News for the Newbies

rocket ship2Recently a friend asked me to write a short call to action for her high school English class, to help them break out of the arrogant insecurity of youth and into the freewheeling creative writing process that you and I know so well. Below you will find, more or less, what I shared with them. Can I prevail upon you to share it with young writers you know? Because after all, hey, why should we adults have all the fun?

The problem with high school writing, it seems to me, is that much of it is boring (The Lonely Voyage of Vasco da Gama) or lame (Why I Love Gravity in 500 to 750 words) or pointlessly self-evident (In the book THE TIME MACHINE, name the apparatus the hero invents). There’s so much more to writing than that.

Writing is a joy.

Writing is a thrill.

Writing is a big, exciting adventure!

Oops, but writing is also a big, scary problem.

Why? Because any time writers write, they face two tough challenges:

1) “I don’t know how to do this.”

B) “It might not be any good.”

And by the way, these problems are not limited to new writers or young writers. Every writer, from you to me to Charles Frickin’ Dickens, has at one time or another wondered, How can I make this work? and Gosh, what if I can’t? But what if you could enjoy the big, thrilling adventure without wiping out against the big, scary problem. What if…

A) You knew how to do stuff, and

2) You didn’t care if it was good?

Sounds impossible? Let’s find out – and let’s start really small.

Let’s write a limerick.

A limerick, as you’ll recall, is a short, funny poem that’s five lines long. Good limericks, like good dogs, obey certain rules:

The last words of the 1st, 2nd and 5th lines rhyme with each other.

The last words of the 3rd and 4th lines rhyme with each other.

The meaning is funny or silly.

Each of the lines has a defined cadence or rhythm, thus:

da DUH da da DUH da da DUH (da)

da DUH da da DUH da da DUH (da)

da DUH da da DUH

da DUH da da DUH

da DUH da da DUH da da DUH (da)

(Why are some of the ending syllables in parentheses? It’s not because I like parentheses. (Though I do.) (!) It’s that those syllables are optional. That is, you can end those lines either with a word like BANKer or like BANK.)

Here’s an example of a limerick that “works” in the sense that it follows the simple rules of limerick construction (the stressed syllables are capitalized):

There ONCE was a GIRL from PoughKEEPsie

Who GAVE her old TEACHer the SLIPsie

Though IT wasn’t COOL


And CAME back that EVEning quite TIPsy

Now you may love or hate this limerick, but you can’t argue that it is a limerick. It follows the rules and achieves its goal. And if you follow those rules, too, then you literally can’t fail to write a limerick.

But still you might be afraid. You might be afraid that it won’t be any good. How can I help you with that?

By asking you what might seem like an irrelevant question. Have you ever built a rocket ship?

No? Well, then, if you built your first one, would you expect it to fly perfectly? You’d probably be surprised if it flew at all. You’d understand that you’re only building the first one to gain experience at building them so that somewhere down the line you can build a rocket ship that flies really great. It’s the same with limericks (and actually the same with everything): We first have to learn how to do it at all before we ever need to worry about doing it well.

It’s the same with limericks (and actually the same with everything): We first have to learn how to do it at all before we ever need to worry about doing it well.

Writing isn’t rocket science – and that’s the problem! Since we already know how to write, we expect more of ourselves. It doesn’t seem like a new thing. It seems like a thing we should be able to do great on the very first try. So now I’ll give you a tip: Instead of expecting more, expect less.

The less you expect of your creative outcomes, the easier it will be to achieve them. Can I prove that? No… but you can. Write a limerick now, and write it as fast as you can. Don’t expect anything of your limerick except that it follows those rules listed above. I’ll wait here till you’re done.

And when you’re done, you will have built something that looks and sounds like a limerick. You learned the rules for how a thing is done, and then did it. Do you love what you wrote? Do you hate it? Doesn’t matter! If this was your first limerick, your next one will be better, and the one after that better still. Even if you wrote what you think was a crummy little limerick, that’s one limerick more than you’d written before. That’s one new skill for you. You’re better than you were – more in touch with your creativity, and less afraid of it, too – whether you like your limerick or not.

And if you write another one, you’ll get even more skillful and less fearful. Why? Because the new one will have the shoulders of the old one to stand on. When you do it a second time, you’re not just a limerick writer, you’re an experienced limerick writer.

