Everything else

Write of Passage

Steps for becoming the next Didion, or Hurston, or Woolf, or you.

Embrace edits.
I used to think my stories were most authentic in their first draft, because that was when my idea was freshest. So I would type “The End,” do a spell-check, and send it off to whatever literary magazine I hoped would publish it. My stuff never got accepted, and I wondered why.

The answer of course was that my first drafts weren’t perfect. I was so close to my original vision that I didn’t see the holes or the clichéd writing. Both of my published novels went through EIGHT major drafts where the changes I made were sweeping enough that I saved the file under a new name (i.e. “Ballads of Suburbia Draft Six”). In addition to that, there was a lot of minor editing during each draft, as well as a copyediting phase.

This may sound like a lot of work, but the point is: feedback is crucial. I’ve actually come to think that revising is the best part! It’s when you get to tinker and add those flairs that make everything come together. (You also get to use fun little tools like highlighters!)

I like to send my drafts to critique partners or CPs. These are people I regularly exchange manuscripts with. They help me brainstorm when I’m stuck and find flaws in my manuscript that I may have overlooked. There are tons of writing organizations (like Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and Romance Writers of America) and writing-related listservs on Yahoo where you can find a partner.

After the big-picture edits are done, I like to polish the prose. I recommend “Deep Editing,” a technique that helps you address and balance the different elements of your story, including action, dialogue, description, and emotional reaction. (And, again, it involves lots of pretty highlighters!)

Making strong word choices is essential in every kind of writing, so I recommend getting a good thesaurus to use for finessing your language—The Synonym Finder by J.I Rodale happens to be my favorite. Also, proper grammar is HIGHLY underrated these days, but it’s very important. (Seriously, these are skills you will need for fiction, college essays, cover letters, and IN LIFE.) If you’re really committed, you need a resource like The Chicago Manual of Style as well as something like Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss, which makes reading about grammar feel a little less like English class homework.

My final suggestion is READ YOUR WHOLE STORY OUT LOUD. It sounds like a huge ordeal, and it is—stock up on tea and cough drops—but it’s so worth it to make sure everything sounds perfect and to pick up on any words you may have accidentally left out.

Decide how much you want to share.

Writers are often told “write what you know.” If taken literally, this may result in extremely personal writing, stuff that feels too close to your heart to share with anyone, even your best friends–especially if disguised versions of those friends appear in the piece. Examine what you write and decide if you can use what you know imaginatively, or if you want to write something somewhat autobiographical, or if you are interested in straight-up memoir. Over the years and especially since I’ve been writing for Rookie, I’ve gotten more comfortable publishing pieces about my real life. However, for the stuff that I want to write about but is still too personal to share, I keep a diary that is just for me. Make that separation for yourself. There should be no limitations to your creative freedom, but once you commit something to the page, it will likely stick around forever. This is definitely something to keep in mind.

Consider your education carefully.
School is approaching and with that can come decisions about what to study. I pursued degrees in creative writing because I wanted to spend a few years completely immersed, honing my craft, writing as my homework, and making contacts in the publishing world. While there are no guarantees that a creative writing degree will lead to getting published, it definitely helped me.

On the flipside, I know plenty of other writers who chose non-writing-related majors, because they didn’t want to burn out on or they had other interests. Studying something else can be valuable because it gives you something to write about with expertise, whether it be history or science or law or child psychology or veterinary medicine. And of course, it may also help you earn a living one day.

Like most careers in the arts, it takes a lot of time and work to establish yourself as a writer, and many writers have to find other jobs to support themselves. Even though I have two published books, I have to bartend, write freelance pieces, and teach to pay the majority of my bills. Research the kind of job you might like to do and find out what degree(s) you need, OR if there is a field of study you are already interested in, research what kind of jobs you might be able to get after college. For example, after getting an MFA in creative writing, I’ve been able to work as a teacher of college-level English, write and edit for a variety of publications, and use my skills for fundraising campaigns and grant writing.

