I recently had the privilege of judging submissions to the Scholastic Writing Contest. SWC is a fantastic competition sponsored by Scholastic, and aims to find the most talented young writers across the country. I first entered SWC by a teacher’s kind coercion in 8th grade, and had success that year and every year after until I graduated high school. The past few years my high school creative writing teacher has asked that I judge an array of poetry, fiction, essay, and portfolio submissions for her district, and every year I am flattered, humbled, and awed to read the entries submitted by these students.
But while I was overjoyed to read some amazing work, I couldn’t help but reflect back to the time when I was submitting to SWC, writing earnestly penned poems and short stories during the nascent years of my craft and, for the most part, completely in the dark as to what made writing good, what mistakes I was making, what the hell a, you know, gerund was. (That’s the “-ing” one, right?)
So I’ve come before you to tell you the three big mistakes I made as a young writer, and how I’ve worked to overcome them:
- Have a point
This seems obvious, right? But it’s not—not to me, at least. I still struggle with the step after “Ooh, what if this totally random and weird thing happened?” Because a story idea is a promise, and fulfilling that promise means having a good ending. Now every time I write a story, I not only have an idea how it begins, I know exactly how it ends… even if the stuff in the middle is a mystery to me.
This is important for personal essays too. It’s a common mistake that people think because they’ve done something interesting, or something profound has happened to them, that they as a result have a good story. But they don’t. The stuff that just happens to someone in of itself is boring as all hell. The writer has to bring more to the piece than the facts; we, the reader, need to realize something, need to be gifted with a new perspective, or a glimpse of humanity that we didn’t see coming. For example, in the hypothetical urban fantasy world that my brain lives in, if you’re scared of werewolves and then you meet a werewolf and find out they’re not too scary—tadaa, you have a bad story. But, if after you find out they’re not scary, and then you’re driving along the road and you see a werewolf chilling with his pack and you reach over to lock the car door—knowing full well that this reaction is on you, and not on the lycans—then there, you have a glimpse of something deeper, a nugget of humanity and truth, a reveal that juxtaposes the earlier content with a jarring reveal.
- Less (feeling) is more (feeling)
If you’re spending several words a sentence writing modifiers (Adjectives and adverbs) then you’re not describing, you’re obfuscating. Like food, writing is consumed and digested, and giving someone a huge-ass, wordy sentence is like forcing the reader to chew on a huge bite of gristle. The quick fix here is simple: cut the modifiers and use a better verb. Verbs are the most descriptive words in language. “Julie ran hurriedly to her car” is much weaker than “Julie sprinted to her car.” The perfect verb can often do the work of several sentences.
Young writers are particularly guilty of using over-descriptive language when talking about emotions and feelings. I get it, everything is so goddamn raw and visceral and new. But, again, reading is like eating. Telling the reader how a character feels is like force-feeding them pre-chewed gristle smothered in garlic and paprika and cumin and ostrich snot. Chill. Writing is the art of balancing information with a well-paced reveal. Too much information and the reader will lose interest, too little and the reader will get confused. It’s better to err on the side of “too little” than the side of too much.
- Know when to quit
Not writing! But a scene. (Equally important is knowing when to start a scene.) I think young writers often pull from formulaic writing techniques taught to them early in their education, such as Writing Needs a Beginning, Middle, and End. This isn’t always true. Sometimes a scene just needs the last 10% of the Beginning and none of the End to get the information the writer wants to share across to the reader.
This is particularly important when you want to show a character having an epiphany but you want to delay letting the reader know what that epiphany is—think about those moments when Sherlock Holmes is at the scene of the crime, smiles his all-knowing smile… and then the scene ends. The story jumps back to his flat, leaving the reader frustrated and excited by the lack of information and the anticipation of learning the mystery’s solution, where Sherlock explains it all. But note there’s nothing between the scene where Holmes figured it out and the one where he goes on a monologue detailing his empirical deductions… because it’s not necessary! There is no reason to drag a scene out that’s already served its purpose.
So there you have it! I’ve come a long way from a young writer to a… um… that thing where you’re not in your twenties anymore but you’re not quite middle aged yet.