Are You Too Old (or Too Young) to Become a Writer?

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One lovely reader wrote to me a few weeks ago. The subject of her email was “Am I too old to become a writer?”

I opened it up, assuming she was in her 70s or 80s.

No.

She was 37.

Here’s part of my reply to her:

Plenty of people wait till they’re retired — heck, I’m sure to a lot of just-getting-started writers, you’re young. Hurrah for you getting on with the novel now!

But whatever her age, my answer would’ve been the same: you’re not too old. Keep writing.

Because you’re never too old to become a writer.

Getting Started Young Does Help, But …

Obviously, if you start writing seriously and regularly when you’re still in your teens, you’ll have plenty of years of practice – and thousands, perhaps even millions of words, under your belt by the time you’re 37.

And that does give you a bit of an advantage.

We do sometimes hear about authors who get a very early start on success – I’m thinking people like Zadie Smith and Helen Oyeyemi – but the reason they make headlines is because they’re the exception.

Most writers wanted to write for a long time before they ever took that calling seriously.

And most writers who get started a little later have a ton of other advantages. They’ve got a lot more experience of life – and more to write about. They may have gained other skills (like marketing, or public speaking) that will help them get their writing career off to a quick start.

If You Wish You’d Started Writing Sooner: Focus Forward Not Backward

Trust me, I have spent my share of time regretting things I didn’t do (like: getting on with my writing) in the past.

But I can’t go back. You can’t go back. Time and energy spent wishing we could is entirely wasted.

I’m not suggesting you should try to forget what didn’t go so well for you. Instead, learn from it.

Focus forward: what’s going to change? Ten years from now, you could have a half-dozen finished books under your belt. How will you make that happen?

The time will pass – whether or not you use it well.

Whatever life looks like right now, find a way to carve out some time to write. Start that novel. Because you don’t want to look back, ten or twenty or thirty years from now, and wish you’d done things differently.

If You Really Do Feel Old: Ageism and Writing

Older writers might worry that they won’t be taken seriously by agents or publishers or readers, or why they might be reluctant to join a writing course that they fear will be full of bright young 20-somethings.

The reality will – hopefully! – be different, but it’s hard to deny that we live in an ageist society – particularly for women.

Now, I’m very aware as I write this that I’m 31.

I can’t write about what it’s like to feel invisible because of your age, or to feel that people don’t take you seriously because they think of you as some little old dear.

I can’t write about what it’s like to put your writing aside for 20 years to raise a family or to work a job that’s not your calling – only to finally have the opportunity when you retire.

(If you have had those sorts of experiences, I’d love it if you’d add them in the comments, to help round out this post a bit.)

I would encourage you, though, not to give in or give up. Try out that writing course (the courses and groups I’ve attended have always had a healthy proportion of older writers). Put your work out there.

If You’re Much Younger: Getting a Head Start

Of course, some writers get serious very early on. I started writing novels when I was 13.

The big danger here is feeling like you’ve got your whole life ahead of you. Well, you do … but it’s very easy for those years to slip by, while you’re waiting to feel “ready” to become a writer.

You’re never going to feel ready.

You’re never going to know everything you think you should know.

You’re never going to have read all the books you think you should have read.

The very best way to grow as a writer is to write: steadily and consistently, for years, while life goes on. The sooner you start your apprenticeship, the sooner you’ll be able to see your work out there in the world.

Of course, there are advantages to waiting. If I’d begun at 18 instead of 13, I’d have no doubt been more skilled at writing. I’d have known more.

The novel I wrote in my teens was – looking back – nowhere near a publishable standard. But I had plenty of fun and learnt a lot along the way.

Ultimately … you will never be too old, or too young, to be a writer. Don’t let other people’s expectations and biases – however heavy those may feel – hold you back.

Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

13 thoughts on “Are You Too Old (or Too Young) to Become a Writer?

  1. I’d almost like to be someone’s “little old dear”! Having said that, I’d probably hate it if/when it happens1 HA! Age can also give perspective on many things that younger people haven’t experienced. However, young people have an amazing perspective these days that people born in the 1950’s (like me) can sometime struggle with. Anyway, love and appreciate your coments.

    • Thanks Sue! I suppose we all have a different and unique perspective, whatever our age … the trick is to recognise that and make the most of it. 🙂

  2. Thanks for the encouragement, Ali. I’m 43 and, although I’m writing via a TinyLetter (and enjoying it), often worry that I don’t have a clear direction with my writing.

    Should I write poetry? Should I write non-fiction? Should I try my hand at short stories? Should I write about faith explicitly? Should I not?

    I’d like to write a book, but it seems like a big undertaking, and I don’t want to go down the wrong track. I also don’t want to live in regret!

    I guess my approach at the moment is to just try and build a regular writing habit and see if, maybe, a direction/pattern comes out of that. But I do often panic about the fact that life is short and getting shorter.

    Any advice?

    • Good questions, Chris! I’d suggest that initially you give yourself a set period of time — maybe six months — to focus on building a regular habit, and see where it leads you. I stumbled into blogging by accident in 2008, after a period working on short stories, off and on … and I’ve never looked back!

      After six months of regular writing, though, I think it’s worth sitting down and asking yourself what you’d like to have achieved in, say, 3 years or 5 years time. It sounds like you’re already feeling at least a bit drawn to the idea of writing a book — yes, it’s a big undertaking, but if you wrote just 150 words per day, you’d have a full finished draft after a year.

      (Your comment was 129 words, so 150 really isn’t all that much!)

      Best of luck — and keep me posted on how your writing goes. 🙂

      • Thanks, Ali. That’s a good suggestion. I think I might do that.

        I’ve just started writing poetry again (first time since I was a teenager, although I used to write lyrics for bands). I’m not sure where that’s going to head yet, but six months will probably be long enough to tell me whether I’m going to stick with it. And if I do, perhaps the book will be a poetry collection. 🙂

  3. I am in my fifties and I am happy to start writing seriously again after a long break. I used to write articles for a newspaper in Nigeria when I was in my twenties. Now having raised a family(my six children are adults now), I am more experienced now to write on issues of love, the home and family life which is my area of interest. So nothing is wasted.

    • With six children, you must have a huge amount of experience to draw on! Hope you enjoy getting back into writing. 🙂

  4. Thank you Ali for this post. Also I have another question around this post: I’m an arabic native speaker and I wanted to start writing at English. Is it good or should I write at Arabic firstly. Thank you again

    • It’s entirely up to you, Mai. Can you write in both, to begin with? It would probably be good to write in Arabic to develop broad writing skills (like structuring a piece of writing) and to write in English to become more comfortable and confident with the vocabulary and grammar of English. Best of luck with your writing, whatever language you choose to work in!

  5. Glad I came across this article. Great encouragement for this Generation Xer.

    I have been working on a book for several years now about my son with Down syndrome and non-verbal autism, but between caring for him and homeschooling my other three children (just graduated the oldest), I have found my writing and blogging taking a back seat.

    I am also trying to figure out how to make money by writing ( I must work at home to care for my son and homeschool) but I’m finding that difficult as well. I’m trying to get my motivation and momentum up to explore some possibilities and submit articles over the summer. Thanks for the encouragement!

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