When choosing what to study or do after high school, you will probably need to think about where your passion for your art ranks in your life and consider what sacrifices you are willing to make. It is still my goal to make my living off of creative writing alone. Working towards that means that I’ve always had to live with other people, I have to juggle a lot of different jobs, I don’t have much free time, and I rarely have extra money for shopping sprees, expensive nights out, and vacations.

Writing doesn’t have to be the center of your life to be a fulfilling and meaningful part of it. Building your own world out of words is an exhilarating experience, even if it’s just for fun. ♦

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43 Comments

  • clairee July 27th, 2012 3:13 PM

    Thank you so much! This was very helpful, and I love that Little House on the Prairie was one of your childhood favorites, as it was mine growing up!

    I’m very curious for more details about your revision process. I find that everyone says it is super important, but I have a hard time figuring out exactly what works and what doesn’t in my work on my own. While I know sharing with others helps with this, I’d like to more train my self-critical eye and be able to improve. Sometimes I feel like I don’t actually improve and that my writing has stayed the same forever, which feels a little frustrating.

    http://modalityblog.wordpress.com/

    • Stephanie July 28th, 2012 2:53 PM

      Clairee, I definitely feel your pain on that. Writing can be slow to improve sometimes. In terms of developing your own critical eye, my advice is still to share with others BUT make sure those others are critique partners meaning that they give you work to read in return. I’ve really found that editing other people has helped me learn to notice my own patterns and be aware of flaws in my own writing. Also if your school has a lit magazine, writing club you can join, or creative writing class you can take where you’ll have the opportunity to examine other people’s writing that will be really helpful. You’ll see things you like and can begin to examine how you can do those things better. You’ll also see their weaknesses and become aware if you have weaknesses in those areas, too. Does that make sense? You can do this when reading books too. I know I have a weakness in writing wayyyyyyyyy too much backstory, so I am hyper aware while I;m reading of how other writers do it.

  • Kristen July 27th, 2012 3:22 PM

    The Little House books were the first ones that I read as a child!

    This was so helpful, thank you for your advice. All of my ideas of the lives of writers come from movies like Henry & June and Howl… so this was nice and real.

  • sn0whill July 27th, 2012 3:52 PM

    Yes! Definitely filing this away for later re-reading. Thank you so much for writing this.

  • rosiesayrelax July 27th, 2012 4:06 PM

    This is incredibly helpful! I’m actually writing a story in blog format because it wa a new year’s resolution :) check it out if you like

    Escaping Jackie

    P.s. is anyone else watching the Olympics right now?!? It’s amazing!

    • A Fox In The Snow July 27th, 2012 5:24 PM

      I am! I reeeaaalllyyyy loved the pop music part, and was that actor Ewan McGregor from Trainspotting?

      • all-art-is-quite-useless July 30th, 2012 1:31 PM

        I loved the children’s literature and NHS section because: JK ROWLING! the childcatcher! voldemort! mary poppins coming to save the day! dancing nurses! happy sick children bouncing on their beds! and choosing to do a section on the NHS was really brave.

        I also loved the queen’s acting debut… I didn’t warm to the royal family once during the Jubilee celebrations, but I was weirdly proud of her this time :/

  • kmbcomments July 27th, 2012 4:12 PM

    This article is so awesome I just emailed it to two friends before even getting to page 2! :D

    Thank you so much for the straightforward information and inspiration. You are an excellent writer, so I am taking your words to heart. Also, I love the Little House books, but for me it was all about Sweet Valley High. The one where the girl tries to drown the other girl scuba diving??? Couldn’t put it down.

    Happy Olympics!!!

  • Narita July 27th, 2012 4:16 PM

    I’ve got another piece of advice, if I might be so free to put it here: Do. Really, if you want something, stalk people. I just wrote to magazines and now I’m the youngest-ever editor of the Dutch equal of Alternative Press. If you want to give out a book, get in touch with agents. I was 14 and a half when I started, but just… do it. Really. Most people kinda like it when you take initiative.

