I started freshman year of high school wide-eyed and ready to dive into anything and everything related to my English classes.
My pen was poised high in the air, eager to touch down. My eyes skimmed the book shelves in my English class, about to pounce. I signed up for book club and writing club. I was writing in at least three different journals at a time. I began writing a novel and agreed to write for CollegeXpress. I was in my glory. Then, everything stopped.
My eyes bugged out, my hands cramped up, and my brain dried up. (Not to mention my legs, which I feared would fall off from neglect.) I had spent so much time in front of a computer or behind a book that I’d forgotten what the real world looked like. No wonder I had writer’s block. Writers draw inspiration from their experiences—and I wasn’t really experiencing anything.
I do not regret embracing reading and writing; I always have, and I am still involved with most of the activities I mentioned above. However, I learned that sometimes the best thing a writer can do is to stop writing.
High school brings new experiences, some we like and some we don’t. Instead of turning away from their newness, hiding in the familiar comfort of words, we must draw from them.
English, reading, and writing in high school vs. middle school
If you thought the reading and writing requirements in middle school were demanding, you will quickly redefine your definition of demanding. But don’t be afraid. You have the skills you need to get the work done. However, it is easy to get distracted and not set enough time aside for the tasks at hand.
In high school and college, when a teacher says, “read” he doesn’t just mean “read.” He means take notes, think about the reading, and review before class. Hence an assignment that may have taken you a half an hour in middle school will most likely take you an hour in high school. In high school the general rule is for every hour you are in class, you should expect to spend one to two hours of homework.
Now, don’t you go trying to multiply two hours times seven classes in your head right now. First of all, why do math when you don’t have to? And second of all, no need scaring yourself to death. Remember, some of those seven classes will be electives, which generally mean little or no homework. Plus, teachers don’t sit around plotting menacingly, making sure they give you exactly 120 minutes of homework every night. So, no, you won’t be drowning in 14 hours of homework. However, it is important that you understand that you might not have as much free time as you once did.
High school tips for writers and bibliophiles
There are plenty of extracurricular activities and people demanding attention in high school. Well-meaning guidance counselors will encourage you to join clubs, volunteer, and play sports. Your friends will want to hang out with you. Mom might ask you to clean your room every now and then. The demands add up, so you must choose what’s important to you. Keep in mind high school (and freshman year in particular) brings a lot of change. So while trying new things is important, you might want to choose just a few new activities to participate in.
As an aspiring writer, some of your free time should be dedicated to your trade. There are many things you can do to stay ahead of the curve in your English classes:
- Keep a daily journal. Journals get you in the habit of writing, relieve stress, and help you process the day (especially helpful freshman year!). One type of journal I love is a letter journal. That’s where you and a friend hand off a journal and write letters to each other. I do this with my cousin, so we can keep in touch even while she’s in an out-of-state college. It saves us postage stamps and motivates us to see each other when she visits!
- Read for pleasure. This is your reading time! No one dictates the rules. Read anything you like, whether it’s Dr. Suess or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
- Keep a reading journal. Distinct from the diary-esque daily journal, I find reading journals helpful for more challenging books, especially for high school assignments. By writing at regular intervals (every chapter, every 10 pages, or even after finishing the book), I understand it better. (Editor’s note: this is actually a scientifically backed strategy for retaining information and learning better!) Also, if I need to reference a part for class, I can find it by flipping through my entries.
- Keep a vocab list. You can create a simple document on your computer with a list of words, or write them in your reading journal. Keeping a vocab list will also put you in good shape for SAT or ACT.
- Contribute to or start a blog. Blogs are a great way to introduce your writing to the general public, or you can create a private blog to connect with friends and family. However, writing in a journal and blogging each day can become overwhelming. It’s okay if you only do one.
- Join book and writing clubs. Whether it’s through your high school or local library, clubs are a great way to connect with other reading/writing/word enthusiasts, some of whom will be upperclassman who may give you some high school tips! Clubs also introduce you to books, writing strategies, and scholarships you may not have found on your own.
- Take Advanced Placement English courses (if you can). Generally, freshmen do not take AP courses, but you can ask school counselors about the requirements. It doesn’t hurt to meet the teacher beforehand either, so you can plan for the future.
- Publish your work. Publishing doesn’t just mean having your novel sit on a shelf at Barnes & Noble. You can publish work by entering scholarship contests, writing a letter to the editor, submitting work to magazines, writing for your school paper, looking for writing internships, joining a fan fiction website, or all of the above!
- Serious writers: write every day. Okay, I know I’ve outlined a lot of writing exercises above. But if you really want to be a writer “when you grow up,” you should be writing every single day! It’s the best (and, really, only) way to get better at your craft. When working on fiction, write about two pages of your story each day. You don’t even need to use the scene you write; just spend a little time with your characters every day. You should also spend some time researching your topic. Story ideas stem from what you know, but you may need to learn more to flesh out your ideas.
That’s a long list, isn’t it? It probably seems impossible to do everything above, especially when you have room cleaning demands and what not. So…should I skip the room cleaning, you ask? I tried that, and it doesn’t turn out so well. Neither does ignoring your health, friends, family, personal hygiene, or sleep (unless, of course, the book is really, really good). Words may seem to flow from your brain to your fingertips, but first, the words have to flow to your brain, from your eyes, hands, nose, and ears. As I mentioned earlier, you have to set aside time to participate in life before you write about it.
This means prioritizing and time management (good habits to develop for college/life anyway!). One way to prioritize is to create goals and determine if your activities are propelling or stopping you. If your goal is to get good grades, then staying up all night to read might not be the best idea when you start classes at 7:00 am. If your goal is to make new friends, clubs are a great choice.
Remember, priorities depend on timing. You may want to publish a book someday, but if you have an essay due tomorrow, you should probably pay more attention to the essay. Then I’ll never get to my book, you say. Indeed, it is easy to procrastinate, but that’s not what I am suggesting. If your goal is to publish a book before you graduate, then it would be worth spending a little more time on it. Ergo, you need to choose your destination before you begin walking. Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter in their young writer’s guide Spilling Ink explain that characters need a heart’s desire, a goal that motivates all of their decisions. You, too, must have a heart’s desire. Sometimes, you may have to put certain tasks on hold or spend a little less time with a task in order to meet your goal.
Another way to save time is to group your tasks together. Combine socializing with reading for pleasure through a book club. Publish your poem on that website your writing club advisor mentioned. Have a research paper due on Tuesday? Research something related to your novel. It’s a two-for-one deal!
Lastly, when you have a headache and your fingers start to cramp up, take a break.
You are not giving up; you are restoring yourself to get back at it. Go for walk. Admire the beauty of nature. Grab a snack and try to think of words that describe the taste. Listen to some music and think about how it makes you feel. You never know what will be the inspiration you need to return to your writing.
Being locked up in a room with a laptop or pen is what happens after you live life. Writers process through words, but they live through their body just like everyone else. Writing is talking and reading is listening. Your time with words is just as important as your time with people, but without people you would have no words—or at least no reason to use them.
Being a writer is going undercover as a non-writer. It means being yourself. It means enjoying some moments and loathing others. It means you go to practice, volunteer, do the dreaded algebra homework and, yes, even clean your room. You live your life.
Then, my friend, then, you write about it.