Writing Advice for a Younger Me

NotebookA member of an online writing group I’m involved in posed a question to the group yesterday. She’s 18 years old, and has spent the last 18 months studying at university, working in various industries, and volunteering in poor communities around the world. Now she’s got plenty of time up her sleeve and is ready to embark on her next adventure: WRITING. But it’s turning out to be harder than she expected.

“I open up a word document and nothing comes out. I kind of just stare, fingers ready, but with no real idea. I’m terrified of clichés, and every time I think of some remotely interesting story line, am blocked by fear or self-doubt. Has anyone felt this? Does it get easier?”

I read this question and was immediately transported back to various points in my own life.

…when I was 16, with five months off school, and the burning desire to write a novel.

…when I was 18, fresh out of high school, with the burning desire to write a novel.

…when I was 21, unemployed, with the burning desire to write a novel.

In each of those periods of my life, I found myself sitting in front of a blank screen feeling exactly the fear this young woman is feeling. In all three instances, I managed to overcome the fear enough to write something (although the quality of that ‘something’ was debatable). But I always felt I was alone, that I was the only wanna-be writer who experienced the knee-knocking, soul-freezing fear that comes with staring at a white screen and having no idea how to fill it with meaningful words.

So I answered the question. I have her the advice I wish I’d heard when I was young and enthusiastic and inexperienced. And then it occurred to me that it’s not advice that is best kept private, it’s advice that should be shared. Because everyone feels overwhelmed and out of their depth sometimes, regardless of age or experience.

So here goes. I hope you find it helpful.

  • Too much time is as much a motivation-killer as too-little time. Allocate a set amount of time each day to writing and then fill in the rest with LIFE. Life helps you write. It gives you things to write about. It lets you experience emotions and situations and setbacks that will make it into your writing in some way. Go outside your comfort zone and live.
  • What you’re feeling is normal. Normal for writers and artists and entertainers and just about every creative type out there. That doesn’t make it easier, but knowing you’re in good company helps.
  • Just because it’s normal doesn’t mean you have to like it. And it doesn’t mean you should just sit back and let the feelings overwhelm you. Those feelings of fear (terror!) never go away. Never. What does happen is we learn how to overcome the fear and do it anyway. (To use one of those dreaded clichés.)
  • A best-selling, multi-published author once said to me, “In my head, before I start, [a novel] is a perfect thing. It stays perfect until the moment I start typing.” Accept that’s the truth of things, and then write anyway. 
  • Like I said, you’re in good company when it comes to feeling this way. So let yourself BE in good company. Online writing groups are great, because you’re surrounded by writers. But, you know what else is great? Writing groups in the real world. See if you can find one in your local area. Talk to the librarians at your local library (you’d be amazed what and who they know), ask your friends on FB (you’d be amazed how many people are secretly writers but are too afraid to share it with anyone), or loiter outside creative writing classes. When you find like-minded souls, TALK TO THEM. Regularly. About writing. About your struggles and successes and fears and inspirations. You’ll find you have more in common than you expected.
  • Most of all, live the Nike slogan. When you sit down and look at that blank page, tell yourself it’s your job to fill it. Fill it with anything. Write about how terrified you are, write about what you want to write about, write about which actor you’d like to play your main character, write about anything that comes to mind. And when the page is no longer white and scary, start telling your story. Starting is always the hardest part.
  • Finally, celebrate every success. Eat chocolate! Drink wine! Buy books! Share your writing successes with like-minded individuals! Celebrate however is meaningful to you. Just celebrate, no matter how big or small your accomplishment.

Do you have any additional advice to offer?


Filed under Writing

21 responses to “Writing Advice for a Younger Me

  1. You’ve covered the main ones, especially the too-much-time one, but here’s one more.

    Don’t sit down to write a novel. That can be intimidating all by itself. You write one word, and then you realize you have to write at least 49,999 more.

    Sit down to write a story. That’s what you are: a storyteller. Someone can come along later and classify it by length and genre and so on.

    • Good advice, especially for beginners. I don’t know if I could work that way now, but I really wish I’d had that mindset when I was just starting out. 🙂

      I like to refer to myself as a Storyteller as well. Writing is just the way I choose to record my story.

  2. One of the only writing craft books I read before I started ‘officially’ writing was Steven Pressfield’s War of Art, which I referenced to our young friend, the one who inspired this post. It really helped me to understand what I was up against, and what was holding me back. At the end Pressfield writes: “Are you a born writer? Were you put on earth to be [an artist]? In the end the question can only be answered by action. Do it or don’t do it.”
    That made a lot of sense to me. I chose to do it.