    • Stephanie July 28th, 2012 3:01 PM

      Good advice. You can definitely network and research and work your way in to the writing world. You don’t want to harass people because then you’ll end up on their bad side, but yeah, follow agents/publishers/writers you admire on Twitter, read their blogs, etc and you can learn a TON that way. And I agree, once you have some solid stuff, you are never too young to start submitting!

  • Jennifer T July 27th, 2012 4:19 PM

    I’m always surprised when this one never finds its way into “how to be a writer” tip lists: experience life as much as you can. If you’re coming up dry for material, chances are that living inside of your daydreams isn’t going to get you very far. Going out and challenging yourself, forcing yourself to experience things that you might not automatically choose to do can inspire all kinds of emotions and thoughts that translate into story material. Accept every party invitation, take on that weird job, visit someplace you have made a point of avoiding in the past. Writers tend to be sensitive types so if you fancy yourself a writer, chances are you’re going to have some strong reactions worth writing about.

    Also, don’t equate your publishing success with your value as a writer. Nobody will tell you this, but the publishing world (online, too) is very much an exclusionary club where personal connections are almost everything. Writing isn’t brain surgery; there are some damn good amateur writers who don’t make a living selling their poetry or prose–but the clubby nature of the writing world will make sure that these writers don’t get much of an audience because they don’t have the connections, they haven’t been published previously, or they haven’t devoted their lives to the craft. Once in a while we get these great things like NPR’s story project a few years back that provided an audience for regular people who have amazing stories and insights to share. Keep an eye out for those sorts of opportunities.

    • Stephanie July 28th, 2012 2:59 PM

      These are both great tips. Definitely living life is key to discovering more things to write about. That’s why going to school for other things besides writing can be so helpful for people. For me personally it is why I graduated high school early and went to live on my own in a new city.

      People shouldn’t necessarily equate publishing success with being a good writer, that is true. It’s something that I’m personally guilty of though, I must admit. I measure my self against the success of my writing friends and it can bum me out at times. However, I would disagree that writing is clubby and all based on connections. I think Narita gave excellent advice above that you really can take initiative, meet and talk to people and work your way in. That’s how I did it. I didn’t have any connections, but I still found an agent and got published. Also with self-publishing, you can publish your own stuff too. It might not be a massive bestseller, but that’s where I think your advice is key, you shouldn’t equate that with success.

      • Jennifer T July 28th, 2012 6:31 PM

        I can appreciate the hard work that you put into making it as a writer. When you say, “meet and talk to people and and work your way in,” that says to me that writing “success” is as much (if not more) about forging personal connection with those in positions of power as it is about the pure merits of the writing. There is a growing crowdsourcing movement in public policy (see: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/29/prizes-with-an-eye-toward-the-future/) where contests are held to recruit the best solutions for the problems at hand. The amazing thing, as the NYT reports, is that often “winners tend not to be the people you expect,” e.g., a clockmaker finding the solution for a navigational problem. My point is that good work can come from anywhere, and while crowdsourcing is growing, the literary world remains pretty insular in protecting and serving its own (published writing always mentions the writer’s past literary accomplishments, as though one can’t write unless one is a Writer). Yes, one might be able to work her way in, but she’s going to invest her time in such a wearying effort only if she wants to be a Writer. Does that mean that she has nothing to offer–no short story or poem? The literary world says yes. I find myself no longer reading the fiction in magazines like Harper’s because it’s all drawn from a group of, very often, NYC-based MFAs, and their stories just don’t move me. Just once I’d like to see the magazine publish a story from a plumber in Duluth :-).

        • Stephanie July 30th, 2012 11:38 AM

          I definitely understand your point and personally I don’t read the fiction in Harper’s either because I also don’t like that clubby, MFA based feel. But I think that if you look at writing as a whole as opposed to just “literary” fiction/short stories, you’ll find writers from a lot of different backgrounds telling a lot of different stories, people who come from art or teaching or music or child psychology, maybe even a plumber :)

    • Carneece July 28th, 2012 3:57 PM

      Slow clap for the advice on going after fresh experiences! I recognized this last year as a sophomore at uni, whilst hating my life and my creative writing major. I finally realized that my writing was anemic because I spent so much time siphoning my life into the writing process and leaving little time to “refuel” with new experiences to draw from. I’m a wary advocate of the “write only what you know!” philosophy, since I find that embarrassingly crippling, but if I don’t brach out and become more comfortable with different avenues of life then I tend to be malnourished as a writer. So, DO STUFF, writers! Find new things to love/hate/fear/adore!

