Learning about the Writer’s Life from a 13-Year-Old

Will Newman

Today I want to introduce you to Sarah, a young friend of mine who attends the elementary school where I volunteer. A passion has gripped this 13-year-old for two years, the same passion I developed when I was also eleven.

Sarah wants to be published.

When I met her last year at the beginning of sixth grade, she’d already started a novel with the goal of being published by the end of the year. When she learned from the classroom teacher that I was a writer, she told me about her goal and asked if I would look at what she’d written.

Willing to risk a lot

I explained when a person her age asks me to comment on their writing, I’m supportive but not very strict. But if she wanted my best review, I would be as strict as I am with adults.

She said, “That’s what I want! That’s why I asked.”

Sarah’s first attempt was outstanding … for a 12-, almost 13-year old. We sat together going over her what she’d written, me commenting on the positives and pointing out what she could improve. And why it needed improvement.

While I spoke, I’d look at her frequently, watching for subtle signs my critique bore heavily on her. None. She listened with interest and looked pleased.

When we were done, I asked where this first chapter was going. “That’s a big problem,” she said. “I don’t know.” At that point I told her about “plotters” — who carefully plot progress through a book — and “pantsers” — who write by the seat of their pants.

She asked which I was. I explained I didn’t write fiction, but I was definitely a plotter in the nonfiction books I’d ghosted and collaborated on.

A dream suspended

A week later, Sarah had a revision of her first chapter along with a second chapter. Her revision delighted me. She had listened to what I’d suggested. Her revision was a significant improvement.

But she informed me she wasn’t going to continue writing the book. She decided she would be a plotter and needed to think more seriously about what she would write next.

But Sarah didn’t abandon writing. Over the next few months, she had me edit several stories she’d written.

Last week, I got an invitation through Google Docs to edit the first chapter of her next book attempt.

This girl can write. She uses strong, visual verbs. She uses adjectives and adverbs sparingly, but she uses them well. I had very few corrections or suggestions.

And when I saw her the next day, she told me, “I already have the book figured out to the end.”

Why Sarah is important to you

Sarah will succeed as a writer. Her skills and imagination will carry her far. But that’s not why she will succeed.

She’ll succeed for one crucial reason. She takes critique well.

I know that being critiqued can be a stumbling block for many would-be writers. But if you truly want to enjoy the writer’s life, you must be willing to listen to critiques from editors, product managers, or whoever’s in charge of overseeing your writing.

A hard lesson for some writers to learn is this. When a client or editor critiques your work, it’s not personal. It’s never about you. It’s about the words.

We can all take a lesson from Sarah. Your journey to the writer’s life will move faster and more surely when you view critiques as a valuable tool to stronger writing.

On Wednesday I’m going to tell you what finally convinced me to follow Sarah’s lead and write my own book.

But before you leave, I’d love to hear from you. Do you have a dream like Sarah does? Let us know by commenting below.

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Published: February 15, 2016

45 Responses to “Learning about the Writer’s Life from a 13-Year-Old”

  1. Hi Will,

    I completed three courses about writing books and magazines for children, teens and young adults through the Institute of Children's Literature (ICL). All of my instructors for these courses are published authors who critiqued each of the lesson assignments I submitted to them for review. I learned a great deal about improving my own writing skills from these critiques. This is the way the school operates.


  2. Yes, I do have a dream of becoming a successful writer but I don't have any money to invest in that business right now.

    Guest (Charles L Watson Jr)

  3. I am thrilled to learn of Sarah's determination to write and be published.

    My Dad was a writer. When I began my very first attempts to write fiction, his critiques were heavy-handed and not very encouraging. My college freshman English instructor told me I had a certain gift of gab, but I would never be a writer.

    When I sold my first novel, I remembered their attitudes toward a young writer.

    I'm thrilled at your willingness to mentor Sarah. Young writers should have such support. God bless.

    Guest (Jim Porter Sr)

  4. I gave up my dream of being a published writer when I was told not be creative. I do write on occasion but not to the extent that I use write. I did try to write a sort of ghost story but it was put aside several years ago. Go get your book done Sarah

    Guest (Barbara)

  5. I want to be a writer and say im going to write but I never start. I feel im not smart enough since I haven't taken college writing classes like Stephanie Meyers or jk rowling. Feel like im trying to be something im not. A poser. don't know about dialogue or writing descriptive scenes or landscape. I just have thoughts which can make an outline - not a story. Can't get from outline to story.

