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June 18, 2007

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.

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.

Posted by john at June 18, 2007 01:45 PM

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Buck | June 18, 2007 02:11 PM

This reminds me of something I witnessed about 25 years ago. I was at a comic book convention, and a guy brought in some pencil drawings that he had done to show to the guest of honor, an artist who had had a lot of success in the industry.

The artist told the guy he had a lot of raw talent and a lot of potential, but he should really take some art classes in general and anatomy classes in particular. The guy got all defensive and whiny about not having the time and money for classes.

The artist basically just told him to suck it up- either put in your time honing your skill or you'll be one of those middle aged guys who could have been an artist. I presume he ended up the latter.

I think your advice is great, and hope teen writers who read it take it as free advice from someone who could charge quite a bit to dole out these pearls of wisdom at writers' workshops.

Dan | June 18, 2007 02:15 PM

My general philosophy when it comes to writing is to accept rejection and reject acceptance. Had I learned that when I was a teenager, I think things would have been considerably more different.

Diatryma | June 18, 2007 02:30 PM

I'm trying to come up with advice for young writers that's particular to young writers, rather than new writers. This is useful, as is the previous one. Many thanks.

Seth Breidbart | June 18, 2007 02:31 PM

The playing ability of Little League Baseball players sucks. So? Some of them grow up to be professionals.

My opinion is just one person's opinion, just like, say, PNH's. But there's a slight difference in effect: if PNH likes something, the author gets a chunk of money and publication. If I like something, the author gets a compliment, maybe.

"How much money will other people pay based on your opinion?" That's certainly a good measure of the importance of your opinion (while the concept of "goodness" of an opinion doesn't seem meaningful, "importance" and "effectiveness" doe).

theophylact | June 18, 2007 02:32 PM

As a writer the teenage John Keats sucked. He kept on writing, though, and by the time he died, not yet 26, he no longer sucked at all.

Something to shoot for.

Patrick M. | June 18, 2007 02:33 PM

A philosophical thing that I didn't understand until I was older was that a teen can't write because they haven't experienced very much in life to write about nor do they have the distance of time to present the experience in an entertaining light. I heard that as a teen and didn't believe it.

Now, I HATE blanket statements. So, I disagree that teens *can't* write, just on principal. I'd be happier if you changed it to 'most teens' or anything else vaguely inclusive of all teens...

John Scalzi | June 18, 2007 02:33 PM


Yes, except for that "dying at 26" part.

Patrick M:

Well, in this particular article I note that some teens have non-sucky writing. They're just rare, and more to the point, the chance that any one random teen is that non-sucky-writing teen is vanishingly small.

Smith | June 18, 2007 02:39 PM

11. You's just a mean, bad man who wikes stepping on our fwagile widdo egos!

May | June 18, 2007 02:41 PM

A philosophical thing that I didn't understand until I was older was that a teen can't write because they haven't experienced very much in life to write about nor do they have the distance of time to present the experience in an entertaining light. I heard that as a teen and didn't believe it.

I'm sort of a teenager, having only recently become an adult, but I think this is very true.

Besides, not only do most teenage writers suck. Most, if not all, beginning writers suck and most teenage writers are beginners. They just started earlier than those who started as adults.

SFC SKI | June 18, 2007 02:42 PM

Constructively done criticism, even if bluntly presented, is something any wrtier should be happy to get if they are aiming at success in the long run.

Since you mentioned SE Hinton, it might interest you to know that she has a website. I'd already read "the Outsiders" and been deeply impressed by it when I finally read about her. I was surprised to find out the SE Hinton was a female, her emapthetic portrayal of the male characters had made me assume the author was a male.

Completely Ot, "the Ghost Brigades" is finally hitting the PX in Germany, and several copies have alredy been snatched up over the weekend.

John Scalzi | June 18, 2007 02:43 PM


Indeed, most people suck at anything when they start doing that thing. Why anyone believes that writing should be any different is beyond me.

Mel | June 18, 2007 02:47 PM

If C. Paolini is a proof for anything, he is a bigass, giant, blazing proof for the fact that, YES, teenage writing DOES indeed suck. Hard and hooveriffic.

Patrick M. | June 18, 2007 02:50 PM

It's really just the title I'm complaining about, but it is sort of 'news' style. :)

EATING EGGS MAY KILL YOU - more at 11:00

11:00pm - "Uh, make sure you cook your eggs."

Jamie | June 18, 2007 02:52 PM

I'm not sure Paolini is even a valid example. my eight year old said the movie Eragon was better than the book, and the movie is mediocre (entertaining, but objectively, nothing special).

John Scalzi | June 18, 2007 02:54 PM

As I've said before, let's not bag on Mr. Paolini. It would be the rare teenager who would turn down a half a million dollars from a major publisher, and Mr. Paolini was not that teen. And neither would I have been either, in his place.

hugh57 | June 18, 2007 02:56 PM

Christopher Paolini also had the distinct advantage of having parents who own a printing and publishing business.

Sarah Monette | June 18, 2007 02:56 PM

There's also no necessary correlation between "being published" and "not sucking."

Rebecca Hb. | June 18, 2007 02:57 PM

Not only does teenage writing suck, it improves if you put the time and effort into it. Sadly, this seems to be something a lot of defensive commenters don't get.

Hint, people: Scalzi isn't saying that you are doomed to a lifetime of suckitude. Really. He's not.

- Rebecca Hb., who is one year past being a teen (woohoo!) and seven years past the first piece of fiction she posted online (and, ohgod, rereading it makes me cringe so much)

Nonny | June 18, 2007 02:58 PM

I think part of the defensiveness toward "your writing sucks" is due to underlying implications. Usually, if someone says that something you've done sucks, the underlying inference is: "Your writing sucks. You suck. And if you suck, you're never going to get anywhere, so you might as well give up now and save yourself the trouble."

Even if that's not how the person meant it -- and it's quite obvious you don't :) -- it's how the receiver often hears and interprets it.

John Scalzi | June 18, 2007 03:07 PM


No doubt. However, it's never too early for people to make the distinction between what they think is being said, and what actually is being said.

Jeremiah | June 18, 2007 03:17 PM

When I was a teenager, I wrote poetry. I thought it was the best stuff anyone had ever written, and my friends assured me that it was the best writing they'd ever read.

When I attempted to get my poetry published, I was laughed at. Literally.

Looking back, 10 years later, I realize that my teenage writing sucked. People were being nice to me, boosting my ego, and generally rolling their eyes behind my back. (That's not conjecture, I asked some of them recently, and they agreed that it sucked,but didn't want to tell me.)

I'm trying to say that I wish I had read this 10 years ago.

I probably would have been one of the commenting teenagers telling you that you were being mean, but maybe a part of what you said would have leaked in, somewhere, and helped.

ucfengr | June 18, 2007 03:17 PM

(teens today have much stronger thumbs thanks to all the text messaging, for example),

Maybe our next stage of evolution won't be big heads, ala Star Trek, but incredibly strong and narrow thumbs to accommodate the demands of those tiny freakin' keyboards on cell phones and PDAs.

