Stop Giving Advice To Teen Writers

Stop Giving Advice To Teen Writers

Let’s talk about teen writers.

Let’s talk about the proliferation of advice for teens who write that has come with the realisation that we actually exist, thanks to the internet.

Let’s talk about a fundamental thing they get wrong.

Every piece of advice I’ve read for teen writers has made some good points, but done it in such a condescending and patronising way that I’ve refused to acknowledge it simply as a matter of principle. Many of the articles are written by authors with little interest in teenagers, but even when it’s by YA authors, it fails to take a few things into account.

They’re invariably aimed at teen writers, specifically targeting those who haven’t reached some arbitrary age after which they magically evolve into adults. And there are some things they say that just anger me beyond comprehension.

“Your writing sucks.”

This is important to realise, okay? All of us suck when we start. But that is NOT limited to teens. Whatever age you start writing, you’re going to be terrible at the beginning. Stop talking to teenagers as though the only reason they’re bad at this is because they’re young – all that’s going to do is discourage them from trying until they feel like they’re ‘old enough’, when what they need to be told is, “You suck, but keep going, and you’ll get better.”

Which leads me onto this:

“You’re just starting out.”

Now, let me make something clear. I am seventeen years old, approaching eighteen, and I have completed fourteen novels. (ETA: for a follow-up and explanation of why none of those have been published, please read this post!) I have published a collaborative novel on top of that, and I’ve written literally hundreds of poems. Not to mention I’ve been blogging for four years.

Before that, I was writing stories since childhood, and I attempted novels several times before I succeeded. Now, I don’t know how many books you have to write to get past the “starting out” stage, but I think we can just lay to rest the idea that because my age ends in –teen, I’m inexperienced. I know many traditionally published authors whose debut novel was only the third they’d ever written.

Fourteen books would suggest I’m not just “starting out”. So let’s stop that. One can just as easily be starting out at 25 than at 15.

“You don’t have enough life experience to write a novel.”

I’m not sure what qualifies as life experience. Having a job and a mortgage and a pension plan? I know teens who’ve been through more than most adults that I’ve met. Yes, it’s true, we might not have the wisdom that comes with age, but to be honest, neither do many other “young” writers who aren’t teens, so…

Oh, and while you’re at it, 50-year-old writer, please explain to me why you understand 21st century teenagers so much better than me. I’ll be sure to listen… right after I get back from, you know, being an actual teenager who does actual teenage things with other actual teenagers. Gotcha.

“Write everyday, because this is the most free time you’re going to have in your life.”

Wow, way to make assumptions. Don’t get me wrong, ‘write everyday’ is GOOD ADVICE. You should definitely do that. And I’m also not shortsighted enough that I can’t see how much time and energy having a job and a family is. I see my mother working until 11pm on a Saturday when she’s only paid for weekdays and I know she couldn’t write a novel.

But that statement infuriates me because it’s assuming that all teens have an easy home life. There are teen novelists who are caring for parents or younger siblings. There are teen novelists from abusive backgrounds who use writing as a means of escape. There are teen novelists with severe medical conditions or learning difficulties.

And even the teens that are privileged are usually contributing members of their community with a thousand and one other commitments. So please stop talking to them about their free time. Most of them squeeze their writing into lunchtimes, before school, late at night, and twenty-minute sessions while travelling to and from school.

If they write every day it’s because they make the time, not because it’s given to them.

“Learn about the publishing industry.”

This is also good advice. But it frequently assumes that teens have no idea how the industry works. I confess, at twelve I was ignorant. But I am seventeen and I still count as a teen … and I’m published. I know 14-year-olds with books available, 16-year-olds with two-book deals.

If anything, teens are going to be more aware of the ever-changing and increasingly digitalised publishing industry than their older, equally new-to-writing counterparts, because we’re the digital generation. Most of us grew up online or thereabouts, and we’ve seen how things have changed.

Most of the advice we’re given by our parents’ wannabe-writer friends in their 40s is about agents, publishing houses, and the old idea of snail mail submissions. They’re not published. And maybe nor are we. But we have an equal chance of being up-to-date, or even a greater one.

So stop assuming that we don’t know anything.

