Personal drive can help you move closer to reaching your writing goals. But even passionate, dedicated writers will find the writing path hard if they lack solid writing skills and knowledge.
Luckily, writing help is widely available and comes in many forms—classes and workshops, books and magazines, mentoring, blogs and websites. Writing education is a huge, lucrative market, with few quality controls, so heed the classical warning, caveat emptor—buyer beware.
When checking out educational opportunities to improve their writing, people tend to focus on five factors:
1-Costs & benefits. Prices range from freebies to exorbitant. What are you willing to spend? More importantly, what do you expect to get in return, in terms of increased knowledge and skills?
2-Delivery mode. Sometimes we choose an educational mode because it is convenient and comfortable, and other times we look for something unusual, taking us out of our comfort zone. Do you want the ‘any time, any where’ convenience of an online class, or a traditional classroom experience? Do you like the individualised attention a mentor can provide? Does independent study appeal, such as creating your own must-read list of writing articles, websites, blogs and books?
3-Duration and selectivity. At one end of the spectrum are the short, basic writing workshops, open to anyone. At the other end are specialised offerings, such as long-term masterclasses, often with selective enrolment. In terms of your current writing skills, experience and knowledge, where are you on this spectrum?
4-Content level and scope. Some writing-based subjects take a broad focus, e.g., the history of the novel, and some have a narrow focus, e.g., your novel’s first 20 pages. In terms of level and scope of content, your educational needs need to align with your writing goals. Do you like writing for the sheer fun of creating? Or do you pursue writing primarily as a personal investigation, to make sense of your life and explore ideas that interest you? Or is writing a major passion that you hope to turn into a major career?
5-Teaching expertise. Writers, editors, writing educators—all offer workshops and other educational opportunities. What kind of expertise do you expect, and why? Remember, not every writer is a great teacher, so investigate.
What is your preferred learning mode?
Positive learning experiences depend, in part, on how well they align with your preferred learning mode. When you process information, do you depend on the visual, aural, kinesthetic, or logical?
I once enrolled in an Introductory French class where the first fortnight focused on aural immersion. The textbook was withheld while the teacher spoke French. As a predominantly visual learner, I was adrift. When I was allowed to open my textbook and see the dialogue, French started to make sense.
Occasionally, you can gain insights when you move away from your dominant learning mode. Most of my uni assignments in literature required me to write research papers. But one professor let me submit an ‘artistic’ project in lieu. I had a great time creating a visual response to my chosen novel. The process, by taking me away from my usual learning mode, gave me insights that I would not have thought of.
- Visual. Do you process information best when you see it? Relevant learning activities include reading, note taking, observing, and getting visual information (charts, maps, pictures, diagrams, demonstrations).
- Aural. If you are hearing-oriented, you may prefer learning via talking books, CDs, lectures and discussions.
- Kinesthetic. Do you learn best through doing? Action-oriented activities include roleplaying, making models, and interviewing.
- Logical. Do you process information best when you identify a subject’s underlying ‘system’ or logic? Find learning activities that highlight explanations, well-structured information, and the theories and developments that underpin a subject.
Interpersonal or intrapersonal?
We also differ in terms of the degree of interactivity we feel comfortable with. People who are strongly interpersonal tend to learn best when they participate with others, e.g., informal discussions, question-and-answer sessions.
People who are strongly intrapersonal ted to prefer educational opportunities where interaction with others is minimal. Examples: Structured online or traditional classes, books on writing, individualised help via a mentor. I’m happier and achieve more when learning on my own or when I’m in a structured learning environment, such as a formal class that has a subject matter expert as leader, a syllabus, specific tasks, and clear outcomes.
What type of writing education best suits you?
What if you had the chance to have famous writer as your roomie and mentor?
In the ’60s, when writer Jenny Diski was 15, she was expelled from school and, as she puts it, ‘stuck in a loony bin where no one knew quite what to do with me.’ The person who took her in and ‘saved’ her was the famous British writer, Doris Lessing. (Click this link to read Diski’s article in The Guardian.)
1. Call it working, not writing.
Lessing showed Diski what it means to establish a purposeful writing life. For Lessing, being a writer held no glamour: ‘When I’m writing, nothing else happens here.’
Perhaps this is why Diski prefers the term working rather than writing. In a way, it makes sense. Saying you are writing sometimes gives people the wrong idea.
