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Ilana Reimer

Editing Young Writers

Illustration of five people (diverse genders and ethnicities) each holding a large gold star on a blue background.
Illustration of five people (diverse genders and ethnicities) each holding a large gold star on a blue background.
vectorknight ©

Sometime before I turned 10, my parents “published” my first story at Staples. When I held this spiral-bound, laminated book with my own words and illustrations inside, I felt like an author.

Looking back on my progress as a writer, I see my journey dotted with people who believed in me. They pushed me to keep going when I was tempted to give up.

Some, like my family, believed in me before I was any good. My grandad insisted on buying me my first laptop. “A writer needs her tools,” he told me. My high school English teacher saw nuggets of potential in my prose and took care to praise me while directing me towards something better.

In a twist of fate, I began my editing career by volunteering for this same English teacher, providing feedback on students’ work. It was from her I learned the importance of lavish praise combined with helpful critique. This balance in feedback can make all the difference to a young writer who lacks confidence but who could excel if they persevered.

As the editor of a bimonthly magazine whose contributors and audience are largely teens and young adults, I often think about those who believed in me early on. Telling an emerging writer that the work they’ve laboured over has potential is often the equivalent of saying, “You have potential.”

Here’s what I’m learning through working with younger writers:

Be gentle with their developing voice

Writers who are figuring out their unique voice can be easily influenced. They may be more likely to assume an editor always knows best; they are still learning when to defend their style choices and when to listen. I’ve found these writers appreciate reminders they have agency and valid opinions over subjective suggestions. Any writer can occasionally slip into an insincere voice or may need some style tweaking to their writing to appeal to the intended audience. For a writer whose voice isn’t well established, being given the chance to adjust their phrasing to fit the preferred tone can be empowering and affirming.

Revisions don’t have to be scary

Young writers are especially likely to think the more comments or markups their work has, the worse it is. Revisions can seem tedious and discouraging. Having an editor remind them that revisions are necessary and normal can boost their morale and motivation to keep trying. While this article is geared towards teaching writing, it does give some great tips for how to help young writers problem-solve instead of limiting their creativity through boilerplate solutions.

Encourage, encourage, encourage

Providing genuine, thoughtful praise, even when you’re in a hurry, is essential. Of course, this doesn’t mean giving someone a false sense of ability. However, even if you turn down an article or manuscript, it can mean a lot to a writer if you prompt them to keep pitching and writing. When someone is starting out, such encouragement can be formative in ways we may have forgotten.

Have you ever worked with younger writers? What are your best mentoring practices?


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2 Comments on “Editing Young Writers”

  • Excellent article! (And I like the article Ilana linked too as well!)
    As an education prof, the most common error I see teachers making in marking student work is circling every mistake the student makes. This inevitably ends up with a sea of red ink which is discouraging–it tells the student, “you’re doing everything wrong, give up because you’re hopeless”. Instead:
    (1) Focus on one or two problems at a time. Pick the worst issue, the one that’s holding them back the most, and deal with that in this round of marking–you can get to the other refinements later. Often, eliminating that one problem (say, run-on sentences) and can move the student’s work up to the next level and they can see their progress at once. But trying to fix everything at once is overwhelming. Nobody can take in and respond to everything that’s wrong at once. Once they’ve mastered that, they’ll be up for fixing the next biggest issue because you’re already proved to them that they can improve.
    (2) If the problem is spelling or quotation marks or etc, don’t circle every last example on the paper–again, that leads to a sea of red ink and is overwhelming. Note that “spelling remains a problem” and illustrate by circling mistakes in one paragraph or one page. More is redundant.
    (3) Tell them what they are doing right. New writers often don’t know what they did right. Explaining that they used a parallel structure (to take one example) not only gives them positive feedback, but it also identifies this or that technique as a tool they could use again. Students are often writing by ear and don’t have the knowledge or language to describe what they did, so identifying and praising what they are doing correctly helps them adopt those elements more purposefully in the future.

    • Thanks, Robert! I particularly liked your last point: telling writers what they’re doing right. I sometimes miss that step when I’m in a hurry. But absolutely, this positive feedback helps build or reinforce existing skills. It’s a signal the editor is thinking of the writer’s future growth, not just improving the current text. Helpful thoughts!

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