Getting a teenager to read can be as monumental a task as climbing a mountain. Conversely, for those teens who enjoy reading, getting them to put down their book can be an equally challenging task.

Whether a teen enjoys reading or not, writing can be another story. Some love putting words on paper, but put so many down that it is difficult to wade through them all. Others scratch out a few grammatically incorrect sentences that more than likely resemble text-speak than prose. So, how can we encourage our teens to find the middle road of well-crafted writing?

As someone who has spent most of the last decade coaching teens on their writing, I have noticed myself suggesting the same tips to students who both struggle to put words down on paper and students who don’t. Here are my top five:

1. Follow the instructions. This sounds like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised at the number of students – and adults – who fail to follow simple instructions. In the writing business, a writer who can follow submission guidelines will be more likely considered professional. Someone who doesn’t is immediately labeled an amateur. For students, always ask a teacher for clarifications if her instructions aren’t clear. For parents, don’t push your student to go beyond the instructions. A teacher, professor, editor, or agent has written the instructions or guidelines a certain way for a reason. Follow them.

2. Use paragraphs. Again, this may sound like writing 101, but for many of my writing students, this is the first issue I must address. Many of their first drafts come as one solid paragraph. This makes revision difficult, not to mention, especially in today’s soundbite age, makes reading it nearly impossible. If, after a first draft, you discover your paper is made up of one solid paragraph (or even multiple page-long paragraphs), try to divide it into topics. A good rule of thumb is to keep each paragraph between three to eight sentences all about one topic. You, your readers, and your teacher will thank you.

3. Avoid repeated words, phrases, and ideas. This is a skill that even the most skilled experienced, adept, able writer still has to work on in her manuscript. When writing a first draft, the focus is on getting thoughts on paper. That’s good. When it is time to revise, pay attention to words, phrases, or ideas that repeat themselves. To fix those areas, find a new way to say it. Yes, it’s that simple, but not always that easy. Often we have a favorite word (that we might not even know was a favorite word!) show up multiple times, but we don’t see it until we go looking.

4. Avoid general verbs. General verbs include ‘was’ and it’s various counterparts: ‘were,’ ‘is,’ ‘are,’ ‘be,’ ‘been.’  This may be the skill with which I struggle the most. Using more dynamic, specific verbs, however, make a paper come alive. To avoid as many of the ‘was’s as I can, during revision, I use the Find feature in Word. I search all the ‘was’s first and then change the wording to replace the ‘was’ with a more specific verb. Sometimes it feels impossible to come up with an alternative, but the paper or story will be better for the labor involved.

5. Avoid helping words. An adverb is a helping word; it helps clarify a verb. Why is this a problem? It means the verb isn’t strong enough to stand on its own. The same with an adjective helping a noun. Better to have one perfect word than two just-okay words. It’s even worse to add ‘very’ into the mix. Don’t believe me? Steven King doesn’t mince words when he says, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Take it from the master. Avoid helping words.

These might seem like basic tips everyone should know and you would be right. The problem is, not everyone follows them. Those that do, however, have a chance at standing out from the crowd. As a teen who either enjoys writing or only does as much as school makes him, using these tips will get you pointed in the right direction.

 

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