing those parts of the story. You may find that she responds best to guidance instead of correction, though grammar/spelling mistakes shouldn't be a problem to correct outright.

    Remind her to save everything she writes. [g]

    As you go on you might find that there are opportunities to teach her how to properly respond to constructive feedback. For that matter, you will be the one that teaches her what a good writer/beta-reader relationship consists of (and what it doesn't). Her later betas will thank you. Profusely. [g]

    Lucky you, though. The responsibility is scary, but man! What an exciting chance for her. She must be over the moon. Good on you for taking her under your wing!