Writing improves with practice and often deepens with the maturity of its creator. For this reason, when youthful writers make news for earning an editorial position at a prestigious magazine or coming out with a best-selling novel, we can’t help but take notice. These six writers and editors have refused to let their youth impede their careers. Instead, they’re forging ahead, letting the work speak for itself.
Charlie Hickerson, 24
Managing editor, Native
How has editing improved your writing?
Immensely. It’s made me really think about writing scannably and with a lot of cohesion and [flow]. My favorite pieces [from our freelancers] are always ones that you forget you’re reading, and before you know it, it’s done. Trying to make my writing more like that is what editing has done for me.
What are your pet peeves as an editor?
My American lit professor in college, who was a notorious hard-ass, said on the first day of all his classes, “If you do your work well and on time, we’re never going to have any problems.” This is a gripe of editors everywhere, but man, turn in your stuff on time. Please.
What makes you accept a pitch?
We’re a little weird [at Native] because we do all long-form profile pieces, but I just have to know that there is a person to focus on in a band or business or restaurant or whatever, and that they have a story and they’ve lived some life and are going to open up. The 20-year-old who just signed a record contract at Capitol hasn’t sometimes had that much life under [his or her] belt to talk about, so I might take somebody that has less notoriety or fame if I feel that their story is stronger.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
I’m just learning how to communicate with a bunch of very, very different people, because every contributor is an individual. Everybody is bringing their own perspective, and when you’re like us and you don’t have any staff writers – we’re all freelance photographers and writers, that’s upwards of 30 people I’m dealing with on a regular basis.
You mentioned you’re in a band and you write songs – how is the process of writing songs similar to the magazine writing you do?
Songwriting is always more personal, but I think they access the same part of the brain. For me, it’s all about formulation and organization of thoughts, getting this vague idea and hammering it into something that’s tangible. When you’re writing an article, you’re taking all of that pre-writing and research, the transcription, and anything else you might have picked up from other sources, and making this cohesive whole. Songwriting [is] kind of the same thing, because you’re taking a range of thoughts, emotions, phrases you’ve heard, [and] interactions, and forming it into this whole.
Samantha Shannon, 24
Author, The Bone Season and The Mime Order
London, United Kingdom
How did you build the world of The Bone Season and The Mime Order?
I started with the seed of an idea and built it up from there, like the layers of an onion. When I write any novel, I usually begin with broad concepts, like the fact that the government persecutes clairvoyants, and then work out the fine details, like what the characters are eating and drinking and what sort of music they listen to.
Why did you decide to create a whole new set of vocabulary and meanings for The Bone Season?
Not all of the words are entirely new. Many are based on real Victorian slang, though I’ve tweaked their usage or meaning a little to fit into my world. I was inspired to do that after reading A Clockwork Orange. For me, slang gives a world color and makes it jump off the page. I love playing with language in my books: glossaries, made-up words, languages that no human can speak.
You wrote a novel before The Bone Season that didn’t get published. What did you learn from that experience?
I learned how to commit to writing a novel and see it through to the end. I don’t consider the years I spent on that manuscript wasted – I integrated some of the better ideas into The Bone Season.
Are there are any downsides to achieving success as a writer so young?
I know I still have a lot to learn, and I sometimes worry that I’ll look back in many years’ time and wonder if I could have written the books in a better way if I’d had more experience in the craft, but experience isn’t always to do with age. You can be older but have never written a book before. I’d been writing pretty much every day for seven years when I started The Bone Season, so I did have a lot of practice.
Bijan Stephen, 24
Associate editor, The New Republic
Brooklyn, New York
Where do you find ideas for your stories?
I do a lot of reading. Current events help, other times people come to me with ideas. A lot of things come out of conversations with friends, going to dinner or going to parties, and getting drunk and yelling at each other and realizing, oh, this could be a thing.
What are the keys to getting lots of assignments as a freelancer?
If your ideas are good, people will continue to get in touch with you because they like the way you think. Maybe being a writer is about presenting the way that you think to the world, and it doesn’t really matter what kind of pieces you do, but you have a mindset and that’s what you’re bringing to the table.
What advice do you have for writers entering today’s job market?
If you have a desk job, keep your job until it hampers the work you find yourself getting. If you have a desk job and The New Yorker is like, “Hey, we want you to write this piece for print, and it might fuck up your life,” you have to say yes to the print thing. You have to say yes to fucking up your life. Do the [desk job] until there is a very clear crossroads. Do both until you can’t anymore.
Mariana Tinoco-Rivera, 28
Founder and editor, Squad, an Emerson College Launch Program project
Publishing and writing graduate student at Emerson College
How did you come up for the idea for Squad, the magazine you pitched to Emerson’s Launch Program?