    Guest (claudia)

  6. I would love someone to critique my work.

    Guest (Rhonda Crews)

  7. Sarahs dream is exactly like my own! I began writing books around the end of 5th grade (I was 12) yet I never did finish my first novel until I was in 7th grade. My second was finished not even a year afterwards - now I'm a junior and I continue to write fiction. My dream is to be a published author as well, but I have never once published any of my works - because none are truly finished.

    Guest (Anna)

  8. I have always wanted to publish a book I've started several and finally started typing my first finished book. I usually start of as a pantser and end up a plotter. Sometimes just writing everything that comes into my head helps me plan.


  9. I really enjoyed Sarah's story. It makes one realise that we all have potential but the thing is to understand that and act upon it. Many people will tell you that you cannot do it, what ever it is. These are the people that you do not want in your life. Listen to those that encourage and learn from there wisdom. Excellent story I am sure that Sarah will go far and look forward to reading her work. Sincerley Jaime ( Artist)

    Guest (Jay)

  10. I have a dream of writing fictional books. Actually I have a list of them.

    Guest (sylvia)

  11. I am in the process of going through several books and courses to learn how to write. My goal is to get a novel published and, like Sarah, I am looking at the plot, character development, etc. before I move forward with writing.

    I am very willing to learn via critique, but I want to know that the people critiquing me know what they know.

    I have written one short story (1500 words written for a contest).

    Do you have any suggestions?

    Guest (Codybear40)

  12. Very excited about this story.
    I have written an Autobiography of My Journey With Christ. It is poems about me pouring my heart out in prayer. I entered two in a contest which they published and now I have had several publishing company's contact me but just out of my reach at this time but I know God is my source not Social Security. I want to be a Christian Writer looking forward to working with Joshua Bosswell.

    Stepping Out

  13. hey, am touched by the way sarah has managed to achieve great fortune, but am also trying to accomplish a film script titled Puzzle where i lack an editor to cut my mistakes and guide me on how to make a great script.

    Guest (isaac)

  14. Thank you for sharing your experience with Sarah. As a retired writing teacher, I was very fortunate to watch children begin and learn to write. I love to write and tried to share that with my students. I was a language arts teacher and knew that first they must read and learn from those encounters. Reading/writing workshop was a favorite for my class as well as myself. I still enjoy writing and plan to continue to write when I can. As with most amateur writers, I have at least one book in the back of my mind and some day it will come out. I look forward to reading the emails that I receive from AWAI. There is something to learn everyday.

    Guest (Carol)

  15. Will, I couldn't agree more with your advice to Sarah. I plot everything (except world domination, of course). As a screenwriter (where I was trained originally before becoming a copywriter) we must plot out the story. It would take too long in network TV to be a "pantser". Now, I've taken those plotting skills and applied them to the tools I've learned through AWAI and use them with my copywriting. It's all very similar, just different techniques. This is great advice! Thanks for helping me keep this in perspective.

    Shawn Maus

  16. I found this very helpful, thank you. Understanding that critique is not personal, but professional, makes it easier to take, easier to learn from. I'm a late bloomer but am quite sure that I have a book inside me, desperately wanting out! I just need to get on with it!

    Guest (GinnyS)

  17. Hi Will,

    Good for Sarah! It takes maturity to ask for that kind of critique. I wrote and self published a novel a couple of years ago and couldn't have done it without the comments from the critique group I attended. It made my writing stronger and more readable. At first it was a little hard to listen to, but once I relaxed and stopped taking it personally, as you suggested, it helped tremendously. It also helped to have something positive pointed out first.
    Happy Writing!

    Guest (workerbee)

  18. I am a nineteen year old university student who lives in a small country in West Africa. For as long as I can remember, I have always had a passion for writing. Recently, all the information I have been receiving from AWAI has piqued my interest about copywriting. I would like to know if it would be possible for me to actually be one despite where I reside. And if so, will it be possible to break in the movie industry?