It’s like the term gardening. I live where there are many show gardens. The people who maintain them do hard labour—weeding, hanging off a ladder to prune trees, fertilising, mowing, replanting. But I suspect that for some non-gardeners, the term conjures up a restful image, of trailing along perfect garden paths, stopping to cut a few flowers or make minor decorative changes.
2. Shorten the mental distance between your thoughts and your writing.
Diski remembers the ‘sharp clatter of keys hitting the platen’ when Lessing was working. Lessing drafted her work on her typewriter, Diski does the same at her computer. Diski believes touch typing creates ‘the shortest possible distance’ between thoughts and writing.
3. Know thyself and just get on with writing.
Lessing wrote in order to earn a living but also to ‘fulfil her need to be what she was.’ It was Lessing’s ‘implacable understanding of what it is to be a writer’ that showed Diski what matters most in writing.
It has nothing to do with the decisions about how and what to write. All of that comes later. For Diski, a writer’s elemental focus, ‘before anything else’, is ‘knowing that you are a writer and getting on with it.’ Your writing identity grows out of process, not product. And although writers need to pay attention to both, but it’s a matter of weighting.
I admire process-oriented individuals, who get on with what they love doing. Like my friend who is a botanical illustrator. Her process activities include attending workshops, experimenting with and improving her technique, collaborating with others, setting goals. She also pursues ‘product’, entering work in exhibitions. But she does not let the judges’ decisions define her as an artist. After all, such decisions sit in the laps of the fates.
Putting undue weighting on product can skew writers’ sense of achievement, to the point that they measure that their growth, participation, and success solely in terms of external approval and recognition.
© Marsha Durham, Writing Companion blog on WordPress, 2014.
I’ve been enjoying the wonderful collection of poems this month, chosen by Susie Meserve for America’s National Poetry Month.
Here’s one example, Stationery, from her choices this month. It’s a poem that has stayed in my mind all day.
I enjoy reading poetry, and I seek those special poems, ones with the ability to move me beyond the daily grind and grasp something profound and elemental about life itself.
Need help writing a query letter? The query process can be scary, confusing and alienating, particularly for writers who have yet to chalk up runs on the board in terms of publication.
Jane Friedman has recently added a post on this subject. She targets fiction writers but will be providing another post for those who write nonfiction.
As an inveterate info hunter on the Web, I’m used to an incredibly mixed informational bag in bloglandia. Jane’s post stands out. She’s generous with her experience, educates in a friendly and non-pushy way, and covers most of the bases. And in explaining the rationale for each part of the literary query process, she demystifies it.
There is no guarantee that we’ll be successful when we query, but she shows us how we can be professional.
When researching a writing project, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the material you gather. It may help to remember that the data you collect is only the straw. You still have to spin it into gold to create your book, article, or whatever you are writing.
In the beginning: What start works for you?
Do you research first, write first, or start in some other way?
- Research first. Starting a writing project by first investigating a topic is a familiar process. We learned it when we were students, checking the views of experts before starting an assignment. I suspect many of us also like to start with research because as step one, it’s more engaging than writing. Our early writing can be demoralising as we wrestle with competing thoughts and stare at a blank screen. Research provides action—we hunt down sources, make piles of notes, accumulate enough material to give us a sense of accomplishment.Starting with research is fine—if we control it. It is easy to go too wide or too deep. Some writers collect such diverse information that they end up with information overload, swamped by various points of view and interesting but inconsequential material. Some writers go so deep into a particular topic that they begin to doubt if their individual take on it is worth writing about.
- Write first. Barbara Turner-Vesselago, who teaches a writing approach called Freefall Writing, believes that making writing your first step helps you discover your story/topic. You temporarily remove your analysis hat and write without constraint, capturing the first thoughts that come mind.This approach can enable you to capture more ideas than usual. Because much of this first writing is raw, ragged and wild, you may discover a new direction or find new themes you would not have thought of otherwise. And it may help you identify what you do not know, so that you can focus on where research is needed.
- Question first. Some writers make questions their first step. The answers they come up with help them focus both their writing and research. Examples: Why do I think my topic or story is interesting and of value? What do I most want to communicate about this topic? Why would readers find it valuable or interesting? What kinds of readers would my material attract, and why?The focus on motive helps you assess what and how much material you need. It can also show you what material dissipates this focus, shifting readers’ attention elsewhere.
- The Middle Way or ‘Sandwich’
This approach has three stages:
Base: Undertake a small, focused investigation to discover the most important ideas.
