Creative writing often appeals to teenage students, who enjoy the opportunity to create and control their own worlds and the chance to voice their own ideas. Besides, what teenage writer has not at some point fancied him or herself the author of the next great American novel?
Though seeking fame is hardly the motivation we want for our kids, the joy of creating good and beautiful stories is very real, and I commend young writers for taking on the challenge. I have assembled this list in order to offer some advice and help them avoid some common pitfalls.
- Do write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
If you think you can get it right on the first try, you’re wrong, and no, you’re not the exception to this. I imagine that some brilliant authors who have written for decades and decades may be able to produce flawless first drafts—but even in their cases, I doubt it. Rewriting is not conceding failure, but insisting upon excellence. I should add, though, that setting out to attain perfection and therefore using the backspace key as much as any other is not what I mean. Get your thoughts down. Let it be messy. Then you can comb back over it and rearrange, reword, rethink, rewrite.
- Do focus on developing characters of depth and interest.
Plot is not all. It’s easy to associate telling a story with telling what happens, but a cunning plot without developed characters creates a thin, wobbly tale. After all, what happens can never be distinct from who caused it to happen, so to ignore the complexities of the individuals who are driving your plot forward would be shortsighted and unrealistic. Get to know your characters—almost as if you were going to play their part on stage—because you will play their roles on the pages of your story. You must be able to anticipate their every thought and every move.
- Do plan ahead.
Often, the students who enjoy creative writing find that words and snatches of tales simply flow from them onto paper with very little effort. For these students, the temptation is just to write and chase the story wherever the whim of the moment is leading. However, I encourage you to think through your plot, characters, setting, and theme in detail before you put your pen to the page. You will likely even want to give yourself a rough scene-by-scene outline before you start.
- Do get in the moment.
Ten times out of ten, I would rather read that “Timmy watched the snowflakes dance to the ground” than that “Timmy realized it snowed.” Paint the picture; show us the action, imagine all the details; place your reader in the story alongside your characters. Reading a tale which distances its readers from the action by using vague verbs, generic language, and suspenseless action is like watching a play performed in monotone with no props or costumes.
- Do read and observe.
Some of the greatest teachers of writing are authors and their masterpieces. Read them, study them, imitate them. Despite what you may have learned in school, however, reading is not good just because it’s reading—the book must be worth your time. Steer clear of some modern texts which are flashy, fun, and pleasing to read but lack truth, depth, or wisdom, unless you want to produce similarly vapid work, which I don’t recommend. That said, fun does not have to mean mindless, and worthwhile does not have to mean boring. A book can be lighthearted without being vapid, and it can be truthful without being overly serious. I merely urge students to evaluate works based on truth and quality instead of on initial appeal.
- Don’t. Use. Sentence. Fragments.
The same flimsy, flashy books which I just mentioned are often guilty of abusing the stylistic technique of sentence fragments. Teenagers who have been nagged since second grade to write in complete sentences seem without fail to be drawn to this technique—I believe its cadence is stuck in their head from hours of reading cheap literature, and possibly they also enjoy breaking the rules. Once in a blue moon within a blue moon I concede that the technique has merit for emphasizing or isolating a phrase, but most of the time it is not only unnecessary, but also sloppy. Careless. Unhelpful.
See how tacky that was? Communicate in complete thoughts like the rational beings that you are.
- Don’t include every moment of time.
We actually don’t, believe it or not, need to know that your character awoke in the morning, that he brushed his teeth, or that he walked into the kitchen before he opened the fridge to pull out some bread to make a sandwich. Transitioning between scenes can be difficult, but don’t try to cover for not knowing what to write by sloughing off a bunch of filler onto your audience, who are interested in the tale, not the play-by-play of your characters’ lives. If you need ideas for how to transition and what to include or not to include, open your favorite novel—or even watch your favorite movie—and take note of scene breaks and transitions.
- Don’t take feedback personally.
You can revise and edit your own writing, but eventually you’ll also need feedback from someone else, and you should resolve immediately that you will not consider that feedback to be a comment on you as a person. If you can’t separate yourself and your value from your writing, it will be a rough road ahead: many excellent people create writing which needs lots of revision. Keep your head up and be grateful for the feedback, whether it’s positive or negative.
- Don’t prioritize drama over truth and depth.
Drama is not what makes a good story, despite the fact that it may seem that way. Truth and depth are vital to the creation of stories that last. Excitement and drama can be great additions, but when they are used instead of truth as the foundation of a story, the result may come across a bit like a soap opera: catchy, emotional, addicting–but lacking in substance.
- Don’t use forced or cliched phrasing.
One of the first things that young writers learn is the importance of word choice: every word is important; think not only about what you say but also how you say it. Consequently, some teenage writers mistakenly think that cliché phrases sound sophisticated and depend on these threadbare expressions to improve their word choice. In reality, clichés make the writing seem cheap and unsophisticated, and students should practice identifying—and avoiding—overused phrases. Other students may try to use the fanciest or most interesting words in all circumstances. The result of this over-exertion is an unnatural and affected style that should be avoided along with the clichés.