For a while, I had been noticing these websites that were doing really well, like Refinery29, Bustle, these magazines that are trying to break with the idea that a woman is just interested in fashion and beauty and celebrities, which – I love those subjects, but it’s not all about that. In Mexico, I have never seen a site or magazine that has that kind of content for women. So
I just starting thinking, why not do this kind of magazine for women
How has it been going?
It’s been great. This is my first semester in the program, and I’ve been talking to all kinds of people either in the magazine business or [with experience] starting a business of some kind. I’ve been telling them about my idea and asking: What do they think? What should I do first? How should I spend my money? The program is great in that sense. You get a
lot of help that you probably won’t get anywhere else.
What kinds of things have they suggested to you?
They’ve given me ideas of, for example, how do market research and how to save money. The logical thing would be to start with the product right away, but a lot of people said why don’t you just start growing on social media and actually build an audience before you [build the website]. Sometimes it’s better to prove your idea and then build something you know is going to work instead of just having an idea and jumping on it.
How do you create a good relationship between editor and writer?
You have to come to a middle point to understand what they want and what you want. I don’t believe that just because you’re an editor you should decide everything. This is a business of a lot of ego. Editors have a lot of ego, and writers are super offended when something is changed, and that’s reasonable. I used to be like that, too, and I’m like that still sometimes, but you have to learn to be humble.
Jazmine Hughes, 24
Associate editor, New York Times Magazine
Brooklyn, New York
What are the challenges you face as a young person in this field?
Most of the challenges have stemmed from within. Hiring managers or editors or people who have presided over me in whatever form have ranged from either totally nonplussed to mildly tickled about how young I am. If you can do the work, you can do the work. It doesn’t matter how old you are.
Do you ever worry about burnout after having success so early in your career?
I used to be really afraid that I was going to be working in a diner with only half of my current amount of teeth in 10 years because clearly I’ve gotten far in my career at a very early age and I’ve worked really hard, but that also means that I put a lot of pressure on myself.
I used to think of goals as incredibly long-term things, and then the reason I got so freaked out about burnout was I achieved those goals super quickly. Now the way I avoid burnout is to not think about 10 years from now. Planning ahead is super great, but it’s also super stressful, and I’m learning that I’m not the type of person who can really mentally support that.
How does an article come together for you?
I generally can’t start writing a piece until I come up with the opening line. I think of a subject, and I’ll meditate on that for a couple days and then the opening line will come to me and I can start writing. Then I write out just what comes to mind, straight stream of consciousness. I save it, I don’t look at it for ranging from a couple hours to a couple days, and then I open a new document and I try to type what I remember. Then I compare the two, and then I pick the best sentences from both and I make a third Word document.
What have you learned from your editorial position at the New York Times Magazine?
My boss, Charlie Homans, did this extraordinary helpful thing when I started where he started sending me first drafts of published pieces and then I would compare that to the actual published piece. It’s really easy to think that all these brilliant writers that you admire so much turn in this perfect lean copy all the time – and many do, they’re freaks – but most people don’t. Most people have to go through rounds and rounds of edits. Once I saw the differences between what people handed in to Charlie and what Charlie pulled out of them, [I was like,] “Editors do the lord’s work. We’re the most important people in the world.”
Jack Tien-Dana, 18
Freelance basketball writer, Rolling Stone
Scholastic Art & Writing Awards National Medalist, 2015
New York, New York
What was the first piece of sports writing you did?
The first real piece of sports writing I did was the first piece I wrote for Rolling Stone [“Hoop Dreams: Winner Take All at the Basketball Tournament’s $1 Million Game,” Aug. 3, 2015]. I had done well in that Scholastic competition, so I felt like I could write; it was just a matter of finding an editor who would take a chance on me.
What has it been like interviewing pro athletes?
It’s been kind of weird. When I did that piece on Jimmer Fredette, there were people in the background going, “Almost Famous!” [The athletes] have been cool about it. I look young, but Rolling Stone is a name and they don’t want to, like, look down on the reporters.
Your parents – Will Dana, former editor of Rolling Stone, and Ellen Tien, former New York Times Style section columnist – are both writers. How has that affected your development as a writer?
My mom is a huge influence to me. She’s the person that taught me to write. She used to pull up a stool next to the desk and narrate to me what she was doing as she wrote her column. [She taught me to] keep working on extending my vocabulary, because a writer is only as good as his words, and to watch the rhythm and pacing of my sentences.
What do you like about writing?
I like being able to express myself. I like writing for Rolling Stone because I like to know that people hear what I’m saying. I think it’s really cool that I’m an 18-year-old kid from New York and that people care about what I say; at least, I like to think people care what I say.
Megan Kaplon is a regular contributor to The Writer.
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