Filling: Develop a loose first draft to see where it leads you.
Top: Conduct further research as needed.
Find the known in the unknown
Once we have our topic and work out what we know and don’t know, we can jump into research—right? Turner-Vesselago suggests one more pre-writing step: Identify whatever you know about unfamiliar areas in your topic.
Her example: We may know nothing about the ‘anxious situation’ that prevailed in the 17th century French court. But by drawing on what we understand about human nature, we can grasp how people may treat each other when in a similar situation.
Motivation and emotions are two important elements that entice readers to keep reading. By focusing on the important issue of WHY, we get a better idea of what and how much to include of the WHEN, WHERE, and other details.
More research while writing
After the initial research and drafting, we usually have more research to undertake. New material comes to hand, new ideas change our thinking.
Turner-Vesselago cautions against halting your writing to undertake more research because you run the risk of never getting back to your writing. I know that problem. I can lose myself in looking up various facts and ideas. When I return to my draft, I find I’ve lost the flow.
Now I resist the urge to stop writing. Instead, I type the word CHEKME at each point where I need information. I make the word a different colour so I can find it easily and sometimes add an explanatory note, such as CHEKME DEATH-DATE. If I’m on a roll but see where more information is needed, I add a quick XXXX. Like CHEKME, it helps locate points to develop later. If you love researching, refraining from looking up material immediately when questions come up may seem like cruel and unusual punishment. Persevere!
Geraldine Brooks is a former journalist now lauded for her award-winning historical fiction (e.g., Year of Wonder, March). She suggests researching only when a writer sees a clear need to do so. In one of her 2011 Boyer Lectures she explains that although facts form the basis of her historical fiction, fiction dictates its design. It is the story that ‘must tell me what it is I need to know.’ Whenever she discovers that she needs more information, ‘only then do I go looking for it.’
© Marsha Durham, Writing Companion blog on WordPress, 2007-2014.
How did you get ‘here’? And what does ‘here’ refer to?
Australia Day originally commemorated a date in 1788 when three ships sailed into what is now Sydney Harbour to found the first British colony here. Now the day is more inclusive, recognising Australian Aboriginals, whose forebears were here centuries before the ships appeared, and recent citizens and residents from many countries.
Radio producer Bellinda Lopez took her microphone, hopped on the commuter trains loaded with people going to the celebrations in Sydney’s CBD this year, and asked the question, ‘How did you get here?’
Responses fell roughly into three categories. People from an Anglo-Saxon background tended to give the station where they boarded the train. Some mentioned their forebears who arrived when Australia was still a British colony, 1778-1900. More recent citizens/residents were apt to explain how and why they immigrated to Australia. Indigenous Australians tended to mention their ancestors’ early presence.
- Do you have a story about how you ‘got here’, however you wish to interpret what ‘here’ is?
- Imagine that one day people who wish to live elsewhere can magically and instantly do so.
Would you take this opportunity? Why or why not? What if there are stipulations? E.g., perhaps once you relocate, that decision cannot be changed, or only certain people or groups are allowed this opportunity.
If people relocate, how would it affect your hometown, or some other place you choose?
Moving away from the resettling topic, the question offers so many possibilities that it is a wonderful writing prompt. Suggestions to explore.
- Create a scene that starts with one character asking another the question, ‘How did you get here?’ What happens next?
- Develop a monologue where the character responds to the question, with the focus on a particular place, time, or situation.
- Choose something from your life that is relevant to telling how you got here. Perhaps you once you found yourself in a particularly good or bad situation.
- Imagine someone—past, present future—asking you this question. How would you respond, taking into account the person and the context?
- Combine the how got here phrase with one or more of these words: anxiety, birthday, clouds, diet, east, frontier, garden, hunting, insurance, jazz, kids, luxury. What can you make of the combo?
- Emphasis. HOW did you get here? How did YOU get here? How did you get HERE
- Location. Where is ‘here’ and why is it of interest? What makes it special?
- Scope. Large (planet, country, region, city)? Medium (school, zoo, prison, holiday spot)? Small (Classroom, cell, roof of building, bedroom)?
- Situation. What’s going on, that causes this question to be asked? Is the situation something to avoid? Confront? Celebrate?
- Time. Is the ‘here’ in the future, present or past? If the past, is this hours ago, or days, months, years or centuries ?
