Saturday, March 12, 2011

Why Do You Write?

As writers, we get up close and personal with a lot of rules, a lot of DON'Ts, words to avoid, parts of speech to avoid, and so forth. We are told that our work is more likely to be rejected by editors and agents if we violate the "rules."

I just finished reading about 75 entries in a competition called Letters About Literature. For this competition, students in grades 4 through 12 are given the following instructions:
"Select a fiction or nonfiction book, a short story, poem, essay or speech (sorry, no song lyrics) you have read and about which you have strong feelings. Explore those feelings and why you reacted the way you did during or after reading the author’s work. . . Write a personal letter to an author, explaining how his or her work affected you."
In this blog entry I am going to share a little bit from various letters to various authors. My purpose is to show my fellow writers what matters most to the young people reading their work. Not one letter thanked an author for using active voice instead of passive. Nobody said he was inspired by the minimal use of adverbs. Not a single student wrote "Thank you for showing, not telling."

Here is what some of the letters said:
This book... made me feel more comfortable about myself, that maybe there really isn't anything wrong with me. It also showed me that a world where I can be accepted does exist.
Your book taught me that some people will forever be a part of us.
This book made me want to help the young teenagers that get bullied many times throughout their life.
Your poem has pushed me to become the best person I can be, not becoming someone else.
I was searching in those books for a real explanation of my emotions and fears. I at least wanted someone who understood how I felt, so confused.
I will shoot for the stars and beyond because you've taught me no matter how rough things get you can achieve anything.
Reading your book has changed my viewpoint of the world. It's as if someone has lifted a great storm cloud away from my eyes, and now I can see.
I now know that I need to cherish my childhood. I realize that having intuitiveness and a great imagination is very important in life, and that I don't have to let myself be judged.
Your book has given me an immense appreciation for human emotions, teaching me how we need to accept all of it in order to be truly happy, instead of selecting what we choose to feel.
One could argue that these books would not have had such an impact on readers if the author had written largely in passive voice, used a lot of adverbs, and relied primarily on "telling" rather than "showing." That may be the case. I don't recommend rejecting "the rules" out of hand. But it seems obvious to me from reading these Letters About Literature that young people bond with characters who reach out and touch them and stories that stay with them long after they close the book.

Mechanics and techniques have their place, but only when we write from the heart does our work have the potential to change lives for the better.


  1. I found those letters very interesting, and it is clear that young people like to identify and relate to what they are reading. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Very true, Helen! These students wrote to such a huge variety of authors, living and dead -- from Daniel Defoe to Maya Angelou to J.K. Rowling to Will Smith. They also read these books for various reasons: because someone gave them the book, because someone recommended that they read the book, and because they saw the book in a library or store and were drawn to it. I always learn so much from judging this contest!


So, what do you say?