John Scalzi | June 18, 2007 03:19 PM


Yes. And in the future, all disputes will be solved by thumb wrestling! I live for that glorious day.

will shetterly | June 18, 2007 03:20 PM

The problem with telling people their work sucks is it discourages them, which does not help them do their work better.

Also, from years of teaching writing, I've learned one hard rule: You can't predict who will figure it out and who won't. You may be fairly sure who will and won't, but there'll be surprises in both groups.

KL | June 18, 2007 03:21 PM

John: as a structural note, you might want to put your parenthetical 'update' (in the original post) up a little higher. Like maybe right after the point you make in bold.

Otherwise, you're still expecting your audience to read through quite a few paragraphs to get to the point where you say "hey, don't stop now, keep reading before blowing your lid". And methinks that most of the ones who were going to blow their lid...have already done so (and stopped reading) well before they got to the parenthetical comment encouraging them to keep reading.

John Scalzi | June 18, 2007 03:27 PM


I think it's fine where it is. Also, if they do go trampling toward the comments, I'll just refer them to this piece, and then they'll feel silly for having their behavior so easily predicted. Simple.

Will Shetterly:

"The problem with telling people their work sucks is it discourages them, which does not help them do their work better."

Some will, some won't. My response as a teen would have been "says you," which I know because it was my response. Anyway, I don't see much point beating around the bush about the matter.

Subspace | June 18, 2007 03:40 PM

When I was in my early teens I submitted a short story to a magazine that published only works by young authors. The story was accepted, and I was paid, I think, ten dollars. I was thrilled. I was a published writer! I was good! I had better take a bath for my inevitable television appearance!

Years later I discovered that the magazine, by and large, printed every submission it received. I took it badly; I had been duped. Mostly, I felt I had been lied to: I wasn't good, maybe not even good amongst my peers, and I'd been given a indulgent pat on the head while knowing adults winked at each other out of my sight.

Since then I've learned to want a free ride, and I would appreciate any offers to publish anything of mine regardless of content.

ucfengr | June 18, 2007 03:45 PM

Yes. And in the future, all disputes will be solved by thumb wrestling! I live for that glorious day.

Be careful what you wish for, I can imagine those mutant thumbs being quite lethal in the wrong hands.

will shetterly | June 18, 2007 03:48 PM

John: "I don't see much point beating around the bush about the matter."

But telling them it sucks is beating around the bush. What they need to know is how to make it better: Write in scenes. Make characters change or make the reader's understanding of the characters change. Etc.

They already know they're not getting published. They don't need to know how bad they are. They only need to know how they can get better.

John Scalzi | June 18, 2007 03:58 PM

Will Shetterly:

"But telling them it sucks is beating around the bush."

I disagree, and I disagree that confirming something teens may already suspect about their writing does not have value, particularly when the teens are made to understand that this aspect of their writing is universal -- which is to say that every other teenagers is struggling with the same problem, and it's not just them.

You may want for me to couch in more comforting terms, but again, I find utility in doing it this way. If they can handle this, they're better suited for handling rejection letters that are almost certainly coming a couple years down the road. If they can't handle it, better they know sooner than later.

I would certainly agree that telling them in isolation that their writing sucks is not useful -- but I haven't; there are nine other points that I make as well, most of which have practical use for getting better at writing.

Craig Ranapia | June 18, 2007 04:08 PM

John Scalzi:
Some will, some won't. My response as a teen would have been "says you," which I know because it was my response. Anyway, I don't see much point beating around the bush about the matter.

I reply:

Indeed. And here's something to think about - a while back, I read an story in the New York Times about Condi Rice and her love of classical music. This passage caught my eye:

At 17, she attended the prestigious summer school at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado and came to believe that though she was a very good pianist, she was "not great," she said. "That was the really the revelation," she added. "And it wasn't just that experience. You start noticing prodigies, and you realize that I'm never going to play that way." There is "just some intangible" in music, she said. Whatever it was, she said she felt she didn't have it. She decided to major in international relations instead, focusing on the Soviet Union.

Now, does that mean Rice doesn't love classical music, and from what I've heard is no slouch at the keyboard? No, but she had the self-knowledge (and dare I say it, a lack of ego) to say, "Well, there is a level where I do most grievously suck."

Sorry if the truth hurts, but there's a truth in the notion that talent - let alone genius - is not a democracy.

Christian | June 18, 2007 04:21 PM

I've always been curious about The Long Walk by Stephen King - which he supposedly penned when he was 17 (Ok, I'll admit - it's one of my guilty pleasures). When he decided to become Richard Bachman, he dusted off that old manuscript and published it - but I wonder how much re-writing he had to do before he pushed it.

Anyhow - I agree with everything you've said.

I've been a martial arts instructor for 2 decades, and everyone starts as a white belt, and everyone sucks when they first walk into the dojo (including teenagers). I always tell students "It's a journey, not a destination - so practice hard and you'll get better".

Tlönista | June 18, 2007 04:24 PM

(Long-time reader, first-time commenter...)

Oh my goodness, thanks for writing this! When I was a teenager, I thought I was hot shit. Naturally, my writing blew dead goats. Thank God I didn't know about FanFiction.net.

Sometimes even the best advice won't help very much; good writing skills will only come with years and years of solid practice. And by then, you're probably not a teenager.

Norwegian Woodsman | June 18, 2007 04:28 PM

Hello, John!

I'm one of these dreaded teenage writers that apparently suck so much. I've read both your entries on the case, and after mulling it over, I've come to the conclusion that you're 100 % correct.

I would be hard pressed to get better grades on my short stories, but when I read them and compare them to, say, those of Neil Gaiman, I find that there's something missing. You can't really put your finger on it, but I like to think of it as "soul". If a book or story lacks its soul, then it will undoubtedly suck. Why? Because it doesn't reflect life, and until I manage to convey just that - my writing sucks. Real bad too. But I'm not fussed, cos you sucked as well and now look at you.

I guess all I wanted to say was this: Thanks for the good advice. I've taken it to heart.

theophylact | June 18, 2007 04:30 PM

I've never understood why everyone knows that you can't be good at sports without really, really working at it, but assumes that you just have to have a talent for art, literature, or math. The most common thing about "geniuses" is that they started early and worked their butts off; Mozart and Tiger Woods are more alike than different.

Angelle | June 18, 2007 04:49 PM

See, here's the beauty of being a sucky teen writer - you have so much room for improvement! And if you're a strong teen writer, you can reasonably aspire to great things as you grow.

And to Craig:

In Anne McCaffrey's Crystal Singer saga, her main character comes to a similar realization about her voice. She decides that if she can't be great, she will do something else altogether.

When I read that as a teenager, it gave me permission to finally give up on guitar (at which I was relentlessly mediocre) and focus on my writing, an area where I could improve.

Dr. Phil | June 18, 2007 05:02 PM

I was going to comment on something else, but then theophylact mentioned Tiger Woods. The big difference between Tiger's golf and a lot of other people's golf is NOT that he doesn't hit bad shots. He does. Sometimes spectacularly bad ones. However, he then has a really decent average at hitting himself out of a jam, sometimes equally spectacularly.

