Teachers, as I’m sure you all know by now, are an excellent resource. With many students returning to school for fall classes in the next few weeks, we think now is a great time to hit up real-life teachers for some back-to-school advice!
Below is an interview with Carrie Pack, a writer and teacher. Enjoy!
This will be my eighth year teaching at the college level. I have taught everything from beginning journalism to editing, as well as advertising writing and ethics courses.
In the classes I teach, I require several writing styles, including essays, hard news and creative writing. I’ve included short answers on exams and created graphic organizers to help students outline their work. The only types of writing I’ve never taught is creative (at least not long form, like novels or short stories) and poetry.
I believe good grammar is essential. When you write, word meaning and punctuation are extremely important. It’s how we convey meaning. Think of it like this: When we speak we have our tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, rate of speech, and even volume to convey meaning. When we write, all we have is punctuation and the precision of our words.
Because word choice is important, spelling is too. However, spell check has gone a long way to help us be better spellers. You just have to know the difference between loose and lose. Spell check won’t catch that. In my opinion, spelling is less important while writing, but becomes essential when proofing your work. That’s something students don’t do enough of: editing/proofing. Read it out loud. It really helps you to find errors you won’t find while reading silently to yourself.
At the college level, these are really dictated by your discipline. Certain majors prefer MLA and others prefer APA. Because I’ve primarily taught mass communication courses, we prefer MLA for citation style and Associate Press Style (also known as AP Style) for writing, but even that is a hard-and-fast rule. When learning a new style, pay attention to numbers and citations. Those are always the biggest differences for formatting in one style versus another.
Do it. That may sound redundant, but I don’t think students do enough research. At a university, you have so much at your disposal. Don’t waste it. At the college where I teach, the reference librarians are super helpful but remain an underutilized resource. Research for a major term paper can be daunting; I recommend asking an expert—a reference librarian.
Not supporting an argument with evidence and reasoning. If you believe something to be true, you have to cite experts or professionals who agree, and if it’s not direct proof, you have to provide the reasoning that allowed you to come to that conclusion. Your opinion is not enough. This ties into the research question. If you know what you’re talking about—meaning, you did research and a lot of it—it’s much easier to support your arguments with examples or expert opinions.
Being too wordy. We’re all such inefficient communicators. I’d recommend taking a journalism class to learn how to write more concisely. Using empty words and phrases in your writing is the equivalent of using the word “like” repeatedly when you speak. It makes you sound less intelligent, even if you have something really valuable to say.
Writing is something you have to practice—like sports, music, dance, cooking; the more you do it, the better you become. If you remain averse to writing and put it off, you’ll never improve.
Also: just write. Force yourself to get the words on the page. Even if it’s horrible. Write a draft, and then spend most of your time editing. Then edit it again.
Thank you to Carrie for her excellent insights and advice! We hope that you’ve learned something, even if you haven’t seen the inside of a classroom in years.
If you are a teacher and you’d like to be a part of the Ask a Teacher Series, please shoot us a message! We’d love to have you!
If you are writing for fun, and if you don’t want any help, please write any way that works for you. I am not trying to convert you to writing with a plan. It truly does not matter to me how you write. However, if you are struggling to finish a book that makes sense, I would love you to carry on reading.
Why should you do it?
When I used to teach Writers Write regularly, one of the first things I asked students was: How does your story end? I did this for two reasons. Firstly, as much as some people love the idea of working with meandering storylines, it has been my experience that those writers seldom finish writing a coherent book. Secondly, most people who go to workshops or sign up for courses are truly looking for help, and I’ve learned that the best way to succeed in anything in life is to have a plan. Successful people will tell you that you need to know where you’re going before you begin.
Smell the roses
This does not mean that you can’t take time to smell the roses, or explore hidden paths along the way. It simply means that you always have a lifeline and when you get lost, it will be easier for you to find your way back again. Remember that readers like destinations. They love beginnings, middles, and endings. Why do you think fans are terrified that George R.R. Martin will die before he finishes A Song of Fire and Ice? They want to know how the story ends.
Here are seven reasons why I suggest you write your ending first.
- If you know who the characters are at the end of the story, you will know how much you should reveal about them at the beginning.
