How to Teach Super Powers to Young Writers
Note: This article was first published May 8, 2018, on my Tea & Scandal blog.
During high school, I craved any creative outlet. While some of my schoolmates wrote dark poetry and song lyrics in between classes, I would come home and draft my own episodes of The X-Files, my favorite show in the 90s. I even researched how to format screenplays.
No, Chris Carter never saw my amateur attempts or offered me a job, but the exercise was not wasted on me.
When I go into schools as a guest author, I meet a lot of students who write (or illustrate) their own stories. Yet, creative writing, as a study or art, is overlooked in most school curriculums.
I believe we ought to teach the art of creative writing and give young people the freedom to create their own stories. Storytelling is a worthwhile pursuit. I mean, I'm likely to forget a lecture, but give me an epic story, and I'll remember it forever.
But in order for that story to make a difference, it needs some structure and advice. Ladies and gents, welcome the Writing Super Powers to the stage.
Please feel free to download and print this page of Writing Super Powers (click above), which I compiled for a recent high-school/middle-school writing workshop. This is a list of twenty recommendations to point any emerging writer in the right direction.
See below for more details about each of the bullet points.
But first, if you want to own a copy of the best book of writing advice, On Writing by Stephen King, click on the book cover below.
The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better. —Stephen King, On Writing
Writing Super Powers
Capture Your Reader’s Attention with the First Line
Modern readers have short attention spans, making it necessary to seize their attention as soon as possible. Some say readers will give you as few as six words to keep them reading.
Shock is always a popular way to hook a reader. I heard one book reviewer say she’s looking for a crime as soon as her eyes hit the page. “Where’s the dead body?” she asks.
Here’s a more subtle example of this in a beloved children’s book:
“‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern” (Charlotte’s Web).
You may also appeal to the reader’s curiosity: “All children, except one, grow up” (Peter Pan).
Use a Strong Voice
Voice is oh-so important. When I pick up a Harry Potter book, I hear a distinct narrator in my head as I read. I’m sure it’s the same for you, and I bet he or she has a British accent.
In books written with a strong voice, we detect a personality in the writing. Stories written in first-person point of view must certainly have character. But even a third-person narrative should have an interesting and specific tone.
People who read my novel Angel of Eventide often say they hear a lilting Irish voice in the narration, which was my intention.
Never Start a Sentence with “There”
A dear professor taught me this. And she was right. If you begin with there, your sentence inevitably starts off clunky:
There was a saying at camp that what happened at Castle Cove, stayed at Castle Cove.
The camp saying was “What happened at Castle Cove, stayed at Castle Cove.”
Eliminate Unnecessary Adverbs
The easiest way to do this is to perform a document search for for “ly” words.
Adverbs are the knickknacks of writing. We are tempted to throw ’em in for emphasis, but they clutter up the writing and make us look clumsy. If you are a good writer, then you can make your point without the adverb.
Don’t Bother with Synonyms for “Said”
Remember in English class when you had to list more descriptive words for said? Exclaimed, whispered, uttered, groaned, and so on. Well, now it’s better to stick with say and said. Go figure.
The descriptive wording around the dialog, if not the dialog itself, should tell the reader how the quotation was said.
Example: Samantha was now nose to nose with Molly, and she pointed a finger in her face. “Don’t you ever tell anyone what I told you,” Sam said.
Show, Don’t Tell
This is kind of a cliché in the writing world, but it’s good advice. Instead of saying, “He was nervous about his first day of school,” say perhaps, “He ran a shaky finger around the too-tight necktie that bore his new school’s crest.”
Change Passive Voice To Active
Passive voice happens when the subject of the sentence is being acted upon.
Passive: The ice cream cone was eaten by the bear.
Active: The bear ate the ice cream cone.
Passive is weak. It’s boring. This is all about making things easier on your reader. You do that by writing succinctly and maintaining momentum.
It’s okay to use the passive voice on occasion, but try to keep most of your voice active.
