I did take some time to think about this and oohh boy did the advice not stop flowing to the point of where I think this might go on record for my longest Q&A answer. But that’s okay. I had the time and I really like this question, just forgive me if some of this gets a little “real life”. The 13-16 age range is actually quite broad when you consider life development and I’m not a fan of purposefully blindsiding children to reality (but there’s always room for careful consideration of growing maturity and metered honesty).
Read a variety of stories from a variety of authors. While you may have a specific genre or author you like, only reading within a comfort zone doesn’t help enhance skill as much as reading both in and out of it. Reading teaches writing by context and reading a variety of things exposes you to a variety of examples and ways to work with stories. The more you read, the more tools you gather and the more skill you can gain. (It’s okay if you don’t like a book, just make sure you can clearly explain why and allow it to teach you something.)
Learning new perspectives helps with character building. This can take time, especially because I’m not talking about writing people with hobbies or interests that differ from yours. This refers to entirely new perspectives and ways of life and it takes a long time to learn! I don’t expect any one to fully learn as a child and/or a novice since a lot of that skill comes from experience in not just writing but in life, but being aware that it’s something you can always work toward is good. To build new perspectives you have to listen to people from all walks of life, learn their stories, learn how they think and why they think the way they do. This can be hard, especially since…
Your brain is still developing, your life is only beginning, it’s normal for your writing to be immature. It can be hard for teen writers to understand certain perspectives and aspects of maturity because they literally aren’t properly wired to do that yet. Even the ones who are more mature than their peers don’t truly have adult maturity (and not all adults have it either!) and it’s normal for mature teens to become mature adults who look back at teen life and think “oh gosh I was such a child”. Instead of focusing on what you don’t have, focus on what you do have and use it to your advantage. Your ideas, dreams, and world perspectives are underdeveloped because you’re young and haven’t hit the biggest part of your life, but that does’t mean they can’t matter and that they can’t grow into something better. Write what you want to and use your teen perspective to your advantage because it’s not going to last forever.
You don’t have to write every day, but establishing routine and habit is good for overall productivity and increasing skill. Set goals for yourself, preferably word count over a specific number of days since it’s very easy to measure and compare. I understand that teens are like adults in that they lead lives with varied free time, so find goals that work for you. Typically for a word count goal, 75% of it should be met with relative ease and the last 25% should be pushing yourself. If you don’t push yourself then you won’t improve and you have to stick with goals or else you don’t get the benefits. It’s fine to slack every once in a while, particularly if life or school truly gets in the way, but routine is good to have because consistent writing requires that you actively make time for it.
Don’t throw away or delete your work. Some of it is going to suck when you read it a few months later. Then you’ll grow up and look back and it’ll all suck– but work is so much more than just “good” or “bad”! Many successful authors have used ideas they came up with as teens, they just heavily re-wrote it after combing out the immaturity and other issues. Ideas have merit at any age but sometimes it takes more experience to make something truly work. It’ll be tempting to purge your work every once in a while, so I recommend keeping a flash drive or some other form of backup where you can store it but never have to think about it until you really want to.
Don’t compare yourself to published authors. They’ve been writing for a long time, have a team of editors, and many many other things that null any real attempt at comparison. Comparing in general isn’t that great, but if you’re going to do it then focus on people with similar skill levels as yours because then it’s more likely to be constructive. But better than comparing yourself to others is learning from others. See someone doing something you like? Learn how to integrate that kind of thing into your work and learn to recognize why they made that choice in their writing. Sometimes it can be a very simple choice, like using a specific word, but other times it’s a guideline-breaking idea that should be carefully considered to make sure it would enhance your work rather than detract from it.
Be careful about posting online if you have goals for publishing. Of course, posting online always has the risks that putting anything out to the public does, but this specific piece of advice is about work you plan to sell either now or in the future. It’s a common misconception that writers sell their work when most often they’re actually selling the rights for the distribution of their work. These “First publishing rights” are what publishers and agents are typically after and internet posting counts as a form of publishing that gives those up. If a piece loses its first publishing rights it’s not the end of the world, but it does make it significantly less appealing for the companies who could potentially pick it up. But, that all only applies to if you want to SELL a story at any point. Posting just for fun is perfectly fine and there’s nothing wrong with building an online portfolio– just keep that piece you truly want to publish to yourself.
Your personal voice doesn’t matter that much when writing fiction. For essays or journalism, personal voice adds flair and cohesiveness that a portfolio can benefit from. When writing fiction, it’s not necessarily a good thing if all your stories sound the same. The narrator is a character, not you, and the writing should reflect their voice because it’s their story. However, style is a good thing to work with and refers to general writing structure choices that naturally come to you. Things like:
- I tend to write in shorter paragraphs because they’re easier to read and they work for the pacing of my stories.
