By Alex Jones and Adil Alvi
Advice on avoiding condescension, getting in the reader’s head, and helping young thinkers produce their best-quality writing.
Why are teenagers prone to philosophizing?
Writing is often used to express opinions, whether implicitly or explicitly. However, some - especially teenagers - may grow overconfident in their own opinions. Teens are young and don't understand the world as well as they eventually will. Thus, they turn towards a kind of philosophizing that readers don't exactly appreciate. Signs of such philosophizing often include the half-hearted development of Plato-esque concepts, a heavy dose of abstract statements, and verbose but meaningless concluding sentences thrown in for effect.
Teens who attempt such philosophy often lose the structural and conceptual integrity of their work. An individual should not trade authenticity for the sake of showing off. As a teenager, I can vouch for the fact that many of us are very politically aware. As such, we believe we can make a positive impact on the world by providing their insights, such as our opinions on controversial political issues or on long-standing metaphysical queries. For instance, we might be moved to present our views on gun control and the social epidemic of gun violence, or the origins of morality and the existence of an “innate” sense of goodness. Many teen writers attempt to emulate the styles of famous writers throughout history. For example, some might want to incorporate Shakespearean language in their philosophizing to intensify the effect of their message. While there is nothing innately wrong with this, it is important to remember that a writer’s style should be as personal and from-the-heart as possible. Adolescence is a time of perpetual change, especially in terms of biological and hormonal changes. It is often because of these changes that teenagers are inclined towards states of profound reflection and questioning. This often shows in their writing, as they may be trying to pursue the world’s most famous unanswered question, or simply just trying to tackle the twenty first century. Often, because they are at the beginning of their writing careers, it is very common for their ideas, including their more philosophical ones, to be underdeveloped. This simply requires some more writing, and teenagers will be able to expand on their philosophizing to reach a degree of maturity that only age can bring.
How do teens tend to philosophize? (Alex)
Although adolescents are anything but a monolith, it’s worth noting the several trends I’ve seen working at Polyphony in the way teenagers view, contemplate, and question the world around them. Many of these patterns stem from the stage of life that teenagers are in: as they transition from childhood to adulthood, and develop the capacity to think critically and abstractly about profound concepts, they’re bound to skew toward particular modes of thought, especially those that call into question the status quo or long-standing intellectual presumptions. Additionally, the type of thinking teens are exposed to in school or through media play a role in shaping their own thoughts. So while this list is nowhere near comprehensive, it addresses some of the recurring philosophical inquiries that I’ve witnessed both as an editor and as a teenager in general.
A theme that pops up often in the pieces I’ve read at Polyphony, and in other teens’ works, is that of human existence. Some works attempt to address the purpose of humans’ presence on Earth, or perhaps even the narrator's purpose as an individual. In doing so, these authors may pose and attempt to answer questions such as: Why are humans endowed with such exceptional intelligence and creative potential? How are we supposed to make best use of this potential? Do we have obligations that go beyond our species’ survival and prosperity? How can we justify humans’ actions as inherently meaningful?
Other times, pieces toy with or directly hit upon the nature of existence without seeking to assert an opinion on it, exploring topics such as the character of human thought and emotions, the reasoning (or lack thereof) behind human institutions, and the way our perceptions of reality can often differ.
As noted above, existentialism is a natural philosophical area for teens to delve into as they lose their innocence, confront the reality of death, and make decisions accordingly. Many teens, who haven’t had significant experience with reading philosophical works, tend to put forth these types of fundamental questions in their writing, as opposed to working with a specific school of thought as professional writers sometimes do (take Camus’ Absurdist writing, or Ayn Rand’s Objectivism). The questioning of one’s existence and its manifold implications is certainly a topic that, while addressed by people in all stages of life, is particularly evident in teens’ nascent philosophical work.
Though this is a broad category to cover (as are all of these), this is a philosophical trend I’ve seen various times during my time at Polyphony. Sometimes, questions of morality are embedded in the characters’ conflicts; other times, they’re faced more directly in poetry or essay-style writing. Like existentialism, this is a philosophical tendency that is partially explained by the stage of life teenagers are in. While as a child they were relatively powerless against society’s laws, conventions, and shared principles, and therefore accepted these realities at face value, many have begun to deeply question the origin of all these structures by adolescence.
