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The problems with young writers

queryquagmire:

Hi! Sorry if this question is too broad, but what would you say is the biggest problem with writing done by people who are too young or inexperienced? Are the flaws similar, or does the writing depend more on the individual? Thanks.
 Anonymous

Apology graciously accepted.

There are a number of problems I see over and over in the writing of young people, especially people under the age of 18. Fortunately, they almost all go away with time, age, and practice. This is not to say that young writers suck, or that they should give up and hang their baby-faced heads in shame. Far from it! For if no young people started writing, we’d have no older-and-wiser writers who cut their teeth writing during their teenage years to produce new books for us all to read and enjoy. They’re just better off practicing their writing instead of trying to get it published before they’re ready.

So here’s a list of the problems I often encounter when asked to read young people’s writing. If you feel like I’m talking about your writing… I probably am. Let this be a lesson to you.

1. They mistake their god-given talent and potential for skill. Talent comes naturally. It’s raw potential. Skill takes practice. Hours upon years of practice. Make no mistake: writing well requires skill. Just because your English teacher tells you you have a great talent for writing doesn’t mean you are ready for publication. Practice your skills.

2. They write autobiographical characters or plot. Spare me from one more main character with suspiciously similar physical characteristics to their author. Spare me from one more mundane “fictional” story about interpersonal conflicts between classmates. While the events of your formative years may be important to you, they do not necessarily make for good fiction. And no one else gives a shit.

3. They write wish fulfillment or Mary Sues. Couldn’t get the better of that bully in real life? OBLITERATE THEM IN FICTION. Hate your hair/nose/zits/lack of a love life/clumsiness/inability to be good at everything? BE THE PERFECT VERSION OF YOU BY WRITING ABOUT IT. The result is annoyingly two-dimensional writing devoid of real conflict and peopled by cardboard villains and absurdly perfect heroes. Y’know: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.

4. They write about things beyond their experience or understanding without any empathy whatsoever. This may shock you, but 17-year-old Civics and Poli Sci students do not have the answers to all the world’s problems. I once read a painfully myopic story by a 17-year-old girl about the evils of abortion. It was terrible and embarrassingly uninformed. Another time I read an account of the Iraq War (and how three highly-trained Marines could end it within 24 hours) written by a teenage boy that was just downright offensive and oblivious to its own racism and misogyny. The authors in question just had no idea what they were writing about, and instead of doing research, they simply painted the world with broad strokes according to their own naive understanding of current events.

5. They’re too fucking melodramatic. Laughably so. But it’s ok, because someday they’ll look back on The Trials of Arabella and cringe with embarrassment and sigh with relief because they now know better.

6. They don’t understand that truth is necessarily stranger than fiction, and therefore their fiction has to actually make sense. The excuse “But it happened that way in real life!” doesn’t count. See #2.

7. They never edit or revise. NEVER. All too often, young writers finish writing in a late-night frenzy of enthusiastic keyboard-pounding, slide back from their desk, stretch out their hands, and declare themselves masters of the literary universe. They’re high on the excitement of having actually completed a manuscript, and they remember how good and smart they felt while writing it. So in their minds, how could their story possibly suck harder than a promiscuous Black Hole? So instead of rereading what they just finished writing, let alone editing it, they immediately give it to someone else to read. And that someone else will have to suffer through the horrors of a first draft. Spare your friends and loved ones the gross offense to common decency that is your first draft. Reread. Revise. Edit.

8. They write read-alikes of their favorite books. I was once asked to “take a look” at a manuscript written by the daughter of a friend of a friend who wanted to be “a professional author.” It was Twilight… with different character names and set in the author’s hometown.

Over the years I have led creative writing groups for high school and middle school students, and tutored seventh-grade reading and writing. All of the above comes from that experience, as well as the experience of having far too many teenagers send me query letters that start with “My English teacher says I’m a really good writer and that I should get my story published.”

If you’re a young writer, remember this: the great writing you think you’re producing now can only get better with time. So wait. And practice.

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