Good writers can have stories which have flaws, yet are compelling enough to read through them. Bad writers could have compelling stories, too, but no one wants to wade through their bad prose to get to them.

And that's why one has to emphasize the basics so hard at the slush level. On the one hand, an editor is looking for a reason that they can stop reading your manuscript. On the other, they'd really like to have a reason to buy your manuscript, because then it makes all the rest of their pain and suffering worth it. (grin)

Dr. Phil

will shetterly | June 18, 2007 05:11 PM

Craig Ranapia, I hear your example about Condi Rice and think the world may've lost a great pianist who would've bloomed later, and instead got a corporate shill who's helping to destroy the world. Quitting only proves you're a quitter.

Anonymous | June 18, 2007 05:12 PM

How a teen responds to being told the writing sucks is a good indicator of which ones will still suck later and which ones will improve.
No one can improve until they admit they need to.

Mike | June 18, 2007 05:16 PM

When in high school and college, my writing sucked. My teachers even told me it sucked.

Twenty years on and I write for a living (not fiction, but what the hey) and, as the ongoing income opportunities infer, my writing doesn't suck.

I don't think I jumped some mystical canyon from suckage to non-suckage; at least, I don't recall any watershed moment when things changed. I only got to where I am after working at not sucking for a good long time.

But as John implies, there is nothing wrong with sucking if you enjoy the creative process. In other words, anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.

...just don't expect huzzahs when you ask a publisher to read your latest opus, "Emo Poetry for FWBs."

John Scalzi | June 18, 2007 05:18 PM


"How a teen responds to being told the writing sucks is a good indicator of which ones will still suck later and which ones will improve."

I don't know about that, actually. As I've noted before, I wouldn't have necessarily responded well to the advice I'm offering now as an adult; I was a lot more smug about my writing awesomeness when I was younger.

What changed between now and then, frankly, is that I've become less insecure in my own self, which has made me more open to the idea I've still got work to do with my own writing. Also, I've gotten more experience writing (and, critically, in editing), which matters, too.

Some teens will listen now to this advice, some will realize later it might have some value.

Patrick M. | June 18, 2007 05:31 PM

It's possible to more smug than you are now? ;)

Carol Elaine | June 18, 2007 05:34 PM

I first started writing in my early teens. My very first short story - written for an English assignment - got oohs and aahs from my teacher, along with a big ol' A+. I thought, "Hey, I'm pretty good at writing - yea!"

Here's the thing. I was pretty good - for a beginning teenage writer . I'd been an avid reader since the moment I learned to read in kindergarten and I applied what I'd read to what I wrote. I was able to plot out a nice little detective story (the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew big influences on me).

Doesn't mean I was a good writer. Far from it. My prose was so purple it was almost black. All action stopped with every scene change and every new character as I lovingly crafted descriptions burdened with $100 adjectives. My writing philosophy was, "Why use five words when fifteen would do?"

(That's something I'm still wrestling with - but I've got it down to ten words...)

I'm still working on my writing. I'm much better today than I was five years ago - and I wasn't too bad five years ago. I hope to G-d I'm better in another five years.

John Scalzi | June 18, 2007 05:37 PM

Patrick M:

Ask my college girlfriend that question. And then settle in for a couple hours.

dorid | June 18, 2007 06:00 PM

It's funny, because so many of the writers we consider classics (and I'm thinking very much of the British Romantics here) were pretty much just kids. I'm not sure if it's the maturity level has changed in these times, or if the problem is related to lack of education and technical knowledge. Sure, the romantics were pretty angst ridden, but not to the level of the stuff we see from kids today, and at LEAST they had a good command of the language.

[another examination of this topic]

Tapetum | June 18, 2007 06:06 PM

I would tend to agree with the more general statement - beginning writers suck, and most teenagers are beginners. The couple of really good teen writers I have seen invariably started writing stories while their age was still single digit. I hold hope for my son being a non-sucky teenaged writer because he started writing obsessively at six, and at nine is turning out a couple of short stories a week. They still suck, but they're loads better than they were at six.

I, contrariwise, didn't start writing until I was thirty-something. Five years later, I don't know if my writing sucks or not. I do know that what I wrote at thirty-two sucked beyond belief and my writing now is better.

Evan Goer | June 18, 2007 06:13 PM

"Indeed, most people suck at anything when they start doing that thing. Why anyone believes that writing should be any different is beyond me."

It's because even when you're a teenager, you've already been writing for over a decade. Nobody thinks they're just starting.

The real question is, why are people still such bad writers after one decade of practice? (or three or five?)

Jerry Wright | June 18, 2007 06:16 PM

John, in regards to Will Shetterly's comments: There are some who feel that if a writer CAN be discouraged, he should be discouraged. Writing requires discipline, skill, and a command of the English language that beginners, especially teenagers in OUR benighted educational system, lack.

That having been said, telling a kid that, "Yes you suck, but pay attention to the writing around you and write a million words yourself, and you will achieve non-suckitude" will turn that kid into a good writer, and who knows, perhaps even a great writer.

The skills to be a competent writer whose work is a pleasure to read CAN be taught. But only to those who know they NEED to learn.


will shetterly | June 18, 2007 06:42 PM

Jerry: "There are some who feel that if a writer CAN be discouraged, he should be discouraged."

Yep. Yet so far as I can tell, there's not a shortage of discouragement for people who want to learn to do something.

I agree with John that assuring people it's natural to suck when they're beginning is good. Embrace the suck! Produce much bad art! Do terrible first drafts!

I'm just quibbling with the usefulness of "you suck!" And, okay, I'd rather live in a world where artists who can be encouraged are encouraged, because I'm more interested in good art than hardy artists.

Jerry Wright | June 18, 2007 07:18 PM

Hey Will, nice to hear from you. Our little on-line rag "Bewildering Stories" is dedicated to mentoring writers rather than discouraging them. And frankly, there have been many times we tell these new writers (some of them in their 50s) that their writing needs work. We don't use the term "your writing sucks" but that is because I'm from an older school than John, and frankly dislike the term. Because I'm an old fart. Or something akin to that.

Much of what we publish in our weekly editions, yeah, still sucks. But if a writer can make it to the quarterly review, he knows he's got something.

Y'know, the really sad thing is that we get so much marginal stuff from people who have been published ALL OVER THE PLACE, and their ability to produce grammatically correct prose is just flippin' pathetic. Ah well.

Write that million words, people!

By the way, Will, your writing doesn't suck. I've enjoyed your work over the years.


Skinny Guy | June 18, 2007 08:21 PM

I just sent this to my teenage son in hopes that any enlightenment he may take away will help to lessen the length of his period of suckiness.

Unfortunately the effort may be in vain, for the astute reader will quickly ascertain that the condition may, in fact, be hereditary.

will shetterly | June 18, 2007 08:22 PM

Jerry, thanks! But I have to acknowledge that whatever you think of my work, it wouldn't be as good if I didn't have good friends and editors making smart suggestions. Suckage is always waiting for us to get lazy.

Good luck with Bewildering Stories!