    Guest (Adam Nyang )

  19. I want to write in a very narrow segment of finance (intangible value)and SI (sustainable investing) this is registered intellectual property but I will solicit to write B2B and B2C research (white paper, newsletter) your lingo I'm new.
    I have diverse interests screenplay, graphic novel concept (these are just two so far but recommendations to specialize has not been lost on me

    Guest (Nathan Scott Shoemaker )

  20. Hello Will, my writing is more of a historical nature. I enjoy history ,and the book I am currently working on is on the paper industry. Which is a very big part of what we do. It's part of a book being a book. You can touch it,and feel its weight, It has a smell that for my self is a fantastic smell. The ink and the fresh paper combined, it is perfume.

    It is a personal project for me. You see my home town in Mass. did have a paper mill, I use the term had because it was closed down in 2008, and put 174 hardworking folks in the unemployment line. My father worked at the mill for 27 years.

    The paper industry in New England at one time had close to 300 mills. It is a shadow of itself with perhaps fifty now struggling to survive.

    Guest (Bruce Caron)

  21. I am a PC tech and many other things that go along with it.

    However, I have been writing off and on since I was a child. I just started writing again, but this time for Kindle last year. I have made some money, but will write revisions and new books.

    I generally take critiques well. My dream is to be a successful author/writer, thus putting my freelance writing business on auto-pilot and pursuing computer sciences and technology also.

    Please don't judge by this comment. [FROM WILL: Nothing to judge, and I never would.]

    Guest (ScienTechie)

  22. Thank you Will :)

    You are not only teaching Sarah, you are teaching us too.

    Always, your critique will be valuable and constructive.

    Thank you :)

    Guest (Singaravelu AP)

  23. I am truly inspered by Sarah's story, due to the fact that when I was her age, I had every intention of being a writer, but as you grow into adulthood, and start a family, most of your aspirations are put on HOLD. Now that I am retired,I will have the time.
    You are an excellent reader of Character and from you took time out to listen and tutor her in her writing skills and understanding the fundermentals of writing, I am convinced that with your help and others from AWAI, I can still accomplish.
    As a grown-up, I believe that I can learn from Sarah,s attitude, and although I have subscribed to AWAI,for about six months, and I have been reading all the emails, I am only now convinced that I can join your Team, and give SUCCESS a shot.

    Guest (Barrington Streete)

  24. Truly inspiring, both Sarah's determination to learn and develope her writing skills, and your listening ears and and understanding, tutoring her and getting her to the next level.
    With accomplished writers like you and others at AWAI, one has to be of the OPINION that the sky is the limit if and when you aspire to be a writer. Thank you for taking time out to share your and Sarah's story.

    new writer

  25. I have loved to write since I was about 8 years old, mostly keeping journals, writing my thoughts and philosophy of life.
    My problem seems to be, when I start to write a fictional story, I don't know how to be objective. I tend to write about my life and only changing the names. So, with that, I can't seem to find my niche. That keeps me frustrated and I don't stay motivated.
    I wish I knew how to break out of that roadblock.

    Guest (oceanlady805)

  26. I have written poems. What must I do to get my poems published?

    Guest (Ishmael)

  27. The above comments interested me almost as much as Sarah's story. Carol's (retired writing teacher) stood out because I like organized writing and good spelling and grammar. I have 4 books finished (except for peer editing in my writers' group) and am determined to get at least two published (a fantasy and a mystery) in the next two years. I'm also retired and need to push toward this goal.

    Guest (Rosetta)

  28. I was an advanced tutor in a community college writing center where I coached students across the curriculum. It's sad when a 19 year old sports scholarship recipient comes in for help and can't spell or write a sentence. They end up in remedial classes, & it delays their careers. Also, I critiqued students with personal statements to enter professional programs at a nearby university. Before tutoring, I worked as a professional scorer for 4th and 10th grade state essays. I loved those jobs.

    Martha Schleuder

  29. I have written a manuscript on bipolar that will hopefully be self-published this spring. My second book is a how=to on organization, decorating, nutrition, and fashion.It It will contain lots of and Iphotos am not sure how the publisher will deal with What direction should I look look for copy writing besides magazines, and how do I approach periodicals? Thank you.