Escape the Great Wall of Text
(I am stealing “The Great Wall of Text” from Mike Kim, a copywriter and communications strategist.)
You know when you open an email that is one great wall of text, with no paragraph breaks?
Yeah, don’t do that.
Paragraphs are all the rage right now with readers. Text is easier to read when it’s broken up. And, unlike what you learned in school, one sentence can be its own paragraph. One word can be its own paragraph!
Go crazy with that return button.
Everybody’s doing it.
Avoid Clichés Like the Plague
Read between the lines here.
Control Your Exclamation Points!!!
I think it was Mark Twain who said, “One should never use exclamation points in writing. It is like laughing at your own joke.”
Ha ha! Ouch.
Be OK with Bad Writing
Last year, I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time. I had my doubts about committing to write 50,000 words in the month of November. But I somehow managed to silence my inner editor and get the words out.
Were they pretty? Heavens, no! But they were written, and now I have a whole book to work with that I didn’t have in October.
Any writing is going to be bad at first. And that is okay. You can make it better later. Didn’t Hemingway say to write drunk, edit sober?
Cut Out Unnecessary Parts
This is so hard to do. But you want to take out anything that is unnecessary or, more to the point, boring. Whereas certain details make for good writing, extra words make for good napping.
“Kill your darlings,” is the oft-quoted Faulkner maxim. If that beautifully written description of the setting sun does nothing to enhance your plot or character or setting, then you must kill it. (Or maybe dismember it.)
Look Up the Meanings of Words
Before you use a word, look it up. Especially if it’s not a word you commonly use. You can learn so much about a word when you research its meaning and origin. It might not be the best word to use after all.
For example, if you have the New Oxford American Dictionary app, look up the word comprise. You will find from reading the USAGE section that the phrase “comprised of” is incorrect. Now you know.
Turn Off Phone, Email, Social Media, Etc.
Nothing hijacks your creative time like a device with notifications. If I need to get some writing done, I leave my smart phone in another room. Like a lot of writers, I use a MacBook that notifies me of iMessages and even phone calls. For this reason, I use the Do Not Disturb option during my writing time. Here’s how:
On a Mac, click on the Notifications icon in the uppermost right corner. Scroll up. Turn DO NOT DISTURB on. (You can change the settings by opening the Notifications dialog box in System Preferences.)
When my writing is not flowing as well as I’d like, I am tempted to shop online or play solitaire. Did you know you can use apps to block distracting websites, like Facebook or Amazon? Try Freedom or Focus or SelfControl.
And I mean lots.
Read what you makes you happy. If you like dragons, read fantasy. If you like suspense, read true crime or thriller novels.
It doesn’t matter what it is—reading makes your writing better.
Tell the Story Only You Can Tell
Only you have lived your life. You have your own personal memories and pastimes. You might feel compelled to share these unique stories for many reasons.
Sometimes a story benefits you, and sometimes a story benefits others. A good story can do both.
Pen and paper may be the cure to what ails or itches.
You have a story that only you can tell. And it is important. So tell it.
When all else fails, try to be funny. Funny writing is interesting to read and appeals to most audiences.
I am currently in the midst of writing a dramatic full-length novel. When the plot gets heavy, I try to break it up with humor. I actually took two months off to write a parody. The comic recess from my more serious project gave my brain a fresh start and my emotions a break.
For Grammar Help, Go to Grammar Girl
I still go to the Grammar Girl with my grammar questions, and I’ve been writing and editing professionally for almost 18 years. The English language is hard. Don’t be ashamed if you forget the rules. Find the Grammar Girl at quickanddirtytips.com.
Finish What You’re Writing
The important thing is to finish. I wish I knew a statistic for how many unfinished books or short stories are floating out there in the world. I imagine it would be a grand number. Please don’t let your story be counted in that way!
Break the Rules If You Must
There is sometimes good reason to break the rules. (You see—I broke one of my own just now!) Don’t feel like you have to twist your words to follow the writing rules if it sounds contrived. Be free, writer!