On Teens, and the Fact Their Writing Sucks
More than a year ago I wrote my “10 Things Teenage Writers Should Know About Writing” entry, which had ten bits of useful information for teen writers, the first of which was “The Bad News: Right Now, Your Writing Sucks.” Because, well, it probably does: Most teenage writers, for various reasons, aren’t particularly good writers (I wasn’t). I thought it was important to get that bit of news out of the way, because among other things, the fact that teenage writing sucks isn’t a bad thing (that’s point number 2), and because I think it’s not a bad thing to be honest with teenagers about this stuff. They might not listen (I probably wouldn’t have), but they deserve the truth nevertheless.
The only problem with this set-up is that reading the comments to the piece, it’s clear that quite a number of the teenagers reading the entry never got past the first point, in which they’re told their writing sucks, before making a comment that explains why teenage writing doesn’t suck — or, at the very least, why their teenage writing doesn’t suck.
Now, to be sure, I expected this to happen. But, silly me, I forgot that in a rush to complain, the teenagers wouldn’t bother reading the comment thread, in which I refute many various arguments regarding non-suckage, before they banged out their comments. To be fair to the teens, the comment thread is now a few hundred posts long; I don’t imagine I would now read all the way through it either. But on the other hand I get tired of responding to the same arguments over and over.
To avoid this in the future, I am now creating this canonical “No, actually, your teenage writing does suck” piece, to provide ready answers to the usual arguments I see posted in the comment thread. This will allow me to point these young folks to a single source to counter their arguments, so I don’t have to do it over and over again, saving me time and repetitive strain injury.
Before I list the arguments, let me stress again something that gets lost in the shuffle: It’s okay that teen writers are not particularly good writers right now. Almost all of them will get better with time and practice. I mean, hell: I did. It’s not an insult to note that someone doesn’t do something well, yet: It’s just an observation. I have every expectation that teen writers will get better. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have bothered to write the original article at all.
There. Now, on to the arguments, arranged in no particular order:
1. It’s not nice/helpful to tell teenagers they suck.
I’m not telling teenagers that they suck, I’m telling them that their writing does. There’s a difference.
2. It’s not nice/helpful to tell teenagers that their writing sucks.
I disagree. I think it’s important for teenagers to know that even those who have a real aptitude for writing will go through a period in which their writing is no good, even considering their best efforts — but that with persistence, that period will be temporary.
Look, teenagers aren’t stupid, and they’re not uncritical. Most of them understand that their writing is not pro grade stuff. Some of them will get discouraged because of it. I say there’s no harm in letting them know that this period of suckage is not only natural but necessary, and that they shouldn’t stress themselves out when they’re in it. There’s a lot of important writing they need to create before they get to the good stuff.
Don’t teenagers deserve to know this? Aren’t they able to understand it? I think they do and that they are.
3. There are lot of teen writers who are published, like Christopher Paolini.
Actually, there aren’t a lot of teen writers who are published outside of specifically teen-oriented markets or assignments (for example, a “teen” section in a newspaper). And as far as Christopher Paolini goes, his particular path to publication is so unusual that he’s an absolute rarity for any writer, much less a teenage writer.
More to the point, being able to name an exception or two to a general rule does not invalidate the rule. By all means, on certain rare occasions a teenage writer will get published by a major publisher. Paolini is one; a generation earlier SE Hinton was another. That said, their successes do not mean that the vast majority of teenage writers don’t need to work on their writing, or that the average, random teenage writer will write sufficiently well to convince a publisher to publish their book. Basically, if Paolini’s success was so easily achieved by any teen, no one would note him as an example at all.
As an aside to this: Yes, there are an exceptional few teens who are so preternaturally talented that their writing does not suck. That chances that any one teen will be that writer are even slimmer than the chance that they will be published by a major publisher. Most teen writers — nearly all, in fact — will not escape the suck.
3a. You say most teen writing sucks, but I’ve been invited to have my poetry published, so there.
Hate to break it to you, but a whole lot of those poetry contests and compilations are scams. It’s entirely possible you write fine poetry, but your selection wasn’t about how good your poetry is.
4. What you’re saying about teenage writers might be generally correct, But my writing doesn’t suck.
How nice for you. By all means, get yourself published and rub my face in it. I await an autographed copy of your book with the words “HA! HA! HA!” above your signature. However, I would note that when I was 17, I thought my writing was better than “suck” level, too. In the fullness of time, I have had cause to re-evaluate that assessment. Entertain the notion that you might, as well.
4a. My parents/teachers/friends tell me my writing doesn’t suck.
I think it’s lovely that your parents/teachers/friends are so encouraging. That’s how they’re supposed to be. Mine were too. Didn’t mean I didn’t still have work to do.
5. You’re telling us our writing sucks because you want to keep us down, to keep your job as a writer safe.
The way I keep my job as a writer safe is by writing stuff that doesn’t suck. That’s pretty much independent of worrying about what any other writer is doing. Also, I’m a writer, but I’m a reader too. As a reader, why would I want to keep the next generation of writers down? I need new stuff to read. I want a new generation of writers, please, as soon as we can bring them up.
6. You say our writing sucks because you don’t understand what it’s like to be a teenager.
Contrary to popular opinion, most adults worldwide did not achieve that advanced state of being by skipping the intermediary step of being a teenager. We understand what it’s like to be a teenager just fine. Also, and contrary to what the media would like to suggest, being a teenager is largely the same today as it was 10, 20 and even 30 years ago. There are minor cosmetic differences (teens today have much stronger thumbs thanks to all the text messaging, for example), but at its core it’s pretty similar.
7. Who cares what you think? I’ve never heard of you.
My being correct about teen writing sucking is not actually dependent on teens knowing who I am. However, they may read my bio if they wish.
As for who cares what I think: Well, no one is obliged to, of course. If people find the piece useful, great. If they don’t, that’s fine, too.
8. It’s just your opinion that teenage writing sucks.
Sure. However, it’s also the opinion of someone who has been a professional writer for sixteen years, who is a bestselling and award-winning author of a dozen books and thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, and who has been a professional editor. Which is to say the opinion is not an uninformed one.
8a. My opinion is that my writing is good, and my opinion is just as good as yours.
Not really. That’s like saying that because I know first aid, my opinion of a complex medical issue is as good as the opinion of a medical doctor with many years of diagnostic experience, or that just because I can change my own oil means that my opinion on what’s going on in my car’s engine is as informed as the one from the mechanic who actually fixes engines for a living. There’s opinion, and then there’s informed opinion, and then there’s informed opinion backed by years of competent practical and professional experience.
9. How can you say our writing sucks when you haven’t read it?
For the same reason that I knew when I edited a science fiction magazine that I would reject the vast majority of the stories before I got out of the first couple of pages: experience, both personal and collective among writers and editors, who as it happens do gossip and share information. This is not to say common wisdom is always right, or that personal experience may always be expanded into the general. In this particular case, however, I feel pretty confident about what I’m saying here.
10. There’s no objective way of saying whether writing is good or not, anyway.
Eh. As a practical matter, even if this were true in an overarching sense, the fact of the matter is that in the context in which we live, there are enough practical rules and guidelines to separate good writing from the bad, even when accounting for personal taste. Grammar is one; at any one time there is a large collective set of agreed-upon rules of grammar, and largely speaking good writing conforms to those rules (or, at least, chooses its battles wisely). True geniuses can flout rules and conventions and help guide language and narrative into new forms, yes. But, no offense: Most of us ain’t them. And even fewer of them are going to be teens, especially ones without a firm grip of grammar and narrative to begin.
That’s enough for now; I’ll add more when they come to me.