- I like using parallel sentences to get major points across.
- I hate alliteration, and will only let it stand if I test the sentence multiple times to make sure it’s not distracting.
Notice how it has nothing to do with word choice, tone, or “personality showing through” because that kind of thing should be dictated by the character that’s supposed to be narrating. It’s more important to have unique characters and to be able to properly convey those characters as narrators, not to “find your voice”. The actual writing structure that can be called “style” is developed through time and practice, especially when you practice with multiple voices so you can compare them to find the similarities of writing.
Critiques are not your enemy, but there are levels to them and you won’t be ready for all of them. Professional editors are amazing resources… if you have the confidence to take the real criticism. Younger writers (aside from not having the money for a professional) are often still building their confidence and can’t take a true critique at that level. I’d even argue that a college creative writing course may be too harsh (hell, I can remember it being “too harsh” for a lot of the college students IN the class because they were novices rather than intermediates). There’s nothing wrong with trying to build confidence and avoiding higher-level critiques, but if you truly want to improve then you will eventually be hearing hard things.
- When looking for a critique, be clear about who you are and what you want to get out of it. I would never critique a 15 year-old’s writing the same way I’d critique a college student’s or an actual author’s.
- Writers can only critique at a level similar to their writing skill, so always take into consideration what experience the person brings to the table.
- Be realistic about your skill level. It’s okay to not be good at writing when you’re younger and/or starting out. It’s okay to be proud of what you’ve accomplished as long as you recognize that there’s room for improvement. It’s okay for confidence to wobble. You’re learning; that’s what matters.
Don’t be afraid of local communities. So many things these days are done online, and there are plenty of benefits to that, but it’s a very difference experience to sit down with someone and discuss a piece of work than to just send it off and wait for comments. In-person interaction helps build trust and relationships, plus you’re less likely to take a critique or discussion away from what the person wants because you can rely on body language and other cues. In-depth writing discussions are much better in person because it allows for a dynamic interaction that can shift immediately according to needs and moods, plus you don’t get “trolls” or other needlessly mean people because of the amount of effort it takes. “Local communities” can be school clubs, library group, anything in-person that lets you sit down and work together to help improves writing confidence and skills.
Be realistic about the future if you plan to be an author. There’s nothing wrong with having a goal to become a full-time author, but you always need a backup plan and a side-by-side plan. The average author doesn’t make enough money where book revenue can be their only income and many write as a side job alongside a different career. Of course success rates can vary and there are certain decisions you can make to “stretch” that income (such as choosing a cheaper area to live in), but professional book writing isn’t generally a stable nor a lucrative job. It’s much smarter to chase your dream with a backup plan, like having a degree that can land you a different job if writing doesn’t work out. A side-by-side plan also works too, like getting a steady job and trying the author thing on the side, eventually transferring to full-time if it works out for you.
School comes first. If you have a satisfactory handle on the academic part of then there’s nothing wrong with staying up that extra hour to get some writing done. On the flip side, if you’re abandoning your schoolwork to chase a hobby then you need to rethink your priorities. This is the same advice as the previous point, just in a different light: chase your dream with a backup plan or a side-by-side plan. 13-16 is when the pressure for a career starts rising and you don’t ever want to ever be left drowning in life because you spent too much time on a hobby. Sure, there’s that small chance that the shifted priorities could lead to an author career, but if that doesn’t work out and you have no or poor education to back it up, then you’re in a very sticky life situation that your own choices put you in.
Writing isn’t easy, but it should be fun and not hurt you (or why are you doing it?) Teen life is stressful. If you ever find that writing isn’t fun anymore then it’s time to take a break and figure out the cause of the issue. Things like depression can heavily affect writing, but the answer isn’t to work on the symptom of “I can’t write anymore”, it’s to fix the underlying issue because treating symptoms doesn’t help in the long run. If you reach a point where it starts to hurt your social life, then maybe evaluate and take a step back because social development is extremely important for teen mental health and emotional maturity. If it starts making your grades drop… well, I’ve said enough on that. The point is that writing isn’t a passive hobby and it takes energy and time to work on. If it starts causing problems in any aspect of life or becomes a source of stress (”I’m so unhappy that I’m not writing enough”) then it’s time to take a break and work to solve the issue.
…… So a lot of that info could really apply to writers in general, so I hope I covered the question adequately. I hoped to be a bit more concise but sometimes things don’t work out and cutting certain answers didn’t feel like the right move.
Good luck with your work and thanks for sending in that really good question!