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Advice for young writers

I bid farewell to the hallowed halls of Michael A. Riffel High School yesterday as I wrapped up my writer-in-residency there with some final meetings with individual students.

As I work with young writers more and more, I find that my writing advice, as far as technique goes, keeps boiling down to the same few points, which I share with you now for whatever they’re worth:

  • Show, don’t tell. I know, that’s hardly original with me, but it’s the biggest single thing young writers can work on to make their writing more interesting. Don’t tell me that your hero is unhappy, show me that unhappiness through the way he talks or acts. Don’t write in generalities, write in specifics. Not, “Johnny felt sad,” but “Johnny sat on the bridge, feet dangling, watching chunks of dirty ice racing past a hundred feet below. As the water flowed around the bridge’s piers of soot-blackened concrete, it sucked each piece of ice beneath the dark-grey surface. After what had just happened, Johnny could think of few reasons not to join them.”
  • Related: bring your scenes to life with specific, telling sensory details. A story doesn’t happen in any old location, it happens in a specific location: not just a school classroom, but a specific school classroom, the one with the single, mesh-covered window with a view of nothing but the boarded-up buildling across the street, the one that’s so hot as the school year winds down into june that teachers and students simmer in their own sweat, and the air always smells like the boy’s locker room, down the hall beside the ancient, cavernous gymnasium…
  • Also related: avoid the passive voice (UPDATE: and the past progressive voice! see comments) whenever possible. Not, “Johnny was running down the street,” but “Johnny ran down the street.” Better yet, “Johnny pounded along the street, pain stabbing through his left side every time one of his sneakers hit the pavement, his heart and breath thundering in his ears so that he could no longer tell if they were still chasing him…”
  • And also also related: watch out for adverbs. Instead of a weak verb modified by an adverb (“Johnny ran quickly,”) look for a single strong verb (“Johnny dashed.”) I’ve actually taken to doing global searches on words ending and “ly” and passive-voice words like “was,” “were” and “had,” looking to see if there’s any way to elminate them and make the sentences where they appear more actrive and vivid. I think it makes a difference.
  • You must, at all times, have a crystal-clear image in your head of where your characters are in relation to each other and the objects in their environment. If a character has been seated in a chair and suddenly is opening a door, you must at least give us a word or two to explain how she got from the chair to the door. If your viewpoint character is standing in front of another character and they’re both facing the same way, she can’t see what that other character is doing behind her. It’s very much like directing a play. Moving characters around is like blocking actors on stage, but the “stage directions” are the hints you provide to your readers as to where characters are at any given moment.
  • Think it through. In the stories young people write, adventures occur without consequences. In real life, there are always consequences. If you don’t want those consequences (the police being called, trips to the hospital, lawsuits, etc.) to interfere with your story, you must come up with some plausible explanation as to why those consequences do not befall your characters. This is even more important in science fiction and fantasy, where the stories that work best are those in which the situation that gives rise to the story has been most thoroughly thought through, all of its ramifications either made part of the story or at least believably explained away. Rest assured, if you don’t think about those ramificatons, at least some of your more discerning readers will, and their opinion of your story will suffer as a consequence–which may mean they won’t bother reading your next one. (Also, they may send you emails.)
  • And finally: there are no shortcuts to becoming a writer. You must write, and write, and write some more. At some point you start submitting what you’ve written to editors, and while they’re busy rejecting your work, which they are most likely to do for a period of time that may well stretch into years, you are still writing.
  • Related: you must also read. Read the kinds of books you want to write, first and foremost, but also read other kinds of books. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read critically: think about how the author you are reading has achieved his effects, or failed to achieve his goals. It’s amazing to me how many young writers I’ve met who want to write science fiction because they enjoy science fiction TV and movies, but don’t actually read science fiction books or short stories. You may learn something about plotting from other media, but you don’t learn how to write by watching TV (unless your goal is to write screenplays, of course).

There is much more advice to be given, of course, but these are the things I find myself saying over and over again.

Maybe in the future I can just print out this post, along with John Scalzi’s “10 Things Teenage Writers Should Know About Writing.”

UPDATE: I was remiss in not also including a link to Scalzi’s follow-up post to the one mentioned above.

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    • Edward Willett on June 14, 2008 at 4:14 am
    • Reply

    My advice to the teen writers in person is usually less didactic than in his blog post, and I always make it clear that there’s nothing wrong with using adverbs, or passive voice, it’s just that you should look carefully at your use and make sure they’re doing they work you need them to do.

    As the old joke goes, “There are no absolutes!” says the teacher.

    “Sir, are you absolutely sure about that?” says the student.

    And look, there’s an adverb right there!

    • Robert on June 13, 2008 at 11:25 pm
    • Reply

    Ever alert for cultural imperialism, I must rush to the defense of the lowly adverb. Although it is true that Americans have almost entirely eliminated the adverb from common parlance (though usually just by dropping the “ly” which is, fair enough, not what you’re advocating here) I would argue that adverbs are alive and well (and vibrant) in Canadian culture. I agree that over dependence on weak adverbs is a common weakness of beginning writers, but in my experience overemphasis on eliminating all “weak adverbs” is likely to lead to the equally horrible disease of “verb bookism” (a variant of “said bookism”). Just as we sometimes need to have the invisible “Jack said”, we sometimes need characters to walk quickly. Having everybody dash, rush, hasten, sprint, hurry, and scurry can be just as destructively distracting as too frequent adverbs.

    But basically, I agree with all your advice, including the need to consider the careful selection of adverbs — but let us not banish them altogether.

    • Edward Willett on June 13, 2008 at 2:44 pm
    • Reply


    You’re right, of course. And to think my father taught grammar. Oh, the shame! 🙂

    I’ve clarified that. Thanks for pointing it out!

    • Pam Phillips on June 13, 2008 at 2:12 pm
    • Reply

    Great listing of the core principles of writing. One niggle: “Johnny was running” is past progressive tense, not passive voice. Passive voice would be “The tree was struck by the swerving car.” or “mistakes were made.”

    Of course, that doesn’t change the principle to avoid both progressive tense and passive voice.

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