- You will be forced out of the ‘backstory hell’ that beginner writers inhabit and into the story the reader wants to read.
- Hindsight is an amazing thing. We all know how different life seems when we’re looking back. We can often tell where a problem began. We think about the ‘what ifs’ with the gift of hindsight. You can use this to your advantage in fiction writing.
- You will have something to work towards. Instead of aimlessly writing and hoping for the muse to show you the way, you will be able to pull the characters’ strings and write the words they need to get them from the beginning through the middle to the end.
- Plotting from the ending backwards saves you so much time because you will leave out stuff that isn’t meant to be there. You will not have to muddle through an overwritten first draft.
- Writing the end forces most of us out of our comfort zones. We have to confront the reality of what we are doing. It might not be as romantic as flailing around like a helpless maiden, but if you want writing to be your profession, it’s good to make the outcome visible. This is a way to show yourself that you are serious. The end gives you a goal to work towards.
- The ending is as important as the beginning. Good beginnings get people to read your first book. Great endings get readers to buy your second book.
There are a handful of famous authors, like Stephen King and George R.R. Martin, who say they don’t plot. I think they just don’t realise they are those rare authors – natural born storytellers, and that plotting is instinctive for them. I have interviewed many successfully published authors and I can revel that the majority of them do believe in plotting. They outline, in varying degrees, before they begin. And yes, most of them know what their ending will be. Why don’t you try it? What have you got to lose?
I truly hope this helps you write, and finish, your book.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy 10 (Amazingly Simple) Tips to Get You Back on The Writing Track and The Author’s Promise- two things every writer should do. You could also read The Top 10 Tips for Plotting and Finishing a Book.
Many people talk about wanting to write a book “someday,” but few progress beyond that point. Anyone who has written a novel knows the enormous effort – both physical and mental – that goes into finishing a book, and here are seven reasons you can feel proud of your own efforts.
- Over-explanation. This includes prologues. “Prologues are never needed. You can usually throw them in the garbage. They’re usually put on as a patch.”
- Too much data. “You’re trying to seduce your reader, not burden them,” Friedman said.
- Over-writing, or “trying too hard.” “We think the more description we add, the more vivid it will be; but we don’t want to be distracted from the story” we open the book for.
- Beginning the novel with an interior monologue or reflection. Usually this is written as the thoughts of a character who is sitting alone, musing and thinking back on a story. Just start with the story.
- Beginning the novel with a flashback. Friedman isn’t entirely anti-flashback, but the novel’s opening page is the wrong place for one.
- Beginning a novel with the “waking up sequence” of a character waking, getting out of bed, putting on slippers, heading for the kitchen and coffee…a cliche
- Related cliche: beginning the novel with an alarm clock or a ringing phone
- Starting out with an “ordinary day’s routine” for the main character
- Beginning with “crisis moments” that aren’t unique: “When the doctor said ‘malignant,’ my life changed forever…” or “The day my father left us I was seven years old…”
- Don’t start with a dialogue that doesn’t have any context. Building characterization through dialogue is okay anywhere else but there.
- Starting with backstory, or “going back, then going forward.”
- Info dump. More formally called “exposition.”
- Character dump, which is four or more characters on the first page.
Anonymous asked: Hi, when you ask for advice in terms of how to become a better writer, you usually get the same answer: Write a little EVERY DAY. My questions is: working in your draft, pulling together ideas and working in fleshing out or developing your characters counts? Because I have been working every day in my draft, and I feel more in contact with my creative self, but I feel I’m lacking in terms of writing style.
Yes—even just working in your draft, fleshing out characters, world building, etc., counts to some degree, because it’s still forcing you to work with the pieces of writing, learning how to fit them all together. But you should also make sure you’re actually doing some story writing every day (or as often as possible), even if it’s just a few hundred words. Whether you work on the first draft of your work in progress, or whether you use writing prompts or other exercises to write short stories, it will help you hone your writing style and get practice in things like using different POVs and tenses, crafting metaphors and similes, and colorful description. And the reality is, your writing style won’t blossom into full maturity while you’re working on your first piece, or your second, or your third. It takes time for that to grow and mature, but every single thing you write gets you another step in that direction. So be patient with yourself and just keep writing!