“Your novels are too influenced by your favourites.”

That’s a newbie author thing, not an affliction specifically limited to teenagers. It takes everybody a little while to find their voice when they start writing. I’ve seen stunningly original work from teenagers. I like to think I’ve had a few fairly unique ideas myself, too.

“Nobody wants to publish books by teens.”

Wrong, wrong, and wrong again. Head over to the Teens Can Write Too! blog for some listed teen authors. It’s not a modern phenomenon – Mary Shelley, anyone?

Oh, and newsflash? Not all teen writers are planning to send this particular book out into the open at this stage. Many of them are ‘practising’, writing several books and then editing them. Most of them probably won’t attempt publishing until they’re a bit older, but that’s largely because you scared them off.

Besides, if the only thing preventing a publisher from signing a book deal is the age of the author, well… self-publishing was invented for a reason. And this wasn’t it, but it damn well should have been.

Stop giving advice to teens that’s applicable to all new writers and not limited by age, and stop treating teenagers like they’re less good simply by value of not having passed the magical age of 20.

I am all for giving advice to people who are new to writing encouraging them to understand that their writing needs to improve, to find their own voice, and to keep going.

But don’t do it in a way that dismisses their talents, knowledge and abilities because of their youth. I can almost guarantee that a 30-year-old’s first ever novel is just as bad as a 16-year-old’s.

It’s not about age, it’s about writing experience. And the two aren’t a package deal.

21 thoughts on “Stop Giving Advice To Teen Writers

  1. Brilliant post, Miriam. You’re absolutely right, especially with the comment about first novels. There is no guarantee that an adult’s first novel will be any better than a teen’s simply because they have more ‘life experience’.

    The other one that also really gets me is the ‘just starting out’. What? Why the heck does age have anything to do with anything? This seems to just be poor logic. As you said, a fifty-year-old might be writing their first novel at the same time as a fifteen-year-old.

    Thanks for the post/insight.

    1. Thanks for reading!

      Yeah, it goes along with the general societal inclination to look down on teenagers – entirely illogical, because I truly believe my generation could change the world if they bothered, except everyone keeps telling them they can’t. It drives me mad.

  2. Yes…THANK YOU. The one that always gets me is “you don’t have enough life experience”. Um, wow. That’s a reeeeally weird thing to say. I did a writing course, a good writing course done by professional and famous authors — and they said, “Don’t write until you’re 30.” WHAAAT? The pre-course was specified to TEENS. It made me really angry, too (there’s the hulk coming out) because every writing is just. starting. out. There really was no difference to me starting writing at 14 to starting writing at 30. Except, I’d probably be more cynical. If that’s possible.
    Excellent post. ;)

    1. That’s awful. I was reading an article yesterday about how many disadvantaged, miserable teens use writing as a way of escaping and it can quite literally save their lives – telling someone not to write is totally unjustifiable. Myself, writing is a way to process my emotions and deal with things, and without it I’m a great deal less happy. Bleh. That makes me really angry.

  3. *applauds* This should get Freshly Pressed. :) I hope it does.

    All your points are excellent. It really irritates me when people make comments about teenagers doing, well, pretty much anything and apparently being too stupid to know what they’re doing. Age =/= experience.
    I mean, look at the Internet. If you’re gonna go by age-means-you’re-brilliant, my grandparents should be computer whizzes. Instead I’m showing them how to copy and paste.
    So yeah.

    1. I hope you’re as prophetic as you were that other time, I’ve been blogging four years and aspiring to be on FP but have never achieved it. Still, if all the dreams that we have come true, what would there be left to dream about? ;-)

        1. I don’t need him to, it’s obvious.
          Although if Hugo could turn up and let us know whether any of Les Amis other than Jehan and Marius actually had first names, that’d be nice.

  4. All incredibly good points. Actually, this post is almost a pointer list for beginning authors.

    I have to admit, I’m jealous of teen authors. I came to writing more around the 25 year-old mark, and, obviously, you’ve got to get your crap writing out of the way before you can produce anything decent, so I feel a little behind.

