By Kris Maze
One of the most rewarding parts of the craft of writing is being able to share it with another writer. Many young writers write in isolation but could benefit from having an older, more experienced writer step in for a little guidance. It could accelerate their writing ability and help them see writing as a career.
Perhaps you have time to take a younger writer under the wing? Maybe you have worked with student writing clubs or volunteered at the library where you interact with teen writers and want to know more strategies to connect with this elusive demographic. Sound interesting? Read on!
Becoming a mentor, whether in a formal sense or simply as an act of being present in a young person’s life, can also be very rewarding for the mentor.
Teens love to use shock factor. Always have and always will. It’s one way they can sniff out whether you are going to really hang around long enough for their real persona to come out and play with writing. Casual swearing, talk about sex, drugs, and music-you-probably-don’t-like could be a way a teen is testing you, to see if you are open to topics that they want to write about. To see if you will enhance or hinder their creative spirit.
Establishing boundaries is important but listen to them first. If an adolescent is too off topic or the subject makes you uncomfortable, tell them so. Define the task you hope to accomplish by offering what you can talk about: writing, editing, finding a solid story line. Guiding the conversation back to those goals can help build a productive and meaningful mentorship.
The teen brain and emotional set is full of fast-moving hormones. It may behove you to remember that they could be polite and put together one day and just a disaster the next. Show interest in their state of being, but continue to focus on writing and see where that goes. Having a lot of emotion can be really nice on paper. Try directing them to write about the bad day they may have had through the eyes of a character.
If your mentee is very upset and unsettled, perhaps ask them to write a journal entry. Offer them to write a brain-dump and get it all-on-paper which they can then shred or safely burn in some metal waste basket.
But if they are overwhelmed, just being present may be enough. Always suggest talking to professionals for additional help if the kiddo you are mentoring is constantly down or shows signs of not bouncing back.
It’s okay to ask if they have a trusted adult to talk to already. They may offer that they have a therapist or that they get life advice from their aunt, neighbor, pastor, or another grown-up in their life. Feel it out and let them know you care but keep it about writing.
Processing takes time. Teens may tear into a topic or need to think it through. One of the most important aspects of learning is time. Let them think and write as they learn their own writing style and process.
The other most important part of learning and of a good mentorship is getting to know your mentee. Listening is not only hearing what they say, but it’s also about how they say it.
Does their greeting sound clipped and terse? Did their words match the tone of your conversation? Is their body language screaming “I JUST BROKE UP WITH MY PERSON!” when they are saying something casual about what they ate for lunch? Pay attention with all your senses and your mentee will appreciate your input more.
Repeat back what you think you heard. When working through difficult topics or simply getting to know your mentee, use good communication skills. A simple one is to parrot back a sentence or two that they tell you, to see if you understood correctly.
“So, you mean to say that being even 1 minute late to first hour means you get a detention, but if it is third hour, you can be late 10 minutes and the teacher doesn’t care. And you don’t think that’s fair?”
“You like to wear Crocs but only with sweatpants. Did I hear that right?”
“There shouldn’t be fruit on pizza. Ever. Not even pineapple. Is that correct?”
Ask clarifying questions. There are many reasons to ask for clarification. Have you experienced these when someone went a little further to develop your conversation?
Try open-ended questions that allow the person you are talking to speak in any direction, including ways you didn’t anticipate.
“Could you tell me more about ____?”
“I want to be sure I heard you correctly. Could you walk me through that explanation again?”
“That must have been a difficult experience. (Or exciting experience, or scary experience…) What did that mean for you?”
Ask extending questions. Asking extended questions is a great way to show you are listening and interested. Simply pick a detail you wonder about and ask for more information.
Try using basic informative aspects to discover, who, what, when, where, if you’re not sure what to ask about. The conversation can take interesting turns when you start digging a little more.
We have a tendency to get excited about sharing about ourselves when we start a mentorship. We want to talk about what we have done and what we can teach and what we think about our mentee’s situation. But sometimes it is better to just sit back and learn about the person we are working with more organically.
It isn’t impressive to teens to talk about your accolades, and it could result in an instant eyeroll. Even if there are legitimate reasons a teen can benefit from you, the relationship should come first. It’s just how they (and many adults) operate. They may have serious goals for writing, but if they don’t connect with you as a person, even the best writing advice and feedback will fall flat.
Try not to talk about yourself too much at the start of your mentoring. And after that usually only if asked once you have been asked for specific details. Remember mentoring can be very effective when the focus is on the mentee.
As writers, we tend to be introverts and hide away in our minds. This can make building a solid mentorship difficult and taxing. Perhaps these suggestions can help facilitate a valuable learning experience for both the writer and the tutor.
Collaborating with young minds is an invigorating and rewarding experience that I hope many of us can share with others. Mentorships help younger writers and impart our experience to them, but rich rewards are waiting for the mentor too. It is edifying to invest in a young person, and even more so if you let the process unfold with a mentee in the focal point.
Kris Maze works in education, teaching Spanish through stories. She writes for various publications including Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish and award-winning blog Writers in the Storm where she is also a host. Maze published a YA dystopian novel by a small press in the summer of 2020. Lately, she has been entering and placing in writing competitions, such as NYC Midnight’s Short Story and Micro fiction contests. You can find her Sci-fi, dystopian, YA series, this summer and keep up with her author events at her website.
Check out her new Sister-Site KrissyKnoxx.com where the fun-filled horror and heart-felt chills creep through the darker side of her YA works.
A recovering grammarian and hopeless wanderer, Kris enjoys reading, playing violin and piano, and spending time outdoors.
And occasionally, she plants seeds.
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I was once a Resource Specialist Program teacher. I worked with K - 6th grade students for math, reading, and writing. This is very much a mentee/mentor situation.
Taking time to process is a big deal. So is looking at a project in chunks instead of having the mind try to grapple with a large project, which a story can become. It can be overwhelming.
What worked for my students was using basic questions and answering them. Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? Then divide into parts, beginning, middle, end.
Listen, ask questions, and as you say, keep the focus on the mentee. This will help with mutual respect, which makes for a fantastic working relationship.
These are great suggestions, Ellen.
I agree about chunking and making their project into smaller, less overwhelming pieces.
It sounds like you had a rewarding experience working with these young writers. 🙂
Yes! The years I taught in Mission Viejo were the best of my teaching career.
A lot of the students were afraid of writing when we began working together. We did our best to make it non-stressful and fun.
The cookbook they wrote was awesome. As was the group book, written about a fairy librarian. There's so many wonderful things one can do when given autonomy as a teacher.
I'm the mom of a teen.
That is the best kind of mentoring! 🙂