Some teenagers grit their teeth to get through English at school, while others find it a fulfilling outlet – particularly creative writing. If you’ve got a teenager in your life who’s showing interest in creative writing, and you want to help them take it to the next level, our experts have come up with six key ways to encourage and nurture those skills.
1. Take them seriously
Pamela Freeman is the director of creative writing at the Australian Writers’ Centre and is passionate about nurturing creativity in teenagers. She says that it’s vital to take a teenager’s interest in writing seriously. “In fact, taking students seriously as writers is one of the most important aspects of our courses for teenagers,” she says, “and you can see students blossom within themselves and as writers.”
If your teen shows an interest in the world of storytelling, they could have an innate talent that’s just waiting to emerge with the right encouragement.
“Don’t think of it as a hobby. Think of it as a vocation,” says Pamela. “I think that's the most important thing that any parent can do to anybody who has a creative bent, is to take that work seriously.”
2. Encourage experimentation
Young adult author Patrick Ness, who taught creative writing at Oxford University, says one thing he found new writers struggling with is their perceived limits on what they could try. Helping teenagers see the possibilities of what they could try writing – whether it’s a specific subject, a new style or a genre – can help them stay engaged and find new skills.
“You’d be really surprised at how many creative writing students won’t try something like vernacular, for example, because they think, ‘Oh, it’s been done’,” he says. “That’s not really the point. Everything’s been done. I always tell them, ‘It’s not the song that people pay for, it’s the singer. It’s how you sing it.’ People have done vernacular for centuries, that’s not the issue. It’s how you do it personally.”
3. Encourage your teenager to incorporate their own interests
Getting your teenager to consider whether they can use one of their own interests in a layered piece of creative or narrative text could help stoke their passion for writing, particularly if they’re finding school work too easy.
Rebecca Lee, who tutors high school students in English in NSW, says the current curriculum allows students to write more innovatively, and encourages them to add different text types on and layer them.
This can be turned to your teenager’s advantage if they have a particular area of interest; Rebecca is currently tutoring a boy with an interest in politics, and he is using elements like news headlines to develop his story.
“We're actually moving very much far away from the linear narrative,” she says. “They want you to include flashbacks, they want you to include maybe an epic story part, maybe a letter, maybe some poetic elements. It really becomes a very layered text and that's what's making it seem a lot fuller and a lot more in-depth.”
4. Don’t be snobby
If they do have an interest – even if it’s not one that you might automatically consider to be a good one – allow them to explore it. Pamela Freeman says fan fiction writing, popular with teenagers – but sometimes seen as less creative or original by parents and educators – is actually a fantastic way for teens to develop their writing skills.
“They're practising dialogue, pacing, structure, setting… and they often take minor characters and bring them up to be major characters, and that's part of its character development,” she says. “Fan fiction is like doing laps as a swimmer. You are practising everything you need to do the real thing.”
5. Leave them alone
It might sound simplistic but if you want teenagers to love writing, they have to be left alone to write. At school, their time to really get into writing is limited: their time is chopped into classes which, once all the administrative work is factored in, might at best give them half an hour or so of dedicated, silent writing time. A natural writer will want to write when they can, and just needs to be allowed to do so, Pamela says.
“Writing doesn't happen in five minute bits. If your child says, I don't want to go to the beach, I don't want to go and see my brother play soccer: let them, let them stay home and write,” she says.
6. Help them find their tribe
Alone time to write notwithstanding, many writers enjoy being part of a community: attending writers’ festivals or taking workshops. If your teenager is keen, a good place to find like-minded writers their age are youth writing workshops.
“Try to find some peers who enjoy the same things, it's really important, but some of them won't want that – some of them will just want to write by themselves and never talk to anybody else about it, and that's fine,” Pamela says. “There's no right way to write. There's only the way that works for you. And you can encourage your child to find a way that works for them by taking them seriously and giving them time.”