Welp, in another first, I was recently asked for a favor by a friend of a friend. This friend of a friend is a teacher in Kansas, and every year she asks her students what they want to be when they grow up, and then finds people who do that to write letters to each student. One student, a girl named Addison, said she wanted to be a writer. Below is the letter I sent:
I was around your age when I decided I wanted to be a writer. I filled numerous spiral bound notebooks with stories, bad poetry, and Star Wars fan fiction. If I’m being honest, little of it was any good, but I enjoyed doing it, so I did it. I moved on for a time doing other things during my high school and college years, but came back to writing again in my mid-twenties, a time I imagine seems just as far away to you as it seems distant to me. Since then I’ve written a few books, got some stories published, and have started carving out a space for myself in the world of writing. While it’s not my only job at this time, it is a central part of my life.
There are of course many routes you can take to become a writer. Some people go to college and get a degree in English, and then go on to get a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in Writing, though it is worth noting that you don’t need an English degree to get an MFA. With these in hand, you can go out and pursue one of the many careers available for writers, which I’m sure you can find using Google.
For my part, I did none of these things. You don’t have to do any of the above to be a writer, though it does certainly help get your foot in the door. I did go to college, but I got a degree in Economics, and most of my jobs have been related to that. However, I loved writing, so I just started doing it. That’s one of the great things about writing, as long you’re willing to put in the time and energy, pretty much anyone can do it. There is no wrong way to become a writer, but there are things you can do to make yourself a better writer.
Passion. You shouldn’t go into writing to get rich. Some people do get rich writing, but there are so many more who work it just like any other job. You need passion to be a writer. If you ask anyone who writes, they will likely all say that they dream of making it big, but even if they don’t, they will likely continue writing no matter what. To be a writer, it can’t just be a job, it must be a passion.
Write. You need to write all the time. Writing is like any sport or skill, the more you do it, the better you get at it. There is no magic wand with this one. You have to put in the hours. You need to practice, and then practice some more. For my part, I write at minimum one short story per month.
Read. You should read the types of books and stories you would like to write. Study what you read, not just the stories, but also how they are written. What are the themes and story arcs? What did you like about how the stories were told and what did you not like about them? Read all the time.
Editing. Learn how to edit what you write. Make your spelling and grammar immaculate. Grow your vocabulary. There are many great pieces of writing out there that will never see the light of day because of bad spelling and grammar. Make sure what you write has a good flow. A good trick to test a story’s flow is to read it out loud.
Humble. You need to be humble to be a writer. This is an industry of critiques and rejections. Over the past several years I’ve gotten around 25 short stories published, but I’ve also gotten 2,500 rejections. Find people you trust, people who are willing to give you honest feedback, and ask them to read what you write. Be prepared for them to point out the things they don’t like. This can be hard, given how much time and heart goes into each story, but it is a necessity. Use critiques for what they are, an opportunity to improve your writing.
Perseverance. At risk of sounding like the motivational posters they had in schools when I was a student (do they still have those?), you need to have perseverance. This should be obvious given the significant time it takes to write and the sheer number of rejections that writers face. I had one short story that was rejected by various magazines and literary reviews over 100 times, but I tweaked it to make it better, kept at it, and eventually got it published. This is a career for people who don’t quit when the going gets tough.
Observant. You need to be observant to be a writer. The world around you is full of stories, you just need to be paying attention to notice them. Most writers are people watchers. What do people do? How do they react to situations? How do they move and speak? What are their mannerisms? The same is true for animals, nature, machinery, and pretty much anything else you might write about. You need to take the whole world in.
Empathetic. You need to be empathetic to be a writer. You always need to be asking why. You need to be able to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. This doesn’t mean agreeing or condoning what people do, it simply means trying to understand why they do the things they do. This can actually be one of the hardest things to do as a writer, but it is also a skill that will help you with everything in life.
There is of course more, there is always more, and as with most things, the devils in the details, but this is a good starting point. I guess the last thing I can leave you with is that when you feel ready, you should try and get your writing out there. The purpose of writing stories is for others to read them. Let families and friends read them, and send them out to literary magazines. There are some magazines that are specifically for teen writers. Some can be found via the link below (but there are many more that can be found searching the internet):
I hope this has been helpful. Good luck with your writing. Though you may never become rich and famous from it, I guarantee that it will open you up to the world and help you express ideas in ways you never thought possible, which in turn will help you succeed no matter what you choose to do with your life. Keep writing Addison.
Shawn W. Campbell
P.S. I’ve included a few books that were some of my favorites when I was your age. Most of the stuff I write is for high school age and above, but in the meantime, hopefully these books will help inspire you as much as they inspired me.