I recently got a chance to speak at the presentation of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, put on by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers. Here are my remarks, with advice for writers young and old.
I was asked to choose some words of advice to give to young writers. I have three words: write, rewrite and stop.
If you want to make it at something, do it all the time. If you love to write and want to be a writer, write along with your life. Write about the mundane things that happen in your day and you'll wind up finding meaning in them that you didn't know was there until the writing made you start to think. I sometimes tell people I think with my fingers, meaning give me a keyboard, any keyboard, when I want to really think something through. So write along with your life. Then write about things outside your life.
Notice the things that capture your interest. Make a note of what they are. Write about why THAT made you stop and think. Then check 'em out more fully. As you write about them, research them. My computers often have one screen open to the page I’m writing on and one screen open to google. I go back and forth to keep diving deeper as I write questions for interviews or as I write my own prose. So write your life and write outside yourself.
Write long, write medium, write short. Loretta Lopez, editor of the best teen writing 2013, begins her introduction to the book urging people to mind your attention spans in our fast-twitch technology world. True. But if you're a writer, do tweet. 140 characters is a great drill.
Any writer needs to be able to communicate a clear message. Twitter forces you to tell people who, what, why and why to care. If you don't, you won't have any followers. So write long, write medium, write short. But keep writing.
But at the same time, you don't have to finish everything you start. Some of the greatest writers have gotten hundreds of pages into novels and decided not to complete them. It’s okay. You can start writing a random thought that doesn't seem like the start of something but the middle. It’s okay. You can start in the middle and figure out if it leads to a beginning or an end.
And then, rewrite. If you walk away from something and come back to it the next day, or in a half hour or in five minutes, you'll quickly see how it can be better. Just re-read what you wrote and you'll start making changes. If it's a draft intended for an editor and you've completed your piece, after you press save, always count to ten before you press send. Always do that with e-mails and text messages too by the way, especially if you're angry. If you don't, you've probably hit "reply all" without realizing it and you'll regret it for the rest of high school. Or longer. Have the restraint to rewrite.
Maybe I appreciate rewriting so much because I started writing for journalism in the age of the typewriter before there were word processors. Every time I wanted to rewrite something, I had to throw away a page and retype everything I wanted to keep. You can imagine what a disincentive that is.
When I used my first computer for writing news copy, I quickly realized that it made me a better writer because it was so much easier to rewrite. And rewrite again. And rewrite again. I was like a kid in a candy store. I could try this. And try that. And try something else. Without really losing any time or work I’d completed. So rewrite.
And then at some point, allow yourself to stop.
Reading what some of you wrote, I have no doubt that some of you are perfectionists. You’ll never be happy with what you’ve written and rewritten and rewritten again because there's this one sentence, or one punctuation mark, or one accent. At some point allow yourself to stop. And forgive yourself your imperfections.
So: Write. Rewrite. Stop. Three words from me.