Sunday, April 5, 2009

Tips For Young Writers

I've gotten a few emails lately asking me for tips for young writers, and since I'm generally asked for those kinds of tips when I make school visits, I thought I would devote a blog entry to them. Feel free to share my thoughts with any young writers you know in your school, at your library, or in your family.

Read A Lot: There's no easier way of absorbing writing skills than by reading. Don't limit your reading to novels. I used to read plays all the time in junior high and high school, and learned a great deal, without realizing it, about dialogue and structure (I learned a lot also from watching old movies). Poetry teaches you style and vision. Biographies (which I read a lot of as well) teach you about how people, and not just famous ones, behave and grow. Newspapers, magazines, and the internet, show what people are interested in.

Write A Lot: Not just the stuff you have to write for school. Write for your own pleasure. Writing is the same as skateboarding or playing the piano. You get better through practice. William Shakespeare knocked out a lot of plays before he could write King Lear.

Learn Grammar And Spelling: They're boring, but essential. And don't count on the computer to know everything for you. A sentence like: There, they're their own worst enemy, can give even the smartest computer a migraine. For that matter, so could: It's its own worst enemy. So don't be your own worst enemy, by trying to get away with mistake ridden manuscripts.

Pay Attention To People: Watch your family, your friends, your teachers, anybody you have contact with. Ask yourself why they behave the way they do. The better you understand people, the easier it is to create characters. And even if you decide your life work is to write textbooks about rocks, people will be your target audience (so few rocks read these days). The best non-fiction writers know how to make their subject interesting to people, just the same as fiction writers.

Listen To Praise And To Criticism: You can learn from both. Don't assume all praise is accurate or all criticism is. But don't reject praise or criticism automatically. I've learned from people who like my writing, and I've learned from people who don't.

Try To Get Published: Getting published doesn't necessarily mean getting your novel published by a big time publishing house. That's hard under any circumstances, and big time publishing houses these days are struggling, the same as many other industries. But if your school has a paper or a magazine, or your local newspaper has a teen section, or you know of a magazine (print or online) that is looking for submissions by younger writers, go for it. There's something very encouraging about seeing your name in print.

Write About What You Like Best: If you love to surf, then write about surfing or surfers or ocean waves. If you love fashion, then write about fashion or people who love fashion or people who don't love fashion. If you're like me, and what you love best is figuring out how families would behave during hard times, then write about families in hard times.

Write About What You Know Best: Maybe what you know best is surfing. Maybe what you know best is fashion. But maybe what you know best is how sisters or friends or parents fight. Maybe what you know best is how you feel when you fight with your sister or your friend or your parent. You can know feelings just as well as you can know facts, and they're both great starting off points for writing.

Be True To Feelings, Not Facts: When I was a kid, I was scared of going to the dentist. When I was a grownup, I wrote a book called What Do You Do When Your Mouth Won't Open, about a kid who was scared of speaking in public. I've never been scared of speaking in public, but I understood irrational fear. So I took feelings I'd had and gave them to my heroine. The great thing about fiction is you can put your characters wherever you want them, but wherever you do, you must be sure their feelings will seem real to your readers.

Have Fun With Your Writing: I always tell people, I'm my own biggest fan, because I write the stories I would most enjoy reading. There's not much point being a writer if you don't have fun with it. But if you do have fun, then it's a wonderful job, or hobby, or stepping stone to whatever the next step in your life will be.


Jenni said...


Thanks for the tips.

Linda Jacobs said...

I have a couple kids in my classes who are writing novels and I'm going to share these tips with them. Thanks!

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi and thank you to Jenni and Linda Jacobs-

It was fun writing this entry. I do get asked at schools, but I've never put the tips down in writing before. And I added a couple when I wrote them, including the one about praise and criticism. It's so easy to feel insecure and not pay attention to praise and to overbelieve criticism.

I, of course, only believe praise, but it's taken decades to develop an ego as swollen as mine!

:) said...

Thanks for these tips. Some authors give tips, and I find that they really inspire me.

Anonymous said...

I would say also look into writers web sites where people critique and evaluate each other's work; although a lot of them are antsy about very young people joining.

Places like (which is for fantasy/science fiction writers) list publishers, etc. that are looking to buy stories - or will publish them for copies, etc. This will give you some idea what publishers are looking for.

ANd, if you do submit and get rejected, don't let it get you down. Try and try again is a cliche, but a most appropriate one for a writer.

My two cents.


Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Good morning and thank you to :) and to Glen-

Glen, your point about not giving up is a great one, and one I should have included. There's a lot of failing in writing, and while it's not fun when it happens, in the long run, it can be helpful, if you learn from your mistakes and from the mistakes other people make concerning your writing (some of those rejections are just plain wrong!).

While I'm thanking people first thing in the morning, I want to thank Jen Robinson for including a link to this blog entry in her extraordinary roundup of ideas for young readers and writers.