  • RiotViolet July 27th, 2012 4:29 PM

    I thought this was a great piece. As a teenager whose been obsessed with writing, I thought this was very informative! I currently working on a book I hope to publish in the next couple of months and is definitley looking at all the tips I can get to become a better writer xx
    -Violet Lee
    http://violet-lee.tumblr.com

  • Susann July 27th, 2012 4:54 PM

    This is amazing! Thank you so much!

    Fashion in Pepperland

  • A Fox In The Snow July 27th, 2012 5:21 PM

    This article is extremely helpful. I’ve recently started to write a story for myself, but I stopped because everything my characters were saying sounded silly. I think I will start writing again now that I’ve read this!

  • lylsoy July 27th, 2012 10:05 PM

    I lack discipline… THANKS FOR TELLING ME sorry for screaming, but this is a revelation!
    xoxo
    http://gossipgonzesse.blogspot.com.au/

  • Eryn July 28th, 2012 12:04 AM

    Thank you so much for all the great tips!!! I have pages and pages of stories I’ve abandoned. I really need that discipline! Great article :)

  • Aubrey July 28th, 2012 12:42 AM

    Can I just say how timely this article was? I have notebooks filled with things I wrote during the school semester that I promised myself OF COURSE OVER THE SUMMER I’LL WRITE NOVELS. But it’s almost August and I’ve done none of it. This article just may be the thing to get me writing again. Thanks so much!

  • streaked lights July 28th, 2012 2:43 AM

    Wow! This was so helpful.
    I’d also like to suggest another program from writing, this one more towards the novel sort, ‘StoryMill’. I think this one is only for Mac though, I’m not sure.

    http://www.anooshadraws.blogspot.com

    • Stephanie July 28th, 2012 3:02 PM

      Ooh thanks for that. I don’t have a Mac, but I will check it out and keep an eye to see if it comes to PC.

  • Margomouse July 28th, 2012 2:49 PM

    With three days until Camp Nanowrimo (write a 50000 word novel in a month) this article could not have been posted at a better time. The writer of I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone wrote this?! That book made me like books. And books made me want to write so..

    • Stephanie July 28th, 2012 3:03 PM

      Wow, that is a HUGE compliment! I’m glad my book made you like books :) Good luck with Camp Nanowrimo! I hope these tips help!

  • Jessica W July 28th, 2012 5:54 PM

    Fantastic post.
    I think some people have the gift of writing as well. For example, I now numerous people who do NOTHING year round in English, yet achieve excellent results time after time.

    The Lovelorn

  • unicornconnect July 28th, 2012 7:29 PM

    Thankyou so much!!! I really really like writing and this has been really helpful. I would love to actually sit down and write a short story or a long story, but I have never actually finished. Because I think after I write the start I get all freaked out about the plot. But this has inspired me to Sit my butt down and write something!!

    Also, how do you write a novel and make it long enough to be a novel without making the story all rambling and crazy? I’m not sure if that question makes sense.. Bit do you kind of get what I mean?

    Yay!
    Carla

    • Stephanie July 30th, 2012 11:34 AM

      Carla, to keep a novel going and going STRONG so the middle doesn’t sag, you may need to do some plotting, scary as it is. I used to be freaked out by plot, too, butI really recommend reading Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell for some tips on this and analyzing some of your favorite novels to see how they do it in terms of using sub plots to heighten tension and bring more action to the story.