- Mood. What ‘s the dominant mood? Nostalgic? Angry? Scary? Humorous? Is the overall effect positive or negative? Serious/reflective or light-hearted?
- Focus. What’s at the heart of the accounting for getting here? Is there a mystery? A payback? A lesson learned? A relinquishing? A reversal?
A pitch session is an event where you have a short time to talk with a number of experts in the book business—editor , agents, publishers. Whether you are planning to participate in a pitching event, or have arranged to talk with a single literary gatekeeper, you can prepare by treating it like a job interview. Most of us know about job interviews, so what can we draw upon?
Identify your immediate goal
People see a promising job ad and post their resume and cover letter. What’s their immediate goal? It is not to be offered the job. That outcome is farther down the track.
When you are talking with a literary gatekeeper about your manuscript, know what you’re shooting for. Your immediate goal is not a book contract, but an invitation to send more of your work, such as a long synopsis or a complete manuscript.
In a job hunt, cluey applicants identify how their experience and expertise connect with the requirements of the position. You can do the same by identifying how your work is relevant to the gatekeeper’s needs and interests. E.g.,
- Does my material best suit a mainstream publisher, a smaller independent one, or a specialised publisher such as a university press? Why?
- What category describes my material? E.g., young children’s lit, crime fiction, self-help?
- In my chosen category, who are the successes, the big names? How does my work fit in? How does it differ?
- What kind of readers would be attracted to my writing? And why?
Prepare for the big day
A pitch session or a talk with a literary gatekeepers differs from a job interview in one important way. If you get a job interview, the material you have sent has already communicated much about you. The panel is already interested in you and want to know more.
In a pitch session, the people you talk to usually know nothing about you and they have not specifically asked to see you. You may have only 5-10 minutes to interest them in your writing project. It’s a stress-inducing situation, so it pays to prepare.
Aim to hook your listeners, so much so that they will ask you to provide more of your material. ‘Hooking’ strategies include the following:
- Establish rapport. People are more likely to forgive minor glitches if you make a positive connection. Smile, make eye contact. Engaging in a little small-talk at the start can make you appear confident.
- Highlight your strengths and successes. Interview panels assess applicants’ experience and ability, but they also look for positive qualities—commitment, professionalism, enthusiasm. Identify your strong points, as well as concrete examples. E.g., how have you demonstrated professionalism? You may not be asked such questions, but preparing examples can help your confidence.
- Highlight your unique selling point. After you identify how your work can be categorised, it helps to point out how it differs from other works in your chosen genre or subject. Does it provide a different and valuable slant? Create a new niche or significantly expand an old one? Or is its strength that it follows a familiar pattern, such as romance fiction, and does it very well?
Provide a conceptual frame. Job applicants may use a framing device to help the interviewing panel make sense of their work history. The frame is usually a statement of their career goal, and then they write about their various jobs with this goal as their focus for what they include and exclude.
You can provide a similar frame for your writing project. Randy Ingermanson, the famed ‘snow-flake’ writing guy, suggests starting with a one-sentence summary of your material, giving the kernel of your story and focusing on one or two major characters , without using their names. His examples:
- Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone: A boy wizard begins training and must battle for his life with the Dark Lord who murdered his parents.
- Pride and Prejudice: A young English woman from a peculiar family is pursued by an arrogant and wealthy young man.
- The DaVinci Code: A Harvard symbologist and a female French cryptographer solve the puzzle of the Holy Grail in a race against death across Europe.]
After this, provide details. But remember that in this situation, less is more. Try for a maximum of five sentences.
Practise your pitch
Once you work out what you want to convey, practise it so that you are confident about what you can communicate it in the allotted time, with poise and enthusiasm.
Practising out loud what you want to say helps you sharpen your responses and get a better sense of what works and what doesn’t. When I help people prepare for a job interview, I pose questions and have them respond, again out loud. Is there a friend whom you can ask to fire suitable questions at you and give feedback in terms of what you say and how?
It happens at interviews, and it may happen to you at a pitch session: You run into someone who is obnoxious or demeaning. A pitch session is short so try to remain professional and gracious.
And don’t go over to the ‘dark side’ yourself by picking an argument, not answering a direct question, interrupting, talking too much, using inappropriate humour, or getting way off track. I’ve experienced all of these no-nos from applicants when I was on interview panels, and in each case the person was not offered the job.
Diana Jenkins’ article provides a helpful account about participating in a pitch session: Nervous White Female.