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Just wanted to pop in and wish a Happy Passover to those who celebrate it and a Happy Easter to those who celebrate it.

Anonymous said...

those are great tips!!


Brenda Nepomuceno said...

Hi Susan!
I just found out about your blog through a virtual friend's one, and I'm already thinking this may turn out to be the biggest help I could get for next year.
You see, I've been writing since I can remember, about everything and anything. Then this year came and all the pressure of deciding what to do with my life (I'm finishing High School in 2010) came crashing down on me. And that was when I realized what I should've known all along: that writing was the only thing I could do.
Now I've decided to spend 2010 writing my first novel (and sticking with it, mostly, 'cause I've started a few before but never managed to finish it), and studing. Of course. But mostly writing. Up to now, your tips have been gold to me. Thank you so much!

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi Brenda Nepomuceno and thank you for writing-

Good luck with your novel. I'm a firm believer that everything I've written, success or failure, has taught me how to be a better writer.

No matter how much I've learned over the years, there's always something more I need to know!

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

hi its me kirstein ^ agian, i know i was just on here but i forgot to mention that i'm 14 on march forth...
thats all

your own sister in the light,

Anonymous said...
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Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi Kirstein and thank you for your comments-

I edited out your long comment because I didn't think it was a good idea to have your email address where anybody could find it. But I enjoyed reading about your writing, and I hope you'll keep on with your book!

ashley,13 said...

Hi! I have had a lot of fun writing stuff. my friend and I are writing a book together. WE are planning on getting it published. When we are done i will probably post the title on here so you can check it out if you would like.
good luck with everything everyone!!!

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Sonja said...

Hi Ms. Pfeffer!

Thanks for your advice. As a college student, I just have a quick question, though -- how long did it take you to write Life As We Knew It or any of the other books in the trilogy? I love to write, but I'm kind of busy and I worry that I will get discouraged by the amount of time it takes to actually get something in print.

Thanks!! I really find your blog so interesting.

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi Sonja-

I think each of the books in the trilogy took me about two months of sit down writing, plus a few weeks of pre-writing, and of course rewrites based on editor's suggestions afterwards.

At that, I am a very fast worker. Every writer does it differently, and people find the system that works for them.

Anonymous said...

I met you at my local library a couple years ago, and I was immediately inspired. Ever since, I have continued to follow your advice and I absolutely love Life As We Knew It. I am aspiring to be a writer, and you are a significant portion of my motivation. I can't wait to read whatever brilliant pieces of writing you publish next. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Hi Ms. Pfeffer-

I just started reading Life As We Knew It. I can't put it down... I'm doing what the said, I am fighting back tears as I am biting my nails. Do you have any tips on how you grasp a reader into that feeling?


Carol Pelizzari said...

hi, are you alive? at my school, we fight for your books. i did. i read all the time. my mom and dad have to tell me to stop reading. reading is not just a pastime for me. its like i can slip inbetween the pages and turn my back on the world. I'm the only one in my class who uses words like oaf and narcissist. I'm the only in class who doesnt whine about how we dont have to know how to spell correctly as we have spell check. the only grade im doing well in is writing and reading, although my other grades are improving. i made my own version of greek myths how arachnids came to be,and such. i would like to publisize my works even though im only 12. (my birthday was last mounth) i love to add little details. But sometimes i forget to add air quotes when people are talking. I tried to write a horror novel with my friend Ahnna, but she kept wandering away. I would like it if you could list some publishers that might be interested in works made by kids my age. It might be hard to tell my parents though. My mom worries sometimes that i have mental issues because of some of the dark works i make. But I find the hidden beauty in books like that. The beauty that makes you see, really see what the author is describing. I love fantasy and horror and espesially those genres together. I hope you dont mind but i'd like to put one of my stories here. I'll just copy and paste.

Can you hear me?
Can you hear me whispering through the pines?
Do you stop and listen to my eerie voice?
Do you recognize the message we shared?
Before I was lost?
Do you yearn for me as I do?
Do you cry for me like I do?
Can feel my golden hair and the touch of two sweet lips?
Do you remember the summer nights we spent so long ago?
Do you hear my laughter?
As I hear yours?
Do you stop to think of me and brush away your tears?
Do you morn for what was lost?
What can never be found?
Do you remember our fight? The one in the maple trees?
Do you remember that night you left in a hurry?
The night I died?

A little sad for some peoples taste. But it was the shortest piece i've written. I didn't want to put a book down as you would not have enough space in your blog! please, surly you know someone who will publish a piece from an twelve year old!

Susan B.P. lover said...

Thx so much! I just needed that because im starting another book. Every time i write a book, i get excited about then i don't want to write anymore because i'm already bored with the topic. I think and kow this is going to help me. Thx!!!

Pondrin said...

Thanks for the great tips Susan. I'm 15 years old and I'm really interested in writing. I've been writing some short stories since last year and planning to write a short novel with 200 pages+. Reading definitely helps as young writers aren't experienced in some writing skills that can be discovered from reading :)