    Great list! Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Jo! I’m glad you’re a part of my writing tribe!

    • Awww. Thanks, Vaughn. The feeling is definitely mutual.

      I really like that quote. And thanks for reminding me that I really, really need to read Steven Pressfield’s book!

  3. Nicely said! I’m also a young writer and blogger.18 to be precise I also face this kind of problem sometimes,but for me i glance at the blank paper nd say to myself that i have no choice than to fulfill the blank page destiny.that is for me to put a word on the blank page is my choice and not optional..

  4. This is great, Jo. I especially love the part about allocating a set amount of time to writing, and the rest to LIVING. I also appreciated the emphasis on finding other writers to connect with. All writers write alone, but no one succeeds that way! 😀

    • That’s so true, Cathy — and something it’s taken me a long, long time to learn. My newfound wisdom is largely due to the open, supportive people on the WU Facebook group. 🙂

  5. I guess I would add to allow yourself a break – writer’s block is real. It happens. When it does – don’t fight it, because it only creates frustration. I’m in the midst of a big writer’s block, so I suggest to not fight it; but, as it continues, I wonder if I should seek new advice. (smile)
    Great post, Jo.

    • Thanks, Lenore. Giving yourself a break can be a really positive thing — although I’d probably also add that there comes a point where you need to stop giving yourself a break. 🙂

      I don’t believe in Writer’s Block as a mystical, magical, outside force. But I do think sometimes our subconscious blocks our attempts to write because it knows we’re on the wrong path for the story, or because we’re not ready to write the next bit. But it’s all too easy to blame Writer’s Block when we’re feeling a a bit afraid or nervous or the Inner Perfectionist is whispering in our ears.

  6. Jonathan Gunson

    Lovely article Jo.
    I also see you’re at the FB Writer Unboxed group. (I’ve just joined)
    PS. The part about chocolate had particular appeal.

    • Hi Jonathan. Thanks for dropping by and reading — and welcome to the WU group. Back when I joined the group there was a whopping 600 members, and I see now we’re up to 2700. But it’s still every bit as interesting, supportive, and helpful as it was then. I’m sure you’ll get a lot out of it. 🙂
      P.S. You have my permission to eat more chocolate.

  7. I expect even the most famous writers have unfinished works, and that they feel inadequate for not having finished them. So I go beyond saying just write and worry about length later; I suggest writing several short stories first so you have a body of finished work that both gives you something to show people if they ask (good for gaining their support) and shows you it is possible (for those days you do not think a work will go anywhere).

    Which Nike slogan did you mean: “Rhodes was Victorious” or “We grow in the esteem of future generations”?

    • Dave, I think that’s good advice in general (I have felt the weight of unfinished projects 🙂 ), but it’s not for everybody. That’s what I tried to do when I started out, and I failed. I suck at short stories. When I just sat down to write, without worrying about length, I wrote a novel (it wasn’t that simple, of course, but you get the idea).

      Much later, I started to write mystery stories (it was the genre restrictions that finally allowed me to write a short story), but even now the stories tend to turn into novellas, and they form connections between the stories so that the collection I’m working on now is at least halfway to becoming a novel itself.

    • I struggled for a long time to be able to write short stories, but eventually I found that 1000 – 1500 word stories suit be perfectly. Either that or novels. 😉 I think you’re right, and feeling a sense of completion if an important thing when it comes to keeping up motivation and feeling successful. It may not work for everyone, but then some people juggle geese…

      Oh, as for quotes Funny Guy, I was thinking more of this one:

  8. The ideas for your stories, the meat that will make them real, will come from the life you have not yet lived. So get out there and live, have weird experiences, and live to tell the tale.

    But keep writing now, even if you feel you have nothing to write about, because having a great idea for a novel does not make you a great writer. Writing makes you a great writer, so keep up the practice even if what your produced today will never see the light of day.

    Then, in a few years, when that amazing idea falls into place, you’ll already have the writing skills to turn that from an idea for that novel you’re going to write someday to the fabulous novel you will have actually written.

  9. Great post. I should have read it earlier. Husband went out without me because I really wanted to write. Once he left I just felt pretty dull and lonely. Plus I only wrote about a page anyway. But I did find a good book to read in the end!

  10. I love everything about this post. It’s too easy to think that you’re not good enough because it doesn’t come easy – but that’s not true at all.

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