Teens also often take an especial interest in questions of “pure morality”—i.e., the Utilitarian dilemma of sacrificing one person in order to save the many—and this sometimes manifests itself in their writing.
Some of the specific questions that teens’ writing feature might include: Why are society’s generally accepted laws, values, and moral principles the way they are? How can these stances be justified? Who even decides on these important questions? What makes one culture’s conception of morality more correct than another’s? Does the concept of objective “correctness” apply to morality? How does one approach moral ambiguity?
Teens also grapple with more specific moral questions in their works, sometimes bringing up social issues or incidents and using them as an example to either get across a point or to simply raise moral questions about these topics for the reader to ponder. For instance, authors may center their piece around abortion, gun violence (we received at least one of these last year), minorities’ struggles, cultural tensions, war and conflict (I personally read one that I suspect was authored in Syria), religion, feminism, or various other subjects. In reading their works, I’ve gotten a glimpse into how other teenagers process moral questions of all scale and type, and I’ve found oftentimes that their deepest convictions on these issues are best expressed creatively.
Metaphysics is an enormously broad area that really covers every other philosophical inquiry that hasn’t been addressed above (and it overlaps which all of them in some way). It deals with the most fundamental questions in philosophy, such as questions of being, meaning, and cause, and seeks to penetrate deeper into these topics than other philosophical areas do. Since this category is so expansive, it’s a common element in many teens’ writings; that is to say, it’s not difficult to find a piece of adolescent literature that deals with some metaphysical question at some point within it.
The concepts that are conventionally referred to as “metaphysics” are broad not only in variety, but also in level of abstraction. Because of this, some teens will address, implicitly or explicitly, the more apparent metaphysical questions, such as: How can we prove our own existence? How about anything else’s existence? Do we have free will? What is the meaning of “self,” and how does this identity shape one’s experience? Often these questions will be placed somewhere in the work very much indirectly—a character may be in a quandary resulting from their uncertainty on one of these ideas, or maybe a poetic motif is closely linked to some metaphysical concept.
However, some teenagers will dig deeper into the questions—more accurately, the assumptions or “presuppositions”—that underlie the above set of inquiries. These questions include: How can one justify logic’s correctness without relying on logic? What is the essence of time? What is the purpose of seeking truth in the first place? What is the nature of knowledge, and is there a distinction between objectivity and subjectivity? What is virtue, and what purpose does it serve?
As with the other modes of philosophizing, metaphysical contemplation comes with the stage of life that teenagers are in, and this is especially apparent in many of the pieces we get at Polyphony. These teens’ interest in literature, of course, does nothing if not fuel their inquisitive attitude about the world around them, and this is evident in the topics they often choose to write about.
Common flaws in teens’ philosophical writing (Alex)
Intellectual laziness or ambiguity in making a philosophical point:
Sometimes, no matter how sound their intentions in penning a work, authors suffer from lack of coherence or clarity in getting their philosophical messages across. This, of course, isn’t something of which only younger writers are guilty—sloppy philosophizing is an offense regularly committed by authors of all ages, as thinking clearly yet rigorously about the most pressing topics in life is no easy task. But teens’ relative lack of experience often leads to them presenting philosophical views that are muddy or disjointed, which can make an otherwise well-written piece fall flat to our editors.
For example, an author may form their piece around the theme of anthropocentrism, speculating on the attributes of humans that make us exceptional. However, instead of putting forth their stance on this clearly—by implying, for instance, that our intelligence is both a gift and a burden—they may use such nebulous and clumsy phrases as “We know this blessing to be also a curse, but in our search for purpose, we are led astray.” Teens may also just have a vague idea of what they would like to get across, and could possibly be on to something meaningful, but they often haven’t taken the time to think out these ideas fully. So although in their mind it seems their words will come off as profound, poetic, and keenly perceptive, this often translates to something like “People think they know their desires, but their wishes perpetually circle back to disappoint yet again” on the page (we can all see this made-up sentence is vague, though it likely has a kernel of truth hidden somewhere there).
Dependency on clichés
I practically don’t need to state this because it’s so prevalent in many younger writers’ works, but philosophical clichés represent a huge faux-pas in writing of any sort. We can all think of plenty of hackneyed dictums off the top of our heads, such as “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger” (originally Nietzsche, and yes, I had to Google that) and “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” And while these clichés don’t usually appear verbatim in authors’ work—almost every serious writer knows better than to do that—we do see spin-offs of these trite aphorisms in some form or another sometimes in pieces that are submitted to us.