T.M. Wagner | June 18, 2007 08:27 PM

The Christopher Paolini point is a good one, and has a corollary in my field. When I'm not doing my own part in the "sucks/doesn't suck" discourse by reviewing F&SF, I work in independent film. And I cannot tell you (especially here in Austin) how many low-budget filmmakers are still intoxicated by Robert Rodriguez and the Myth of the $7000 Movie. The attitude of "He made it, so can I" (which also uses Blair Witch as its starting point, incidentally) is rife in the festival circuit, and almost all of those filmmakers who think they can fart around with their friends and a camcorder over a weekend and cut together the results on their iBooks and call it a movie get a really rude reality check sooner than not.

JC | June 18, 2007 08:32 PM

The real question is, why are people still such bad writers after one decade of practice? (or three or five?)

My theory is that these are the people who are not paying attention to the feedback. To be fair, maybe they haven't gotten good feedback. Or maybe they aren't good at critiquing their own work. Practice makes permanent.

If you don't know what you're doing wrong, it's really hard to get better. (I'd like to take the time out now to thank everyone who has ever beta-read anything I've written.)

Euan H. | June 18, 2007 08:47 PM

"The real question is, why are people still such bad writers after one decade of practice? (or three or five?)"

I can think of several answers to that:

A) Because writing(1) isn't the same as writing(2), even though writing(1) is necessary for writing(2).

1 - forming comprehensible sentences
2 - crafting a compelling story

B) People aren't intelligently critical of their own work. Practice is all very well, but unless you can recognize your own errors, admit they were errors, and then not make the same errors again, you're just going to continue writing crap.

C) Lack of talent.

D) Not knowing what good writing is. If you don't have a model of good writing, then how can you write well?

All of those come from personal experience, i.e., me trying to work out why my writing still wasn't all that good* after four years of practising.

*It is improving, just very, verrrry slooooowwwy.

Leah Bobet | June 18, 2007 09:40 PM

"The real question is, why are people still such bad writers after one decade of practice? (or three or five?)"

Because writing is hard. I think we forget that sometimes. We are engaged in the business of pushing boulders up mountains and making it look easy. :p

will shetterly | June 18, 2007 09:43 PM

"The real question is, why are people still such bad writers after one decade of practice? (or three or five?)"

There's an awful lot of bad advice out there. Paying for it doesn't necessarily improve the quality. But teachers and classes can be useful, so long as you look critically at the advice you're getting.

Traith Hightower | June 18, 2007 10:50 PM

Being a aspiring teen writer, and understanding my righting compared to the authors I read is sub-par if not complete crap is something I have come to deal with. My largest question is who to listen to for my writing. My english teacher thinks I walk on water and talk to god when it comes to writing, and has pointed me towards getting published, and though I do wish to have a carreer in writing, I am not sure If I am ready to start sending my work out of not. I also am un-sure of who to listen to on the matter of weither my work is crap of not, because everyone today is almost always to politically correct to say "This is not good enough,"

Jerry Wright | June 18, 2007 11:13 PM

And so the question then becomes, Traith, is someone willing to pay you for your work? Has your teacher even had any fiction published? If not, then his/her comments need to be taken with several grains if not a bushel of salt.

You as well as a bunch of youngsters on these comment sections have got to work on the mechanics of writing. For example, using "righting" for "writing", and "carreer" for "career". Is it that you don't know how? No. You spell "writing" correctly later on. It is probably just sloppiness. And if that sloppiness slops over into the writing you send out, your mound of rejection slips will reach massive heights.

There are several groups like CRITTERS which may be of value, but perhaps your best bet is to check out something like www.ralan.com and see who is publishing (and sometimes even buying) fiction.

As was said earlier, YOU are not the best judge of whether your work is "crap" or not. And even if you have major room for improvement, a good editor of a smaller magazine may take the time to point you in the direction of improving your writing skills.

If you write SF, perhaps the Slush Pile readers at Baen's Universe can help. There are people who are considerably more qualified than the average English teacher. "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." Obviously not 100% true, as those who are fortunate enough to have teachers like Jim Van Pelt know, but sadly, there is enough truth in it to sting.


Traith Hightower | June 18, 2007 11:21 PM

Thank you for the advice, and my large grammatical errors were both due to haste and a very bad relationship with my 3rd grade teacher. Other than that, thank you again, and I will take what you said into consideration. And I apologize for you having to deal with horrible grammar.

Craig Ranapia | June 18, 2007 11:32 PM

will shetterly wrote:
I hear your example about Condi Rice and think the world may've lost a great pianist who would've bloomed later, and instead got a corporate shill who's helping to destroy the world. Quitting only proves you're a quitter.

First, I think you're giving Darth Rice way too much credit on the cackling evil-doing front. :)

Perhaps, then again I read Gene Wolfe (your mileage may vary, but he's a fraking God in my universe), and don't get too torn up about the fact that compared to him I suck like a truck stop whore with a short-tempered pimp. I work in an industry where clear, readable English prose is an asset, and at the risk of sounding thoroughly up myself I think I'm no slouch in that department. Perhaps I'm just a quitting quitter, but I can live with that. And it certainly never hurt anything but my ego to have a piece of writing thrown at my head, with a cry of 're-write or die!" :)

Euan H. | June 19, 2007 12:12 AM

""Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." Obviously not 100% true, ... "

Not 100% true, and not even 1% true, either. Doing and teaching are two different skill sets, and being able to write well and being able to identify good writing are two completely different skill sets. Good writers don't necessarily make good editors, and good editors don't necessarily make good writers. Whether the teacher has ever had any work published doesn't mean that they can't recognize good writing.

(Of course, it doesn't mean that they can either, but there you go . . . )

Jerry Wright | June 19, 2007 12:23 AM

I didn't tell Traith to ignore his teacher, just take what she/he says with a grain of salt.

And when anyone makes a flat-out statement as I did earlier, "All generalizations are dangerous, even this one" as Alexandre Dumas said (I love Google).

Sadly, my experience with English teachers over the years is that the competence level has dropped dramatically, by and large. Again, a generalization, but as a wise person once said, "but there you go..."

An unpublished teacher might recognize good writing, but what does THAT have to do with being something being publishable, eh?

Aside from that, I agree with the gist of your comment, Euan.


Tapetum | June 19, 2007 12:31 AM

"The real question is, why are people still such bad writers after one decade of practice? (or three or five?)"

I would answer this by referring to my music practice. I can noodle around on the piano all day long and not improve my playing one whit. To improve I have to concentrate on improving, look and listen for things I could do better and work hard on improving them.

Likewise, I wrote (mostly for school) for many years. In most of that time my writing improved either very slowly or not at all - because I wasn't trying to improve it. After all, my first drafts got A's - so why should I work harder? When I completed the first draft of my first novel, went back and started looking for places to improve, I was astounded to see just how sloppy I had been everywhere. Plotline - full of holes. Style - loose prose and cliches everywhere. POV - jumpy. Everywhere I looked I was bowled over by the suckitude. I learned more reading through that one draft critically than I had in fifteen years of regular non-critical writing.

Devin L. Ganger | June 19, 2007 03:04 AM

Why can someone write for a decade and not be noticeably better? Several reasons.

