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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

What to tell a young teen who wants to write?

Because I’m lucky enough to do a lot of author visits to middle schools, I very often meet young people who are seriously, intently interested in writing — and often are writing; a sixth grader I met this week told me he’s working on a 500-page novel. (Whoa!) On almost every school visit I’ll get asked what advice I can offer.

Today I got an email from a student in St. Louis, whose middle school I visited last month; she wrote, “I didn't get the chance to ask how could I make my writing better because I've always wanted to be a writer. Its been my passion, I've written short stories and I was hoping you could give me a few pointers on making my writing better.”

Here’s how I answered — it’s basically what I say whenever I get asked about this:

The best advice I can give is to make a notebook your friend. Just get a notebook that you can carry around — it doesn't have to be fancy, and it can be whatever size and shape you like. Have a time each day when you sit down and write in your notebook. I suggest that this be not too much time; half an hour is probably excellent. You want to make this part of your day, so it should be a time that you can do — like an appointment you keep every day, or like the time you practice a musical instrument.

So choose a time that's workable for you. Maybe after dinner, or when you get home from school, after you finish your homework, or before you go to bed — and just write. Don't worry too much about what you're writing, or if it's good; you don't have to write a story or a book — just write. Every day. The more you do this, the more this writing time becomes part of your life, the more you'll look forward to it.

What can happen, if you stick with it, is a lot like the experience of starting to get good at playing an instrument, or exercising until you start to get stronger. Now you want to keep doing it; you just don't feel right if you don't. In this process, the notebook can become your friend — a friend that you spend time with every day, that you share stuff with that you maybe don't share with anyone else. The more you do this, the more your notebook becomes part of your life, the more your writing will grown and deepen and become part of your life.

Every working writer I've ever asked about this has a relationship of some kind with a notebook. Some keep them like diaries or journals, writing the events of their day; others keep them like scrapbooks, pasting in things they want to remember, writing things they want to remember. I often do freewrites in my notebook. I like old-fashioned copybooks, the kind with the marbled cover, without lines on the pages; I'll set out to fill three full pages with whatever, trying not to stop once I get started. But however you find yourself using your notebook, writing projects eventually will probably grow out of that relationship. Maybe you'll get an idea for a story, and suddenly that's going into your notebook.

Like anything you want to get better at, it's important to do a lot of writing, and not expect it all to be good or smart or anything like that. Just write! Make the notebook your friend, and sit down with it every day. That's the best thing you can do.

Good luck, and happy Thanksgiving!

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