Dear Emma: My Advice to a Young Writer

Laptop next to cup of tea on a wicker tray

A few years ago, I received an email from Emma, a thirteen-year-old aspiring writer who felt discouraged because she did not receive the mark she’d hoped for on a story she wrote for school. She asked me for advice.

Drafting a response proved a much-needed reminder of why I love to write.

For that, I am eternally grateful to Emma. I hope my note encouraged her as much as writing it did me.

I often share this letter with writers, new and experienced, as a rallying nudge whenever they feel disheartened. And I read it myself any time I need buoying up.

Dear Emma,

Thank you for your note. How wonderful that you want to be a writer! And guess what? You already are one. You wrote me a lovely letter in which you expressed yourself honestly and eloquently.

All writers feel fear and doubt and disappointment from time to time. But rather than give up, you reached out. A writer sees possibilities where others see obstacles.

As you know, I like to write, too. I’ve been inventing stories since I was four years old, and sometimes, when I’d get in trouble at school for being “too talkative” I’d write a story about a little girl who felt bad for upsetting her beautiful teacher. Then, I’d give it to my teacher as an apology. It usually won me back into her favour—but not always.

I’d like to share some insights with you I’ve learned over the years.

Author Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is hard writing,” and with good reason.

Having natural talent and a love for the craft helps, and it’s clear you have both. But, writing also requires discipline and commitment, like training for a marathon. The best thing to do is accept that writing is hard but that with practice you will get better.

Practice every day.

There will be times when you feel discouraged—we all do—but your love of the craft will always bring you back.

Be ready for inspiration to strike. Everything is a story waiting to be told.

If you have an idea, scribble it down immediately. Before I had a phone that could store memos, I carried a notebook everywhere I went. Or I’d find a napkin or scrap of paper to jot down my thoughts. Even used the back of my hand once or twice.

Seek critiques from someone other than a person who loves you—family and friends will adore everything you do because they adore you. And even if they don’t love a particular piece you wrote, they would never want to hurt your feelings.

Also, as it’s likely they are not writers, they might not know how to assess your work and comment constructively. They’re probably being honest when they gush about how amazing it is.

Feedback from an editor or fellow writer is most valuable. Most are happy to mentor and nurture, to offer wisdom gleaned from experience, to smooth out rough edges and wrinkles—sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently, but always in an effort to help you grow.

As I worked on my first novel, I had the good fortune of receiving guidance and critiques from my favourite authors. Some were tough on me, but the harsher they were, the more grateful I felt (after a few moments of wallowing in self-pity).

Their candour meant they knew I could take it. Most of all, it meant they believed in the story I wanted to tell.

Every red pen stroke, every questioning remark, every cringing emoji helped me to do that.

When I read the stuff I wrote fifteen years ago, I am the cringey emoji. When I compare it to the writing I do now, I’m one big smile. And that doesn’t mean I’m good. It just means I’m better than I was. And I keep trying to be better than I am.

As hard as it is to take criticism for something you’ve poured your heart into (and something you think is awesome, and your mom thinks is awesome, and your best friend thinks is awesome), just know it will make you a better writer, hone your skills, correct bad habits, take something static and make it dynamic.

If everyone loved everything we did, we would never try to improve. So, learn to accept, encourage, and even love criticism.

Developing a thick skin helps.

The best advice I ever received was from a brilliant novelist and mentor, David W Ball. He told me to write the story I want to read. Write the story that makes me feel. Makes me laugh. Makes me cry.

I echo his sentiments.

Never write for an imaginary audience. Never write to impress people with fancy words.

Write for the love of it. Write with abandon. Stay curious. Lead with wonder. And have so much fun.

Sometimes two full pages will flow in as many minutes. Other times, a single sentence takes five hours to craft. Whatever you do, keep at it. Commit to the long haul. Writing requires patience and persistence.

Fortunately, writers are a determined breed. Push through even when it seems pointless. It’s not, I promise. Empires are shaped by such obstinate wills, whole eras named after them.

Writing is art—taking a blank canvas and creating a masterpiece of colour and light, taking a plain stone and carving an angel.

Make your story your angel.

A fellow writer,

Marthese Fenech

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Marthese Fenech is the author of historical novels set in sixteenth-century Malta and Istanbul. Research has taken her to the ancient streets her characters roamed, the fortresses they defended, the seas they sailed, and the dungeons they escaped. Read More

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