    I do have one thing to say in (sort of) defense of one of these points. I have seen the occasional query online from a teen who wishes to use their age as a selling point, a sort of, “Oh, look I’m only — years old, and I produced this masterpiece! Aren’t I a wonder?” I know these people are the minority, but I have to imagine everybody who writes to point number 7 (“Nobody wants to publish books by teens”) has encountered a few of this type of teen writer (every age group has an annoying crowd). Because, in response, the advice I’ve seen is simply that a book stands on its own merits, and the age of the author is irrelevant. The responses I’ve seen haven’t indicated the agent(s) weren’t willing to work with teen authors.

    1. These days, fewer and fewer teen authors are even letting on about their age until later in the process. We’ve learned from our mistakes!

      I don’t like advertising my age. Our publisher / cowriter insisted on it for St Mall’s because its unique selling point was its “insider” viewpoint on boarding schools in the 21st century. It wouldn’t have been written except by teens. I still got fed up of saying how old I was, though. I didn’t want people to treat up differently as writers because we were young.

      (For some reason, WordPress didn’t notify me about your comments, hence why I’m only just replying. Not sure what happened there.)

  5. Very well said, Miriam! I hate it when people put teen writers down. I know so many who are hardworking, level-headed, talented people. I almost fell for the “you don’t have enough experience” lie, but I’m glad I didn’t.

    1. I would be happy to if I could remember where they all came from. But, alas, they’re mostly paraphrased from various articles I’ve read over the last few months. If you google advice for teen writers, you’re likely to come across many of them.

      And you’re lucky! Don’t go looking for people who look down on you – be glad you haven’t run into them yet! :-)

  6. So much epicness. I totally agree with every thing you said. And really, I don’t get the separation between teen writers and adult writers in general. (And I know I run a teen writing blog as I say this, but the only reason it’s a TEEN writing blog is to fight the minefields of condescending advice for teen writers out there.) We’re all writers, aren’t we? We should get the same advice, the same treatment, the same objectivity, and so on. You don’t see people separating writers 20-30 or 30-40 or whatever and saying one group is too young, one is too old, one is better and one is worse, so why separate teens like that? Like you said, sure, teens suck when they’re first starting out (I know I did). But adults suck too. EVERYONE sucks when they’re starting out, and teens can outgrow that starting phase just as quickly as anyone.

  7. Wonderful post! People need to stop assuming that we teen writers are completely oblivious. Most of the stuff on that list made me go “duh!” anyway. You know, one of the best things about teen writers is that we’re starting off young. We have plenty more time to hone our craft and find our stride. By the time we’re “old enough” we’ll be better.

  8. Yes, yes, and yes. I am a young writer (thirteen years old) and when I first began writing a book, I looked to articles such as: “How to write a novel when you’re a kid” and “How to write books as a child.” Every single one was patronising.

    Since then, I have moved on to websites and articles targeted to adult writers, because none of them are as condescending.

    Thank you for this article.

    (Also, have you heard of those idiotic rules given to children my age? “Don’t start a sentence with conjunctions” and “Don’t use sentence fragments” – absolute bullshit.

    1. I completed my first novel at thirteen, even if I’d tried a few before then, so I feel you. Sure, I look back and I know that it was bad, but that wasn’t because I was thirteen, it was because it was my first novel and I wrote it in 15 days without any planning. So keep going, because starting young means you’ve got a headstart when it comes to getting better. :) And yeah, it’s always worth looking for advice for writers generally. After all, you don’t want people to be like, “Oh, you’re good for your age.” You want people to think you’re good, full stop. And that’s what more general advice articles are aiming for. (Though, that said, some of it is bullshit no matter who it’s aimed at.)

      Yeah, those kinds of writing rules … well, they’re more like guidelines than actual rules, and they definitely don’t apply to fiction. I’d argue that the ‘don’t start a sentence with conjunctions’ doesn’t apply to non-fiction either, as I’m always starting things with “But” and “And” in formal essays. If you can do it at Cambridge, I’d hazard that it’s probably acceptable, and I’ve read a ton of academics who do the same thing. I’d just ignore them, unless you need to follow them to get good marks in school, in which case, follow them for assignments but ignore them the rest of the time because sometimes you’ve just got to work with the system. :)

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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