    Guest (Ann)

  30. Children have an uncanny ability to keep you humble. That's why I love working with children in a writing program designed to bring out their creativity and analytical ability.

    Guest (Roger)

  31. I like writing. I am 70 years old and wrote a book, self published on Amazon kindle e books. I do not feel I am very good except some of my writing seems to be OK. The name of my book is Extra Pieces under my name Kenneth Lewis. I would love and appreciate it very much if Someone would critique it. I know it seems to be a mixture of Biography and Religion But I did not want to write 2 books and had to much trouble trying to separate the to.

    Guest (Ken)

  32. Thanks Will for your exciting story about Sarah. It is really a motivation. I have completed my first novel and would like you to see it and edited it for me. Is that possible Will? Thanks.

    Guest (Paul Kamanda)

  33. Will, I self published my first novel.It has not sold well, hardly at all. As a result I have several other stories that are locked in stuck mode.I haven't gotten past the first intriguing ideas.

    It's one thing to finish a novel and publish it, but if it tanks, it takes a great deal to continue. confidence wanes.
    Thanks for listening.


  34. I, too, am working on a novel, my first. It is a murder mystery. I've completed the first draft, and am now in my first edit. I say first edit because I learned from a professional editor there will be at least one more, possibly two.
    It's very exciting!

    Guest (Tom)

  35. Encourage a girl to be a writer is definitely something good and creative at the same time. I believe writing is like a mirror, you can see your image and read about your thoughts, feelings and emotions and overcome the feelings that you find necessary for the purpose you already have in mind. It is a mixture level of psychological vibrations toward our self and others.

    Guest (Wilmina)

  36. It has been so fun to express myself in writing. I have enjoyed starting a book to share my experiences and wisdom that has been gained from life's challenges to make higher and higher choices as I get to my full potential in life. It is amazing what can be done with the knowledge that we acquire in life on our journey. There is so much to learn everyday in life. There are no limits to what we can do when we believe and keep a positive perspective in life to reach the most that we can do NOW!


  37. My dream is to theoretically uphold time itself as a fifth force w/o which the known four can never be unified. A temporal thermodynamic effecting both the future (i.e., relative anticipation via "duration waves") and the past (i.e., quantum memory via "simultaneity particles") whence reality is merely an illusion and shutterbug-reversal of what our higher order has already earmarked for a covetous image of a God we haven't yet figured out which -- in the meantime -- evolution feints creating.

    Guest (Chris Morris)

  38. I am truly inspired by this. I am an aspiring writer and reside in West Africa, how can I be part of this?

    Guest (Onyelukachi)

  39. I read your article about Sarah and am glad that you are helping her become a writer. I do have one question. Editing is so important and constructive criticism is essential, but how do you know to trust that the person who is editing will not steal your book, title or your ideas?

    Guest (Cheryl)

  40. This is imparting! And I'm delighted with the aids from this platform.I'm working vigorously on my first book,writting is my passion,and i have a msg for my targeted audience.

    Guest (Aromire Mary)

  41. I have always written things,mostly technical instructions. I have published an ebook, "Equestrians afoot" at amazon. vanity press, I'm 78, so time is important to me. I have no idea as to how good or bad it is. It is a prequel to the second book "equestrians abroad". I would make the first chapter of the second book available to anyone interested.The book is set in Russia at the end of communisum. An eccentric oligarch trys to help Russia catch up with the west, but it gets complicated.

    Guest (bruce white)

  42. Seems to me, after decades of experience, that humans have a choice about where to place their attention. These are:
    1. THE WILL TO POWER. And the more one attempts to con-trol others, the more con- flict and con-troversy we encounter.

    2. THE WILL TO PLEASURE. "I'm great at what I do, therefore I'm entitled to be a party animal. Down the hatch! Fie that pipe up!"

    3. THE WILL TO PURPOSE. Not many folks reach this point, but it does exist. For me, that translates to discovering A WAY OF LIFE, one that renders me HAPPY, FREE and EASY GOING. Swell, so far, it's worked.

    Carl Frederick NY Times bestselling author; "EST Playing The Game."

    Guest (carl frederick)

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