1) They're not writing *enough*. Time does not equal output. Crank through those first million words, and just through sheer bloody-mindedness, your writing will have grown. Over the last four and a half years as a technical writer, I've put somewhere between 750,000 and one million words into print. I may have had raw talent as a beginning technical writer, but I've definitely learned my own strengths and weaknesses and done a lot of work to mitigate the latter.

2) They're not going back to look at what they've written after a sufficient time. Several successful authors say that they write the first draft and then set it aside for at least six weeks. By that point they've gotten deep enough into the next project that they've lost the intimacy with their own previous works, and they're able to view the drafts with more objectivity.

3) They don't understand that writing is re-writing. The first draft is to get the thing on paper, at which point you now can begin to find and fix the flaws. No matter how good of a writer you are, you need another draft. My own writing suffered for years because I was too damn lazy to produce multiple drafts; I resented the "wasted" time because I misunderstood the relationship between talent, skill, and labor.

4) They don't understand that writing must advance. Instead of making steady progress on their current work, they immediately launch on a rewrite of everything in the current work to date as soon as they get a new idea. As a result, even though they're rewriting, they've never produced a complete draft -- beginning, middle, and end. Without the discipline to produce a draft, knowing that it has its flaws, they never develop the skill to see the flaws in their own work. The urge to perfect has literally stifled their own ability to learn.

There are certainly more reasons, but I think these are the most common. I've certainly encountered all four of them often enough.

Chris S. | June 19, 2007 11:53 AM

On writing for years, with little improvement:

Teresa Nielsen Hayden put it brilliantly (since I'm not her, I'm going to paraphrase). By a certain age, we've figured out that we can't paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, or hit a hole in one. But we all use language every day, and often don't realize that there's a difference between using language and having the kind of intimate acquaintance that allows for great writing.

Danny Adams | June 19, 2007 12:11 PM

Something else to point out about Christopher Paolini: he didn't just write *Eragon*, submit it to publishers, and that was that. He outlines in his afterword that he had a LOT of help ranging from friends and family to a favorite teacher. His teen success story was a success with a great deal of persistence on his part along with a great deal of assistance.

(And assistance, by the way, isn't necessarily a bad thing. All I'm saying is that he wasn't a lone wolf.)

Leigh | June 19, 2007 12:13 PM

Part of the problem here is the connotative power of language. While it's true that almost all teenage writing (and the writing of most beginners of any age) is deeply and fatally flawed, the word "sucks" has such emotional power that it overrides all logic and reason.

When most people say "X sucks," it's not a criticism, but an attack. It's the verbal equivalent of a punch in the snout. It's not meant to identify weaknesses and bring about their correction, but to humiliate and demean, particularly when delivered in public.

Given this level of semantic loading, should it really be any surprise that young people should rush to defend themselves and their work when told it "sucks"?

John Scalzi | June 19, 2007 12:40 PM


Quite clearly I'm using the word "suck" for a reason, and I'm not at all surprised when teens are taken aback by it. That said, a considerable number of the teens commenters do appear to have read the piece all the way through before commenting, and appear to grasp why I used the word "suck" rather than some other word.

John C. Bunnell | June 19, 2007 12:44 PM

As a teenaged writer, my work both did and did not suck. And therein lies the problem, I think. Let me amplify:

I was consistently a very good writer for my age, and accumulated a lot of compliments and awards to show for it (though I wasn't trying for pro publication at that point). In high school, I was also smart enough to look back at stories I'd written in grade school and junior high and realize that those stories did suck. Luckily, I now have the only extant copies of the grade school work....

My trouble was that I had gotten good enough that I'd outstripped my teachers' ability or willingness to critique. I was a better writer and editor at that point than the journalism teacher. Where poetry was concerned, I wanted to write rhyming forms (and had the ear to make them scan), but the teachers insisted that "free verse" was the One True Way nowadays. Short stories? There was a creative writing class -- and it helped a bit -- but I rapidly assimilated the limited advice I got and then couldn't get any more.

This pretty much persisted throughout college; I had enough craft-skill to impress most of my professors and readers, and so got very little guidance on honing/improving that craft. (I also continued to get dissed for writing classic-form poetry -- we had poet William Meredith visit once, and he told me to my face I was wasting my time on it.)

The hell of it was that I knew my writing didn't suck -- but I also knew I needed to get better. I wanted useful feedback desperately, but I couldn't pry it out of people for love nor money.

The real trouble is that this problem persists into professional circles -- as, to some extent, the Paolini case documents. Once you're popular or successful enough, it becomes very hard to find people who will tell you how to get better, and Paolini may now be in the category of writer who "doesn't get edited" because he's too valuable a commodity for his publishers to risk losing.

theWallflower | June 19, 2007 01:04 PM

I think the first piece of advice is the most useful, and not a lot of adults follow it either. This is where we get those articles about writers boo-hooing that they can't/don't get published or make enough money. I love to see Scalzi snark on those people. They just can't separate themselves from the produced piece of writing.

Erin Underwood | June 19, 2007 01:12 PM

Great post!

If it makes the disgruntled teen writers feel any better, adults who are new to writing fiction often suck, too. Learning to write well takes time and persistence, and sucking is just a part of the process.

P.S. I admit that I didn't read *all* of the comments! There's a ton of them there. :-)

Katherine Thompson | June 19, 2007 06:36 PM

I read this post and felt compelled to leave a comment chewing you out for being unhelpful, because describing teen writing as sucking is hardly giving them the guidance to improve. (However, I paused my rant and read your original post, which I found to be polite and even encouraging.)

However, I have serious objections to your use of Christopher Paolini as a positive example. I acknowledge that he has been published, but not that he should have been. Your complaint about teenagers glomming onto their heroes' styles and subjects does not begin to cover the extent of his regurgitation. Unfortunately it's on par with many books in the genre, which are written by adult writers who have never approached originality.

Teenage writing does fail in many respects, but so does most writing posted on the Internet. Assigning “teenager” as the cause of the problem rather than “amateur,” you engender more defensiveness. The only teenager who would take the time to consider your advice is the one who’s heard it before and knows the importance of voice and originality.

Yes, I’m one of those teenagers that English teachers never bothered to help.

Ab_Normal | June 19, 2007 06:49 PM

skipped to the end to say:
I just e-mailed the link to my teenage daughter. $DEITY knows I could have used it when I was her age, and filling steno books with derivative crapola. :D

Anonymous | June 19, 2007 07:21 PM

It seems that the French poet Arthur Rimbaud may be an exception to your article. His writing was widely praised and rewarded during his life, and still is, and yet he stopped writing altogether by the time he was 21. Nearly all of his poetry was written during his teenage years. But then, every rule needs at least one exception, right?

Shuuri | June 19, 2007 07:33 PM

As a teenager (and a writer) I must say you've got it dead spot on. Some of the kids in my creative writing class believe that they're the greatest writers ever, and that they're gonna be just like Christopher Paolini (whose writing, in my opinion, needs some serious editing). They get all hissy when I try to point out that we're just teenagers, and we're not that great. Sometimes I feel bad that so few teenagers today believe that they're the best and to hell with things like editing, advice, or serious improvement.