So try it again. Stand on your own shoulders. (Don’t worry, you won’t fall off!)

Do you feel it? Do you feel the thrill that comes from writing something you never tried writing before? I hope so, because that’s the thrill I get from writing (I’m getting it right now as I write these words) and that’s the thrill I desperately want to share with you. It’s a thrill that’s easily portable to any other sort of writing you might choose to do, from jokes and sketches to stories, scripts, even big, bad, hairy, scary novels that some high school English student somewhere might some day write a book report about. How do you like them apples?

Oh, them apples, I like them fine.

So grab your pen or pencil or word processor and dive on in. Because creativity rules, and when you use yours, then you rule too!

There you have it, WUers, my exhortation to youth to let creativity rule. Two things for you to chew upon today.

1) What’s your best advice for young writers?

B) (tee-hee) Would you care to share with us all that limerick that you just wrote?


About John Vorhaus

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!


  1. says

    Best advice: Start with thinking ‘…what if…?’ then write about it.

    I start the day with Writer Unbox
    Before putting on socks
    I learn a pile
    And have a smile
    Now I can comb my locks

  2. Erin S says

    I think I’ve wanted to be a writer since I knew what a writer was, but during high school I really fell in love with writing.

    My writing advice:

    (1) Make yourself write something–everyday–even if it’s only for 15 minutes.
    (2) Disconnect from the internet when you’re writing. It will try to gobble up your precious writing time.

    My reading advice:

    (3) You can’t become a good writer without reading good writers.
    (4) In school, you’ll rush through great books because you have to finish your homework, write a paper, or get ready for a quiz. (I know I did.) Later, pick up the books you enjoyed most and read them a second time (or a third, or a fourth). On the second read, you already know where the plot is going–and you can sit back and enjoy the characterization, the writing style, and the build-up to the climax.
    (5) Find occasions to read aloud to someone, or to listen to books read aloud. (Okay, so I didn’t find much time to read aloud during high school or college. But audiobooks work!) Like the limerick, good writing has a cadence . . . but there’s no formula to follow. Your authorial ear needs to hear the cadence of well-crafted sentences, well-paced narration, and natural dialogue.

    And finally:

    (6) Have fun!

  3. says

    Terrific post, John. It seems to me that reading is the single most effective thing an aspiring writer can do to open and explore the imagination. Study and practice the craft. Understanding your own writing process is key. And of course, PASSION, is the tool we all must use every day.

    Your “1) “I don’t know how to do this.” B) “It might not be any good.” struck me. I’ve been writing for 15 years and I think I said those words yesterday. The difference is now those words don’t stop me; they spark me onward. Doubt is a natural phase for writers. So when it appears at the window, that’s okay–just don’t let it inside.

  4. Denise Willson says

    Great post, John.

    My advice for our youth: find a subject that gets your juices flowing and holds your interest. Then run with it. And don’t let anything or anyone, ever, take it from you.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

  5. says

    There once was a writer named John
    Who made all his stories too long.
    He cut and he cut
    and you’ll never guess what?
    All of his stories were gone!

    I broke the rule on the last line…(or was that optional? (p.s. I like parentheses too!))
    But seriously, John, thank you for your thoughtful post. Not only did you start my day with a limerick, but this post got me reflecting on the importance of trying. Fortunately, not all my stories are gone like poor John in the poem above, but sometimes it has felt like that.

    One thing though, and I think this goes with your point: I find cutting away stuff from my story is a great way to spark new creativity. Often, as an exercise, I will cut away whole paragraphs that contain critical story information. Since I save all my drafts in stages, I always have the previous material to go back on, but I usually realize I didn’t need the paragraph at all, or that I only needed a little from it. It forces me to confront how that material impacts the story, what is important, what is not, and how it can be written better. As you put it, we have to know how to do what we’re doing before we know how to get good at it, and when I write a draft, I’m laying out all the pieces. Once they’re on the page, its time to tighten them.

  6. says

    Great post. I once knew a rocket scientist so we got to hear lots of stories of failed experiments, of rockets making it off the launch pad and of those that just go fizz or worse, explode prematurely, with pieces of lead in your backside.

