Writers’ Advice? I’ll Give You Writers’ Advice!

May 16th, 2012


So I just got back from a whole bunch of traveling and touring and got asked a zillion questions, but one of the most popular ones was this: What advice do you have for aspiring writers? I answered it so many times that I managed to edit down my usual blathering to a single Do and a single Don’t. Which I shall now pass on to you. And, not just that, but give you some actionable thing to do with these tips. Wait, did I just say actionable? There’s another tip for you: Never say actionable. It sounds so corporate.


So, once upon a time, back when I was a journalist, I had these aspirations to write for The New Yorker because I thought that’s where good journalism lived,  even  though when I was working at Seventeen I had one of the best journalism jobs ever—and, oh, you eyebrow raisers, I invite you to peruse my website for the articles I wrote about Afghan refugees seeking an education or the battle over gun control, played out through teens. And maybe I might’ve eventually placed a piece or two in The New Yorker but it would’ve been tough for a variety of reasons, one of the primary ones is that the voice that comes naturally to me is that of a chatty 17-year-old. Oh, sure, I can fake that erudite droll New Yorker voice (“On a drizzly May afternoon, Professor HotStuff sat in his wood-paneled office, a copy of a Russian-translated Iliad in one hand, the latest issue of BOOBS in the other….”) but it’s not really my voice. When I finally “surrendered” to my teen voice, writing my first YA novel, Sisters in Sanity, it was like a lightbulb, a Homer Simpson D’Oh moment, and the feeling of slipping into a hot bath on a cold night. It was just so right. I had owned my voice at last. And things have gone pretty well since.

So, the takeaway for you: Own YOUR VOICE. Write in the voice that comes naturally to you, not the voice you wish came naturally to you. I know that many young writers want to be Raymond Carver-esque. I fell prey to this, too (“Goddamit, Charlie! You lost your job again!”). And maybe this reality of a cigarette-infused trailer is home to you. Or maybe it’s not but the voice that comes naturally to you is that of a 47-year-old down-and-out dude. In which case, go with him (figuratively, not literally; stay away from that guy in real life!) Otherwise, you can dabble, until you find your true voice.

The thing is, when you write with your real voice, the work will be your most authentic, and that work is the most readable. Trust me.


Can I tell you the number of 14-year-olds who ask me about getting published? It is crazy.On one hand, I am in awe of their ambition, because at 14, my biggest ambition was to date Nicolas Cage, okay, not him exactly but the character he played in Valley Girl:


So  I think it’s kind of amazing, this drive. But I don’t think it’s the best thing for your writing, at any stage, to be focussed on the endgame. But especially at 14. Look, stories about wunderkinds like the fabulous Kody Keplinger notwithstanding—and btw, I think Kody is an amazing writer in spite of her youth, not because of it; her books would impress me no matter what age she wrote them at—most people don’t publish books so young. And there’s a reason for it. Writing is one of those things, that unlike basketball or ballet, you only get better at with age! Part of that is because you need to practice it, and part of it is because the more life experience you amass, the more it filters into—and deepens—your work.

So relax. You have time. Stop trying to be the next Veronica Roth—and even as remarkably talented as she is, she was in college when she sold Divergent—and start finding the joy in writing.

That said, I understand that you want to show your work to people. There’s validation in that. And community. So first, might I suggest you start a writers’ group.

And I also understand that you want to get stuff published. And I’m not discouraging that. But if you’re still young, please don’t aim for the publishing deal yet. There are steps in between. Like Scholastic has this fantastic contest every year for writers and artists. The deadline has passed for this year but next year?

Figment is another great place to showcase your work. And they are constantly having contests you can enter.

And here’s something super-exciting you can enter RIGHT NOW. One Story, a wonderful literary journal that publishes one short story every three weeks, is launching a teen version, One Teen Story. And to kick it all off, they are running a teen fiction contest for those of you peoples between the ages of 14 and 19 as of 5/31. You can read the rules here but the basics are: You send in a short story. It gets judged (by yours truly, in fact). If you win, it is published, you get $500 and other goodies.

So, there you have it: A Do, a Don’t. And don’t forget about never writing actionable, unless it’s in dialogue and you want to show that a character is a total blowhard.

Oh, wait.


  1. I officially wish you were my next door neighbor.

    And also, young people/old people/in betweeners: this advice is priceless. Seriously.

    I think you just summed up a huge part of college creative writing courses in the FIND YOUR VOICE section.

    Plus Scholastic’s contest is awesome. I won the portfolio award once upon a time (eh…17 years ago) and it opened a ton of doors.

    …If we were neighbors, I’d show you pics of my husband, circa Valley Girl days. People used to come up and ask if he was Nick all. the. time. Of course, my kids swear their dad NEVER could have had so much hair. ;)

  2. Thank you for this. I have been wondering what age my voice is. How did you KNOW the chatty 17-year old was so right for you? I suspect I need to explore a little more. I’ve been working on a MG for a long time (that probably sounds bad, but the whole first draft turned out to be a practice to help me find the REAL story), and I’ve written short stories for that age or younger. But I’ve never TRIED to write YA – just love to read it!

  3. if i stay is a good book. make another one.

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