  • July 28th, 2012 7:47 PM

    This is such a helpful post, I love writing and I have a few tips myself
    Tip number 1: I have been trying to write in my journal every day. I think the most important part of journal writing is to understand that you don’t need to write an essay every day it could just be one word that describes whatever you want it to. Journal writing is about release and what you write doesn’t have to be well written or something you would want to share, it’s just for you.
    Another tip I have is to surround yourself with creative people who inspire you to write more and to go to the movies (a good movie that inspired me to write was Ruby Sparks).

  • Caden July 28th, 2012 11:39 PM

    I too have a degree in creative writing. And my love of story telling has taken me to a have a career in special effects makeup in film. You never know where writing will take you!

  • shinmachine July 29th, 2012 5:54 AM

    ahh~! i shouldve bought that I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone book when i saw it last week! this is a very helpful article, btw. thank you

  • Sophii July 29th, 2012 10:30 AM

    This is such a great article. Wonderful tips. I’ve written a book and I’m writing a sequel but my parents won’t let me publish. I might try reading the whole first book out loud but it’s 113 A4 pages long so I’ll get through a lot of cups of tea and throat sweets! I would love to pursue writing as a career so much. I just love it and have done since I was like 5. I have a fashion blog where I write about fashion too. My favourite things to write are fiction, fashion and history but I just love the power that words can have. This article is super inspirational. Thanks,
    Sophie x
    http://thechicmuse000.blogspot.co.uk

  • eliselbv July 30th, 2012 9:27 AM

    “Another important source for inspiration–perhaps the most important source–is other writing”

    I totally agree with you! I’ve been reading since I’m 5 and everytime I write, I have many “pictures” in my head from my readings.
    But the hardest part is to not copy the authors I like.
    Elise
    http://www.iloveyourjokes.blogspot.com

  • MissKnowItAll July 30th, 2012 10:16 AM

    I really needed this!
    Thanks so much!
    p.s Tavi and Anaheed, is there an instagram for Rookie?

  • Whatsername July 30th, 2012 11:59 AM

    Thank you so much for this! I hope to go into writing someday, it’s been my dream since like kindergarten, but since it’s summer I’ve been slacking in terms of practice.
    Loving the section on editing, btw. My dad would always tell me, “writing is rewriting”. He’s a screenwriter and he’ll print his script out and take a red pen and scribble literally ALL OVER the entire page. Every now and then I’ll see him cross out a whole three pages with big X’s. He’ll keep doing this with the same script for, like, a year.

  • shedoesthecityteen July 30th, 2012 1:24 PM

    This is a really fantastic post. If any young writers out there are looking to get started, we’re accepting submissions to She Does The City Teen: http://shedoesthecityteen.com/

    Contact haleycullingham [at] gmail [dot] com with your ideas and pieces!

  • curlllss July 30th, 2012 8:21 PM

    I got I Want To Be Your Joey Ramone years ago and it is one of the few books I’ve read more than once. It’s so awesome to read your article!!! I’d actually like to go into editing, but writing has been my passion since I was little. Thank you for this.

  • Filia-Zissy August 1st, 2012 8:47 AM

    Thanks for the advice. I love writing but I keep not finishing stories. I found the tip “think of your story as often as possible” a very precious one. It sounds very obvious, but it’s something I haven’t done very often so far. There were working periods and than I was just doing something else, thinking of anything but my stories. So thank you.

  • Loudandproudmag August 1st, 2012 3:12 PM

    I loved this article! I’ve always been unsure about what i wanted to, subconsciously I knew I would end up doing something to do with writing! I’m going to be in my third year of my creative writing degree!
    Ani
    http://gleaming-horrors.tumblr.com/

  • AdrienneRumer August 1st, 2012 5:44 PM

    For the past couple of years I’ve attempted NaNoWriMo, but I’ve only managed 5k words, but with your advice, I’m hoping to give it a good go this time. And hopefully I’ll have written enough to actually have something to edit!

  • austenthecat August 1st, 2012 10:46 PM

    This is just about the most helpful thing ever. Thanks so much for this!

  • TheElizabethFL August 1st, 2012 11:06 PM

    Wow, that was super useful. Seriously.

    As an aspiring teen novelist, thank you!