Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Advice to Young Writers

Each week I receive soooo many requests to read and offer feedback on the stories and novels of young writers on Wattpad, and it breaks my heart to refuse them. With my uber-busy schedule that barely allows me the time to update my own stories, I simply can't afford the time to read upteen stories and write long responses to young writers. The writing teacher side of me hates being unable to help these beginning writers develop the skills necessary to write compelling fiction.

So what I've decided to do is write this article, offering advice to young writers that they may find helpful as they begin or continue their writing journeys. I know that such advice does not replace detailed feedback, but it may assist authors in honing the skills necessary to write and write well. 

At the end of the article, I'll also post some helpful links to articles on different aspects of fiction writing as well as some inspirational quotations. 

So what makes good writing good?

The first ingredient of good writing is details. As authors, it's our job to help our readers experience our writing.  We want to create a "movie in their heads" as they read. And strong, specific details are the best way to accomplish visualizing a novel. 

  • So write in a way that appeals to the five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell. 
  • Describe people, places, things with strong visual and sensory detail, using similes (comparisons using "like" or "as": her voice was like the softest breeze) and metaphors (comparisons not using "like" or "as": "All the world's a stage" -- Shakespeare). 
  • Avoid cliches: comparisons that are so overused that they've lost their meaning and freshness: white as snow, eats like a bird, runs like the wind, pretty as a picture, etc.). Always try for new and fresh ways to describe something or someone.
  • Always show rather than tell.  Don't write: "No!" he said angrily. (Here you're telling us that the character is angry.) Rather, show us that he's angry: "No!" he said, his lips folded into a thin line. See the difference? It's fine to "tell" once in a while, but try to "show" as much as possible.
The next ingredient is compelling characters. Our readers need to be able to identify with our main characters (and with all characters, if possible). Our main characters cannot be perfect; they need to be flawed and "human" in order for the readers to like them and want the best for them. Our characters need to make mistakes, to grow and develop over the course of our story in interesting ways. 

One great way to develop believable and complex characters is to write a character sketch for each of our main characters. Jot down their pasts, their likes and dislikes, their strengths and weaknesses. Don't be afraid to draw on people you know or other characters to develop certain aspects of characters, yet don't base a character entirely on one or two people. Then keep those character sketches near you when you write. We aren't bound by our character sketches, but we at least have a starting place to base their motivations. For example, if a character was beaten by his father as a young boy, he may have problems obeying authority figures in adulthood. That's a flaw based on his past. Yet from that same past, the character may have great compassion for the suffering of others and can't bear to see a child hurt. That's a strength based on his past. 

Another ingredient for good fiction writing is believable dialogue. As writers, we need to pay attention to dialogue wherever we encounter it: an argument between a mother and toddler in the grocery store, a love scene in a really great book or movie, a confrontation in our workplaces, witty banter in television programs, etc. We need to figure out what works well and what doesn't work well in dialogue. What our characters say is often more important than what they do, so dialogue is of the utmost importance in stories and novels.  

Taking time to revise our writing is of the utmost importance, and it's one area which young writers tend to skip. A first draft should NEVER be posted as a final draft! Ernest Hemingway, arguably the best American novelist of the 20th century, wrote 39 drafts of his short story, "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." 39 drafts!! Most fiction writers don't write that many drafts, but posting a first draft online is the biggest mistake an aspiring writer can make. 

Writer and teacher Anne Lamott in her book on writing Bird by Bird, tells us about the writing process in her chapter entitled "Shitty First Drafts." (Seriously.) She outlines the writing process this way: Our first draft is our "down draft" in which we "get down the basics" of our story, chapter, or article. Our second draft is our "up draft," in which we "fix up" our draft by adding details and descriptions, develop our characters more fully, and spruce up dialogue. Our third draft is our "dental draft" in which we examine each and every word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph to make sure each one is healthy and sound and doesn't have any gaps or holes, expressing ourselves as well, as powerfully, and as clearly as we possibly can. 

After we have our third or "dental draft" completed, we need to edit our writing. Writing with correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling is extremely important. We shouldn't worry about writing correctly when we're writing our first draft because we'll drive ourselves crazy. But after we've polished the content of our story, then we need to read through our story or chapter to make sure that everything is correct: commas, capitalization, spelling, etc. I'll post a site or two below to help with grammar and punctuation issues. A lot of readers refuse to read stories that are a grammatical mess; plus, incorrect grammar, punctuation, and spelling can distract and confuse your readers...things which young writers need to avoid at all costs if they want to catch the eye of a potential publisher or agent. 

So these are the most important aspects of writing well. I hope that you'll find these points helpful. Feel free to post any questions you many have in the comments. 

Helpful Websites
Writing World: http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/index.shtml --excellent articles on characters, plotting stories, writing dialogue, etc. The most helpful writing site I've seen.

Fiction Factor: http://www.fictionfactor.com/articles.html --helpful articles on the entire writing process

Writer's Digest: http://www.writersdigest.com/tip-of-the-day --sign up for a writing tip each day, delivered to your e-mail

Links to Grammar Sites: http://www.shastacollege.edu/cms.aspx?id=3987 --great list of grammar sites for help with all aspects of writing

Helpful Books
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. An excellent book on learning to be a writer. (Some adult language)

On Writing by Stephen King. An inspirational and helpful book on writing by the master of horror. (Some adult language)

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. Although written in the 1930's, this book can really help beginning writers learn the discipline to become a professional writer. 

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style by Laurie Rozakis, PhD. The best and most helpful grammar guide I've ever used. Easy to look up certain grammar, punctuation, and capitalization issues, and great exercises to cement correct usage into our minds. 

Helpful Quotations
"A professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit." --Richard Bach

"Nothing you write, if you hope to be any good, will ever come out as you first hoped." --Lillian Hellman

"There is no great writing, only great rewriting." --Justice Brandeis

"Books aren't written; they're rewritten. It is one of the hardest things to accept." --Michael Crichton

"Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what will sell." PD James

"If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write." --Martin Luther

"If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word." --Margaret Atwood

"If I waited until I felt like writing, I'd never write at all." --Anne Tyler

"We are all apprentices in a craft where no one becomes a master." --Ernest Hemingway

"When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth." --Kurt Vonnegut

"If the doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I'd type faster." --Isaac Asimov

"Easy reading is damn hard writing." --Nathaniel Hawthorne

Happy Writing, Everyone!!!
~Cassandra :)


  1. This was an excellent article for us aspiring authors. I will try to read those books that you recommended. Thank you so much!

    1. I am soooo glad that you found this article helpful, Elizabeth!!! I wish you all the best in your writing endeavors!!

      Cassandra :D

  2. Cass, this was AMAZING. I have been writing for twenty years, and I learned so much!! You simplified the process with practical tips and great examples. And I am totally adding those quotes to my Quotation Book (that I started because of you). Thanks again, love!! xoxo


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