I’ll be frank here—a decent amount of the time, it’s pretty clear that authors throw in bits and pieces of philosophical insight that they gleaned from material they read in class, which makes for an incoherent and strikingly amateur version of whoever their teachers forced them to read. Now, of course it’s fine to emulate your favorite authors, or create writing inspired by their general philosophical outlook, or condense various authors’ ideas in order to mold your own worldview (there’s really no other way to do so). But if you just read The Great Gatsby, and bust out worn-out clichés about disillusionment and the myth of the American Dream, or you just read Greek myths and lazily butcher the themes of the Orpheus story and pass it off as your own, our editors aren’t going to be especially impressed. The problem with clichés—and this sounds obvious when it’s put into words—is that they don’t represent a writer’s actual thoughts, which is precisely what this magazine intends to showcase.
Philosophy just for philosophy’s sake:
This topic sort of overlaps with what was said above about clichés, and it can be summed up like this: if you feel as if you need to add a distinctive philosophical element to your story just to make it seem more “profound,” or “moving,” or valid in some other superficial sense, then it’s probably best just to avoid philosophizing altogether. Sometimes, I’ll read over a piece that is otherwise well-written and sincere, one in which the author’s voice shines through and doesn’t feel forced, but then the author will toss in some philosophical musing as an afterthought just to legitimate the piece. I’m truly not judging on this, because I know how it feels to submit a piece of literature as an inexperienced author and fear that it’s just not “good” enough. But if philosophical ideas are just sprinkled in as an afterthought, then readers will pick up on this, and won’t take these ideas seriously. On the other hand, if an author communicates their message without feeling the need to inject philosophical significance into it, chances are the readers (and editors) will have a clearer idea of what they’re trying to say.
Addressing these from the editorial side (Adil)
As an editor, it is often difficult to critique such pieces in a way that is neither offensive nor condescending. I personally worry that I come across as rude or offensive. So while these fears are by no means irrational, it is always important to read over the commentary as though you are the writer receiving it. Putting yourself in their shoes often helps alleviate any tension you may feel.
Furthermore, certain topics are also more sensitive than others. Teen writers will often include their philosophizing in a range of pieces, some of which may touch on very serious subjects. In regards to these, it is always very important to acknowledge the fact that the writer may have gone through a lot before writing this piece, and so commending them for their bravery will always make them feel better. After all, it costs nothing to be nice, especially if you have the opportunity to weave the kindness into something like editorial commentary.
An argument does arise, however, in that the purpose of teenage philosophizing rarely comes through in a lot of pieces. Some editors may feel a little frustrated as to why an abstract concept is being relayed in an especially convoluted way. It is very normal for editors to feel this way— after all, frustration is a human feeling. What should matter here is how we choose to express that feeling, because the authority that we have been given as editors is one that should be acknowledged so that we remember not to sound overly emotive with our feedback.
Keeping in line with that idea, another key aspect of the editing process should be using constructive feedback to relay how you feel. While this is something that all editors were told before they started editing, it is completely normal to forget about it in the moment. Therefore, I’d advise editing the piece over a period of time, not in a quick paced manner. That way, editors would be able to go over their feedback and make sure that they don’t simply criticize, but also provide solutions to improve the writing.
Throughout this process, it is of utmost importance that we as editors recognize that every writer is not only a human, but a human who has hopes of getting their piece published and of growing as a writer. Therefore, each piece will have their own unique areas that require development, and philosophizing is a very common aspect of writing that fledgling authors struggle with. No philosopher was born skilled in this art—they had to progress over time and through hours of earnest dedication, as will our teen writers if they wish to succeed. It is our duty as editors to guide them on this expressive journey, applying our know-how to the task of helping authors articulate their most profound thoughts in a way that is both clear and impactful.
An outspoken, respectfully unapologetic and perhaps overly empathetic activist, Adil Alvi is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit.
Alex Jones is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit. Outside of editing, Alex also enjoys running track, working out, playing jazz and pop songs on the piano, learning about politics and philosophy on YouTube, reading up on history, and translating worn-out American radio hits into French (in his head) to give them new life.