...I really liked the 10 Things Teenage Writers Should Know About Writing..

Lugo | June 19, 2007 08:57 PM

Anonymous Rimbaud reader, didn't you read rule #3?

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.

A. J. Kelly | June 20, 2007 04:28 AM

I agree, wholeheartedly, and I was one of the ones who thought my teenage writing was going to get me deals. Now while I still carry the storyline of that overwrought and epic first-foray, it is with intentions of reworking and rewriting.
I know all too well that my teenage writing had a definitive measure of suckitude, and I can accept and embrace that fact.

My frank opinion of those who take this topic personally is that they should learn to take the lemons with the pears. For if they actually intend to go anywhere with their writing, they need to learn as soon as possible to let harsh words roll off their backs, and to accept critisism with grace and gratitude - even if it's not what they want to hear.


Bard | June 20, 2007 07:59 AM

As a teenager, I can look back on my early work and honestly say my writing was better when I was twelve (except for the part about finishing the story.) Is this typical?

Melrose | June 20, 2007 08:21 AM

I agree with many of your points. Looking back at the stories I wrote when I was a teen, many of them do suck. I guess back then, I lacked the training and the experiences more mature writers have. I didn't even do research back then, so sucky I was.

Since then, I've tried to grow as a writer, and I hope, I'm improving.

But rarely do people tell you that you suck when you're a teen, which I find very frustrating. I wanted someone to give me an honest critique, but everyone said my stuff was good (which I didn't believe for a minute. I knew I was better than most in the class, but I knew the stuff I wrote sucked and needed major revisions). I find it frustrating that so many people seem to refrain from providing honest critques, partly because they're afraid of being accused as harsh and cruel. Nowadays, I find it more thrilling to receive a scathing review than one that praises me to high heaven.

My creative writing professor, herself an award-winning writer, once said that being kind in your critique isn't always the best thing to do, and I've found that this is true. The critical comments might sting some, but often, it's the one that you need the most.

And I completely agree that unless you're some sort of super genius, you'll generally suck the first time you do something. Writing is no different. It's a continuous learning process.

RDanvers | June 20, 2007 09:53 AM

May I say both of your articles have made me thoroughly relieved? Because they certainly have.

I have been consistantly writing since I was eight years old. Granted there's a lot of room for improvement in ten years as I'm eighteen now. Usually, you'd expect after ten years of writing, you'd be amazing, but I really don't feel I am, and I was worried because I wasn't. My ideas may be good, but my prose is lacking (which is why in your other article I was particularly intersted in the point you brought up about clever vs. good). The thing is no one would ever directly tell me so, and I'm glad to know that my suspicions are most likely true, so I don't have to keep guesing.

I shall accept this period of suckage, live my life, read, continue to work on my projects and hope that sometime in the future, I'll be good.

It's sad, I really did want to be the acception to the rule and write the great American novel by 26, but oh well, you can't win it all.

Nana | June 20, 2007 10:17 AM

While I agree with many of your points, I can't agree that telling a teenager that their work sucks is always helpful. Sometimes, it is, especially if you tell them what's wrong with it and where they can improve, but it really depends on the individual teen and how much they can take. I'll use myself as an example. I am by no means a brilliant writer, and I suppose I still fall into the teen category (I recently turned 19.) I am not going to argue that my writing is great. I will say, though, that I am a lot better than I was when I was younger. When I look back on my writing from when I was a young teen, or a child, it makes me happy, because it's so bad in comparison to my new stuff--I KNOW I've improved.

So while I may not be amazing or anything right now, back when I was 13 I was the epitomy of suckage. And if you told me that I probably would have killed myself. Because I was being constantly mocked by my peers for just about everything, my home life was shit, I hated myself and wanted to die. My writing was just about the only thing I took any pleasure in or made me feel even remotely good about myself. No, it wasn't good by any stretch of the imagination, but I would not have been able to handle it if someone told me so. My best (only) friend at the time knew my work was horrendous, but she didn't start offering criticism until my life took a turn for the better.

So what I'm saying is that for me, being told that my writing sucked would have been unbearable. If I didn't kill myself I would have at least stopped writing. I did eventually realize on my own what needed fixing, and once I was able to let that into my consciousness, I started getting criticism. I could handle it later in life, but not then, and I sincerely doubt that I'm the only one who has ever been in that situation. I am sorry to go on and on about my emotastic middle school years, but it serves to prove a point. Depending on where someone is in their life, being told point blank that their work sucks can be very harmful. (Also, teenagers can rarely distinguish between 'what I made' and 'me.')

And I think I'm done! I do agree with most of what you said, the vast majority of teen writing DOES suck, but yes, what I said above.

Der Wachtelschlag F. | June 20, 2007 10:55 AM

Yes, Paolini's path was unusual. Ya know why? HIS PARENTS OWN A PUBLISHING COMPANY. Hmmm.

I keep my writing to grocery lists (mine are unusually poetic. Consider this line: "TILLAMOOK, PEANUT BUTTER, TRISCUITS." Amazing.) and school essays (which shouldn't be held against me, because they're for grades. And yes, I am fully aware that they suck, and what's more, I don't give a rat's ass.).

I'm going to go be free of literary pretensions now. See ya!

Strawberry | June 20, 2007 05:13 PM

You make me think of this guy I know. He's really harsh and often when I hear him rant/talk I get upset. Just like with you...Maybe I get upset because I'm wondering if it applies to me.

I think you're mostly right. Definitely way too harsh, but if that's just you, then whatever.

And I recognize that I'm not the best writer...and could use improvement. But honestly (and I'm not being a snob here) I've read stuff that sounds exactly like my writing at 12 or 13, and it's published...and written by writers in their 30's or 40's. The writers have interesting ideas, but they write too abruptly, don't explain enough, and their characters are utterly fake. That stuff gets published. I don't know why, but it does. I've read stuff like that short story you wrote about the statue...in libraries. I've watched that kind of writing play out on screen in movies or TV shows.

So what does that mean? Comnpanies seem to accept a lot of crap, whether they're publishing companies, or Warner Bros. So I think the real question teens should be asking themselves is whether they want to publish something mediocre or could use some improvement? Or would they rather wait until they're sure it's ready to put out...even if that's in 10 years?

Anonymous | June 20, 2007 07:02 PM

I think I agree with what you are trying to say, even though it wounds my ego. One thing I disagree with is that teens need to be told their writing sucks. I think we already know. Any teen who takes a step back and critically looks at their work can tell it is lacking. At sixteen, I don't expect to be a decent writer.

That isn't to say its a bad thing to tell a someone their writing sucks. Maybe saying it in that specific way is a bad idea, but the intent is good. Everyone likes constructive criticism. While simply saying "Your writing sucks" will make someone either angry or sad (and sometimes both), "Your writing sucks and this is why..." is at least helpful, although it still probably won't be received well.

Sarah | June 20, 2007 07:03 PM

I think I agree with what you are trying to say, even though it wounds my ego. One thing I disagree with is that teens need to be told their writing sucks. I think we already know. Any teen who takes a step back and critically looks at their work can tell it is lacking. At sixteen, I don't expect to be a decent writer.

