Writing Advice – it’s not just about the writing

March 24th, 2019

Some time ago, a twelve-year-old girl wrote to me for advice. Her mother, she said, thought she was too young to be a writer, and wanted her to go outside and do other things. What should she do?

I was the same at her age, so I sympathised. Given half a chance, I would have spent 90% of my time indoors, either reading or writing. But I also sympathised with the mother. One of the reasons my parents let me get a horse in my last year of primary school was because they were worried about that 90%. When Mum died, I found some old writings where she described me as her ‘shy bookworm of a daughter’, and rejoiced in the changes that the horse brought.

The classic advice that writers give to children who want to write is, ‘Read read read and write write write.’ It’s good advice, but there’s more to it. I didn’t realise it when I was twelve, but it’s not just about the writing. If you want to be a writer, you have to go out and live life. That’s what gives you something to write about. That’s what gives you depth of character, depth of description, and a moral code that underlies your work.

So that’s more or less what I said to this girl. I supported her love of reading and writing, but then I said, ‘However your mother is also right, in that you must LIVE life, and not just read about it. To be a writer, you need to observe people.

The author looking through binoculars.

‘You must think deeply about why people behave the way they do, and try to understand them – even people you dislike. You must listen to the way they speak and watch how they walk, and see what they do when they are happy or sad or frightened. You must put yourself in their shoes.

‘You must try and understand yourself too – which is not always easy. Only then will you be able to write convincing characters. It is all research, you see. So don’t forget this, when your mother wants you to do something other than reading. She may not realise it, but she is sending you off to do research.’

I still think it’s one of my best answers ever.

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