- Where Do Writers Find Their Ideas?
- On Inspiration
- How To Write A Novel
- Getting Started With A Book
- Hints About Writing A Story
- Novel Outlining 101
- From Notes To Novel
- Plotting A Novel
- Why Don’t I Have A Plot, And Where Do I Get One?
- How To Create A Character
- Creating Characters
- Character Creation
- Name That Character! (2)
- You And Your Characters
- How To Write Backstory Without Putting Your Reader To Sleep
- How To Use Foreshadowing
- How To Write Dialogue (2)
- How To Make Your Writing More Interesting
- Writing Block
- How To Get Unstuck
- Advice For Young Writers (2)
- On Word Counts And Novel Length
- Top 4 Ways to Know Your Idea is Novel-Worthy
- How A Book Gets Published
- How Do You Go About Getting Published
And remember: Google is your best friend.
1. Enjoy what you do.Which means, if you don’t love spending hours at the typewriter,
computer, or whatever your medium is, don’t even start. You have to be willing
and ready to spend untold hours writing, rewriting, and writing some more.
2. Be patient.No book has ever been written overnight. You’re in for a long
haul. This may take a year, or more. Oh, and since we’re on it: prepare to write
more than one book. Publishers want authors, not single books.
3. Allow your story to end.This may sound trivial, but in fact it’s crucial, and a
stumbling block for many writers. You need to find an ending to your story, and
let go of it. You need to decide to end the writing and declare your novel
finished at some point.
4. Edit.You know what I said in Tip #3? Well, your novel is not finished just because you have an ending. When you’ve written a first
draft, it’s just that: a draft. Now the real writing begins. Edit until your
eyes bleed and your fingers break off. And by this I mean: step away from your
finished draft, let it sit for a couple of weeks, and come back with a rested
mind and fresh eyes. You will see what needs to be changed.
I really want to start writing my first original story but I have no idea where to start! I’ve written lots of fanfiction stories because it’s easier when you already have a starting point and characters to work off of; but I’m ready to start…
Deadlines are a fact of life for writers. And sometimes it’s hard to stay sane when you’re facing a tight deadline (or two or three…). Whether it’s a self-imposed time frame for building your author platform or a publisher breathing down your neck for edits to your novel, working under pressure can be stressful.
Time constraints are usually manageable, but it’s human nature to procrastinate—so many distractions!—and writers sometimes end up working feverishly around the clock right to the last minute. So, how do you stay sane when you’re on a deadline? Here are a few tips.
Anonymous asked: Have you done NaNoWriMo? If so, what things do you wish you had known when you participated for the first time?I’ve done three NaNoWriMos and a Camp NaNowriMo, so with 21 days until lift off, if anyone else has any questions, now’s the time! :)
Ok, here we go…
Five Things I Wish I’d Known Going Into My First NaNoWriMo
1. Missed Days Add Up - You have to write at least 1,667 words per day to stay caught up, but missing even a few days can really bump up your daily word count goal. That said, if you have a few busy days, it’s better to write even 200 or 300 words than none at all. It can make a really big difference in how much you need to write on a catch-up day.
2. Plan a Weekly Catch-Up Day - Life has a way of exploding on or around November 1st, so it’s good to have a built-in day each week where you can spend several hours writing without distraction.
3. Tell People What You’re Doing - Let your friends and family know that you will be a bit short on social time during November. It helps a lot if you don’t have people coming at you left and right demanding your time. Don’t be afraid to say “no” if people invite you to do something and you can’t afford the break. Let them know you’ll be free again on or around December 1st.
4. Write More When You Can - In the same vein as the built-in catch up day, when you’re writing, try to keep going past your daily word count if you have the time and motivation. Just an extra 300 or so words per day can turn your weekly catch-up day into a gravy day or even—if you’re really ahead—a much needed day off.
5. Take Care of Yourself - Be sure to give yourself plenty of breaks when you’re writing. Set a timer so that you can stand up and stretch for a few minutes every twenty minutes or so. Try to get a little exercise each day before writing because it gets the creative juices flowing. Make sure you drink plenty of water, which will help keep you from feeling sluggish. Also, make sure you have a nutritious snack handy if you need something to munch on during a break.