That isn't to say its a bad thing to tell a someone their writing sucks. Maybe saying it in that specific way is a bad idea, but the intent is good. Everyone likes constructive criticism. While simply saying "Your writing sucks" will make someone either angry or sad (and sometimes both), "Your writing sucks and this is why..." is at least helpful, although it still probably won't be received well.

Eric | June 21, 2007 01:01 AM

I more or less agree with everything you're saying here, but I don't know that any of it is terribly instructive. Most teen writing is bad, sure -- but most writing is bad. If teen suckiness is any more visible, it's only because

a) Teens, unhindered by careers and years of pessimism/failure/false starts, have more time and motivation to produce shitty writing, and
b) Teens are perhaps a smidge more egotistical than others, and therefore more likely to share or promote their shitty writing.

A couple of commenters made the tired and repulsive argument that teens have less Experience than adults, and are therefore, on the whole, less capable writers. That always strikes me as both presumptive and condescending. How long ago was it that twenty was middle-aged? The modern American culture of helplessness may be doing all it can to constrict the experience of the young, but it's pretty damned wrongheaded to assume that the only teen experience out there is middle class suburbia. And that aside, fifteen years of observation is surely enough to make useful and compelling conclusions about human beings if the the observer is acute. See Toole, Mary Shelley. They are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but all great writers are exceptions. Your average, inexperienced 40plus-er's no more likely to write well than Joe or Angie Teen; you just get more teens experimenting with writing.

So sure: of those very few folks who can write, those who have had more writing experience are generally superior. Well, yes.

Annalee Flower Horne | June 21, 2007 11:02 AM

I'm not technically a teenager anymore, but I'm still close enough to suffer from the same vast delusions of competence.

Here's the thing: I sincerely hope that ten years from now, I'll be able to look back at my current projects and go "Oh dear freakin' gawd, why didn't my friends smack me?" If I can do that five years from now, so much the better. It means I'm improving (and good thing, too, because dear lord did I suck at this in highschool).

I've come to revel in having my age as an excuse (just in time to graduate from college and irrevocably lose said excuse, natch). Ten years from now, if I really screw the pooch on a writing project, I'll have no one to blame but myself. Now? Hell, there's nothing I can do about it. Blame chronology.

The Red Vs. Blue Point/Counterpoint on Tattoos comes to mind: "You're an idiot. I'd like to prove this mathematically: were you smart ten years ago? No. You were a goddamn idiot. And you're an idiot now; it's just going to take you ten years to figure it out." Story of my (thus far relatively short) life.

Miri | June 21, 2007 12:34 PM

Disclaimer: Contrary to popular belief, I'm not trying to be pretentious/annoying/Holier Than Thou. Just...you know, asking a question. (I run into this so much I thought I should mention it.)

I agree with most of what you're saying here (regardless of whether it scares me or not) but I have kind of an extenuating circumstance, I guess you could call it.

I've been in a critique group for over a year and in that time I've had an entire novel critiqued. As I was the only teenager in the group (at that time I had just turned 13) and wanted a reality check, I specifically said that I didn't want to hear the words "for my age." If it was good, I wanted to know. If it was bad, I wanted that too.

It came back with quite a lot to work on, a few plot holes, and a lot of red ink, but also some high praise for the overarching style of the story and various other things. It was critiqued to the same level as the five other novels by adults we've done since, and it came out sounding just as good, if not slightly favorable in some cases.

My question is this: regardless of what my group agreed to, should I be suspicious of what they say to me with regard to my writing because all teenage writing sucks? I like to trust people - it saves time - but I'm not sure here.

Annalee Flower Horne | June 21, 2007 02:47 PM

Miri, my advice would be to go look for an online critique group that you can join without mentioning your age. Absolute Write is a good resource (you'll have to google it-- I've already got one comment waiting in the moderation queue because of links).

Or start submitting it to agents and editors--they're not going to coddle you. If you get requests for partials/fulls or personalized rejections, you know you're on the right track.

And if it turns out you're not there yet, do what I did: blame your age. If you're good for your age now and you keep practicing, you'll probably stay good for your age as you get older-- which means you'll get to 'sufficiently good' with plenty of time to spare for a long and prolific career.

Steve Buchheit | June 21, 2007 03:21 PM

Eric, "A couple of commenters made the tired and repulsive argument that teens have less Experience than adults, and are therefore, on the whole, less capable writers... How long ago was it that twenty was middle-aged?"

One, 20 as middle age was a couple of hundred years ago.

Okay, here's an example of life experiences leading to better writing. Without looking at the dialog attribution, can I tell, just through the dialog, which of your characters is speaking and how they are saying the words (beat and emphasis)? Or do the characters all sound the same, and their word choices in dialog never change? While everybody doesn't have increadibly unique vocabularies and spoken ticks, there are enough subtle clues in most people's speach.

Here is a very gross example of this. In Star Wars Episode IV (the first movie for us old timers) the dialog usage between Empire and Rebel is very distinct (including accents). Once you're aware of that, it's hard not to hear it.

This is something you learn having experienced People Not Like You. Most teens have a very small group of friends and limited cultural exposure. This is just one example of how life experience helps your writing.

Annalee Flwoer Horne | June 21, 2007 04:26 PM

Just advocating for the prince of darkness here, Steve, but I can see where that example can run into trouble. I'm 21 years old. But because I grew up in a big city, have second languages, go to college in a different part of the country from where I grew up, and have had the opportunity to travel to both Europe and Asia (as a student instead of as a tourist), I've had more exposure to people Not Like Me than the average American twice my age has.

I think a stronger argument is fluency. When we learn to speak, we do so by listening to hundreds of others speak to us. And then we try ourselves, and we get it wrong a lot until eventually we start to get the hang of it. Writing is the same way. Older people have had more time to become fluent in the written word.

Which isn't to say they all have, but a majority of the ones that are published have.

Steve Buchheit | June 21, 2007 06:22 PM

Annalee, true enough. That's why I used the conditional, "Most teens." When I was twenty I had lived in California, Southern Jersey, and Ohio. I hadn't travelled much outside of family trips. But I was a furious listener to dialect and word usage. Now that I've lived and worked throughout the Ohio, PA, WV, Indiana area (with stints in Texas and a wide range of areas, including a few trips to Europe) I have had a wider range to pick up on. That exposure can certainly help. Also knowing that you should be listening to natural dialog helps.

I also have very little problem with people with accents (because I've had a wide range of friends). However, I've run into many people (most younger, some older) who can barely understand people that I think have very mild accents. It all has to do with exposure.

And again, I was using this as a small example. Many of the teen writers I have read have their characters all speak the same (usually too overstructured, or too hip) and use "funny hats" to differentiate them. Again, this is a generalization. Not all of them have this issue.

Andrew Wilburn | June 21, 2007 08:42 PM

I think your advice is great and I agree with most of it. I just wrote my first book. I started it last summer when I was 17 and finished it when I was 18. And I feel like I haven't done to bad on it. But I also realize alot of flaws in it as well.