    My best advice to young people: don’t be afraid to be terrible, to have the writing explode in your face. Persevere. Stories are as old as man himself. Dare to tell yours. And it doesn’t hurt to read and write A LOT to see how the greats did it. Pay attention.

    As to limericks, my brother is king! I’ll leave that to him.

  7. says

    There once was a wench named Sally
    who dragooned her mate in an alley.
    Her tool was a rake
    the skin of his back was her take
    from then on his name was Bloody Valley.

    Very fun post, John!

  8. says

    “We first have to learn how to do it at all before we ever need to worry about doing it well.”

    What a great take-away, not only for high school students, but for anyone preparing to dip a toe in the choppy waters writers navigate. Learning the “how” is critical. Let’s face it. Our first attempts at a short story or a novel are going to stink, but a bad story that follows a conventional structure and features a legitimate character arc is better than random words on a page. So here’s my limerick:

    When my writer mind is lost in a fog
    I visit Writer Unboxed, my favorite blog.
    I get great tips from agents and writers alike.
    And my mood achieves a noticeable spike.
    So thanks John for a fun and useful post.

    Ugh! This is why I don’t like poetry.

    Thanks John.

  9. says

    Such fun!

    I gave it a go…

    Here is my limerick:

    There once was a woman from Wales
    Who could tell very tall tales
    But her stories sucked,
    And she thought she was f*****
    Yet she ended up making lots of sales!

    Okay, bad one. I know. (I normally never swear online!)

  10. says

    Such fun!

    I gave it a go…

    Here is my limerick:

    There once was a woman from Wales
    Who could tell very tall tales
    But her stories sucked,
    And she thought she was f*****
    Yet she ended up making lots of sales!

    Okay, bad one. I know. (I normally never swear online!)

    Here is my second attempt:

    There once was an author from Spain
    Who went by the name of “Lorraine.”
    She thought she wrote well,
    But, as you can tell,
    She only self-published in vain!



  11. Anjali Amit says

    The perfect approach. Youngsters need to challenged. Present to them the need to scale the Everest of rhetoric, plumb the Marinara Trench of philosophical discourse.

    Writing is not plain ole English 101; it is a wild bronco-bucking ride where your words are the reins that keep you seated on your saddle of thought. Like the best jockey, hold them lightly, and lead your horse (writing) (gosh this use of parentheses is infectious) where you will.

  12. says

    I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a kid but my high school girlfriend was much more talented than I. Seeing her write vividly, beautifully, sent me down the business school path…

    Fast forward a bunch of years and she’s working (last I heard) at a bird watching tour company.

    Moral: being a successful writer is more about perseverance, passion and drive than it is about raw natural talent.

  13. says

    Fun post!
    Sometimes while tutoring my students during the summer, I get them to write a children’s book. This seems to take away the fear of “grown-up” writing, and allows them to use words that are fun and silly, but with a story that offers a deeper meaning.

    As for my Limerick:
    There was a young girl named Nancy
    Who thought she was really quite fancy.
    Upon meeting the queen
    She threw up her spleen
    And then asked the prince for a dancy.

    Stupid, but I did it!
    ; )

  14. Hilary says

    I didn’t just write a limerick because I wrote my first (2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th) in an English lesson when I was about 8 years old. They were all rubbish.

    My experience of young writers (including myself when younger!) is not that they lack confidence, but that they have too much, so my advice to young writers:

    a) Do not think that just because you get good grades for English at school that you are already a good writer and have nothing else to learn. What gets good grades in school is often bad writing. Depending on your age, your school and your classmates, you may even get good grades for simply being able to write anything at all. You have a lot to learn, so if you really want to be a writer, err, keep reading Writer Unboxed. (!)

    b) Probably the most important thing you can learn is how to draft then edit your work. If you think that you can just sit down and write something great first time, you are almost certainly kidding yourself.

    On the other hand, many people who love reading hate English at school (myself included), so :

    c) If you think your English teacher is an idiot telling you rubbish – you’re probably right. But don’t tell them so – learn to “play the game” in assessments to get the grades you need.

    d) You have to read as well as write. If every book you ever “did” at school has put you off classic literature for life – remember that most classic novels wouldn’t get published these days, they’re often long-winded and rambling, and have poor plots, and the “humour” usually isn’t funny at all. Read the good stuff that’s being published now.