So, you wanna be a writer!

March 4, 2007

(Editor’s Note: This article is adapted slightly from a column written in 2000 and published by “The American Reporter,” an online daily newspaper and reprinted in Connections, a publication of the Annapolis Area Christian School [Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 2003]. It was written before the writer began teaching at Annapolis Area Christian High School, and is a response to the authentic e-mail that begins the piece.)

So, you’re a writer wannabe!

Dear Editor:
I’m almost 14 and want to start a serious writing career. Can you please help me decide the best courses to take in High School to help me get a head start on my career? I would really appreciate it alot.
Thanks, 555.

Dear 555:

You ask a difficult question because “courses” are tough to choose to plan a specific career. Sometimes a course that seems least likely to help you turns out to be the best course for what you need or want. Even math courses can help a writer!

My advice has three steps (perhaps four):

Step 1: Read everything you can get hold of or are assigned to read at school.
Step 2: Read some more.
Step 3: Read even more. Don’t eliminate any area.

Read in science, literature, religion, computers, sports, geography, poetry (especially poetry), business, economics, political science, world history, journalism, romance (go easy on that one), science fiction, psychology, medicine. Read style books and grammar books (and don’t use words such as “alot”). Make the dictionary the most important book you own, after The Holy Bible, and learn how to truly read both books.

Read lots of magazines. Learn your way around your school library, the public library, and any college libraries close to where you live. Learn your way around the libraries with sites on the World Wide Web. Browse in every library. Read the magazines in the library. Become a friend of librarians; they may be the most valuable teachers you’ll have at school.

Read when you’re in the doctor’s office; read in the dentist’s or orthodontist’s office; read when you’re waiting to have your hair cut. Read in the bathroom. Occasionally, you can skip the shower and take a bath, just be sure to read when you’re in the bathtub.

Learn a foreign language (several, if you can), and read about the countries where that language is spoken. Don’t let anyone tell you there is such a thing as a “dead” language. Books keep languages such as Latin, New Testament Greek, Ancient Hebrew and Ugaritic alive. Learn other “languages” such as Morse code and American Sign Language. Study Native American languages, lots of them are hidden in the names and places you may travel to in the United States. Learn the languages of computers and especially the language of statistics.

You get the picture. Oh, yes, look at lots of pictures in books and magazines, too. Read books about photojournalism. Read books of cartoons, especially older ones. Don’t let “Calvin and Hobbes” or “Garfield” keep you from Thomas Nast or James Thurber. Did you know there is a Web site that gives access to every cartoon ever published in the New Yorker magazine, one of the most literary magazines ever published? []

At those tough times when you’ve got “nothin’ to do,” and you’re tempted to drop into a soft couch and watch TV — don’t! Read instead. Make it a habit that you read before watching television. Read cereal boxes; read junk mail; read billboards; read road signs; read CD and DVD cases; read movie credits. Reread books you read in grade school. If you have younger brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces or neighbors, read to them or read with them.

Read maps. Oh! Please read maps, and don’t just read them when you have to find directions to get somewhere. Study them, memorize them, and keep them close to other things you are reading so you can understand expressions such as “the road to Mandalay,” and “the snows of Kilimanjaro,” and “a shooting in Sarajevo.” You never know where maps may lead you.

Set aside a regular time to write. Keep a journal. Write for yourself not for anyone else (unless it’s an assignment). Share your writing with an older person you trust: a teacher, a parent, an older brother or sister, even a pastor or priest or another thinker or writer you may know. Ask them not only to read your stuff but also to edit it. Learn to trust good critics and not rely on people you know simply to say, “This is good,” or “I like it.”

Send your poems, short stories, essays, plays or news and feature articles to contests (you can find them listed in magazines such as Writer’s Digest, The Writer, or Poets & Writers) or to magazines that might publish them. Write for your school paper. Write for your school yearbook. Write for your school literary magazine. Write for your church or club or team.

Never, never, never pay to have someone read your writing or to publish your writing. Publications are supposed to pay you for your writing, even if they pay only in copies of what you write. At your stage, don’t write with an eye on getting paid. An old adage applies to writing careers: Do what you love to do, the money will come later.

Don’t worry about special courses. Concentrate on the courses you’re required to take and read everything you’re assigned. Write personal reactions in your journal to what you read. Go back over your reactions every so often and write later reactions to how you reacted the first time you wrote about a particular topic in your journal. Write poems and short stories based on your journal reactions. Take your journal everywhere you go and write in it about everything that happens to you or that you observe.

Make every conversation a kind of interview. Try to learn as much as you can about the people you meet. Make notes on what you see and hear and understand about them.

If you can afford it, take a summer writing workshop–one sponsored at a local college is best, I think–but don’t spend a lot of money on this and don’t worry if it’s filled with old people. You can interview them and write about them. Two books that were written as a result of chance conversations are Schindler’s List and The Life of Pi, last year’s winner of Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize.

When it’s time for you to go to college, don’t look only at writing programs. Get a good general liberal arts education in a subject field you love, and if you still want to be a writer, think about getting a master’s degree in writing.

Remember that a writer emerges from a group of people who write much more frequently than from a group of people who only study writing. Even if you don’t wind up becoming a professional writer, you’ll be better at what you do because you write carefully and well.

Pray! Not that you’ll become a writer, but that you’ll grow in wisdom and grace as you grow in years. Try writing prayers. Read others’ prayers.

Show this email to a teacher or some other mentor that you trust and find out if they agree with what I’m telling you. This is what I would do if I were about to turn 14 and wanted to become a writer.

Don’t stop thinking. Don’t stop writing. Most of all, don’t stop reading.

My best wishes to you and your future.



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