And for all of the teen writers out there who think their work doesn't suck. Listen to this guy it might not be what you wanted to hear but it is helpful advice. And it also helps motivate me to better myself. It was fun this last year reading back through my first chapter and seeing how much I progressed in each chapter. And like he says writting will take time to learn I know its going to take me time.

But maybe I'll be one of those lucky teens that does get published. Currently I have Nolan Carlson the author the Summer and Shiner book series reading through my first novel. And once he's done he's going to give me a list of agents to send it off to. So if anyone is reading this wish me luck on finding an agent.

Kelsi | June 22, 2007 02:25 AM

I think an important thing to add is this: even if the teenager in question IS one of those very, very rare talents whose writing does not suck...it still sucks in comparison to what they will write as adults, if they keep working at it. Because writing never just peaks and stays there forever. It plateaus at points, then improves again, in a constant cycle. The more one writes and reads, the less time spent on plateaus and the more spent on the upward climb.

Annalee Flower Horne | June 22, 2007 10:13 AM

Kelsi, I think that is a very good point. Thank you for making it.

Shirozora | June 22, 2007 07:04 PM

Ha, this is even MORE entertaining than the other one, mostly because just a few months ago I had that exact same attitude about my writing and me in particular (probably because the people who thought I sucked compared my grammar to mud and told me to go die).

When it comes to grammar, what can you say about the postmodernist books? My AP English Lit. class had a postmodernist book research project to do, and one of my schoolmates showed me a book that made no sense whatsoever; I mean, the spelling's correct but the grammar was absolutely atrocious. And yet the author/ess is published.

As for Mr. Paolini, I just think he got very lucky. That could be because I'm jealous of him being published, but also because his books were of the kind where if you read it once, you're done forever. No offense to him, really. After all, he is published, unlike me.

While I know my writing sucks, I'm a bit of an optimist - at least I write better than some of my peers. I use fanfiction as a way to experiment with writing styles ,and as a way to play with cliches and convetions; that's probably why I'm less read in that area than some other fanfiction writers who play to all the cliches and conventions (and make me cringe) and have many, many reviewers.

Eric | June 23, 2007 12:21 AM


Nothing like hundreds of years, actually. Not even a hundred. See this site. And that's just the U.S.

And I don't buy it. To take your dialogue example: you just don't go fifteen-plus years without encountering a significant variety of speech patterns. Family, strangers, passersby on vacation, friends from outside your corner of the country...and all that's to say nothing of television, movies, internet, etc. Even within a social microcosm of a dozen good friends, you're inevitably going to find vastly divergent patterns of speech, even if everyone's operating on roughly the same vocabulary. It's the double-punch ability to discern nuances and to recreate them that makes for a talented writer, and a beginning writer's as likely to possess that (read: not particularly) whether she's fifteen or forty.
In terms of Almighty Experience, I think we'd tend to find a number of variables far more significant than age. Nineteen year old NYC-native Writer A, for example, might easily have more various experience than sixty year old B, who's lived his entire life in a small Iowa town.

(Just to be clear on my position, though: I don't think Writer A has much of a headstart on B. Once we reach 15 or so, most or all of us have enough life experience to write a genuinely successful story. We gain new and useful experience as we grow, of course, and learn to synthesize our experiences in new ways, but that doesn't mean shit if we lack mechanics and verve. And those are the true objects of practice and study for beginning writers of any age.)

And honestly (I know this is straying a bit), perfect and various ventriloquism isn't a necessity for good writing. David Mitchell is a master; it's arguably his greatest strength. (He's no teenager, but interestingly, he's considered a "young writer.") But look at some writers considered canonical: Cormac McCarthy's dialogue is the definition of one-note. Kelly Link--one of the best writers alive, far as I'm concerned--often writes dialogue that's sort of homogenous. I know I've strayed entirely from the topic at hand now, but it's sometimes a strong stylistic device, that homogeny. Sometimes it's just a characteristic of a writer whose strengths lie elsewhere.

Kate | June 25, 2007 02:43 PM

I'm 16 and have been writing constantly (little exaggeration) since I was 12. When are you good enough to make it whether you're a teen or not? How do you tell? Do you just blindly submit to to the market, or is there an indication you can see in your writing?

bobby | June 26, 2007 12:57 AM

Ya know, Mr.Dick-in-a-box, can I call you Mr.Dick-in-a-box? Alrighty Mr.Dick-in-a-box, haven't ya noticed that when kids hear something they are effected by it? So if you say teenage writing sucks, that may dismay some REALLY good writers into thinking they suck and cause them to cease writing, so tells me, why the hell would you make a totally generalized statement about people who take retards like you seriously based on only crap that you admit to reading and yourself? And don't worry, youcan classify me all you wants I only read to part 3c.

John Scalzi | June 26, 2007 07:58 AM


If the excuse some teenager gives for stopping writing is that their ego was hurt by some general article they read on the Web, I submit to you that they're not actually very serious about their writing in the first place. In which case I probably saved them from years of half-hearted noodling.

Shawn Powers | June 26, 2007 10:04 AM


What a shame, in section 4c John gives the unlock code for the Mr. Dick-in-a-Box Pokemon monster!

Maybe I missed something, however, because my screen doesn't show a 3c section...

Derek C | June 26, 2007 11:23 PM

I was a teen merely last year and already I'm going through my old notes and cringing through stories with titles like "Shudders Drawn, Rifles Cocked". I'm still unsure whether the imagery I'm describing is clear, or it's trying too hard to be clever - but there's a certain pleasure I find in writing, greater than listening to music or retreating to a theatre when a problem faces me. In high school there were a couple teachers, one a prize-winning novelist, who'd laud my little newspaper editorials as "brilliant" while I daydreamed about making money and being patted on the head for what a special little individual I must be. And my writing suffered - I no longer put time in to grow as a writer, instead of making easy jabs towards authority figures, without a purpose beyond fucking the undergraduates I'd be certain to meet in the approaching University year (that'd accept me as the burgeoning artiste i was, not the quiet loner of high school).

But as my genius became certain in my mind, I stopped working at it and there were no authority figures or virgins to defile - I retreated to angry music and films to express my discontent for me, shutting myself off from observing my surroundings with the distance any honest writer needs; I thought I followed the path of any literary lion, being a shut-in recluse dedicated to my craft, except I never pursued it.

Teen writers will never go anywhere if they're too pleased with themselves, or feel uncertain of their suffering - the radical emotions they experience, from hate to love, are signs of immaturity that shouldn't be dealt with condescension by older adults, because while it sounds ridiculous it's honest for them and the angsty poetry just doesn't read very well - they're at a level they'll pass with some effort.

John Scalzi's article did well for criticizing teen writing constructively, while not talking down to its authors because it's almost inevitable their output is terrible. But don't worry kids, hang in there...

Viola | June 27, 2007 06:02 PM

How do you know if your writing sucks? What is good writing?

I know I can't write to save my life because it just feels wrong. But even at school, when I have a paper to write or just a simple paragraph, I'm always the kid who looks around to see everyone writing while I sit there, wondering how to begin. Being foreign contributes to my writing skills (or lack of, in this case) and I'm sure there's a way to improve. Except, how do i separate crappy writing from decent writing?

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