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!
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!
George Orwell has earned the right to be called one of the finer writers in the English language through such novels as 1984, Animal Farm, and Down and Out in Paris and London, and essays like “Shooting an Elephant.”
Orwell excoriated totalitarian governments in his work, but he was just as passionate about good writing. Thus, you may want to hear some of Orwells writing tips.*
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.
How to Use Writing Advice Tumblrs to Their Best Effect
(or any type of advice blog on tumblr, really)
- Be respectful. These people are taking their time out of their busy schedules to try and help other people. They are doing it so that you can learn and grow and better yourself. They are fostering a community, a community of like-minded, caffeine-addicted individuals that dwell in the dark and write beautiful, beautiful things, and they should be thanked, applauded and/or worshipped. Also, you do NOT want to piss those people off. It’s scary.
- Leave your entitlement at the door. They don’t have to do anything for you. They don’t have to read your stuff over and critique it. They don’t have to spell things out for you. They will, because they love you, but they don’t have to. You don’t get to get angry. Don’t be a bully. I know I personally come online to avoid them. Don’t populate my refuge with meanies! Remember, they don’t OWE you anything. Not an itty bitty bit.
- They are there to AIDE you, not do it for you. You are the one growing here, you are the student, and it’s not mandatory for you to be in the class. You are there because you want to learn and better yourself, and so asking them to do research for you or tell you how to write your own personal character is like trying to get out of doing the homework THAT YOU LOVE TO DO AND SHOULD BE DOING. Research sucks sometimes, but you need to do it on your own so you can grow and learn and be the very best that no one ever was.
- Be open to suggestion. Don’t ask a question, then get angry when they answer the question and it doesn’t match the validation you were seeking. That’s not how the real world, both publishing and outside the realms of our own private little worlds (see: computers), works, and the sooner you realize that, the better.
- You don’t have to take their advice. Everything is subjective. We are free-wheeling desperately through the galaxy, and while you are totally welcome to take their advice, you don’t have to. Just take it into consideration.
- Don’t belittle the act of writing. By asking for them to work hard, for free, and then asking them to do more or getting angry when they don’t, you are belittling the same art you are trying to promote and grow in. It’s like asking writers or artists to make their content free so you can read it; if you truly love and appreciate it, you’ll support it, and others doing it, as much as you possibly can. Would you ask an engineer to give you free blueprints? No? Then don’t do it to the writers and get angry when, out of the goodness of their hearts, they do it for you and it’s not exactly what you wanted.
TLDR: Nobody likes a blue meanie, and writing and learning is awesome.
Anonymous asked: One piece of advice I hear given is to read books to learn how to write. How do I do that?
Hmmm. Yes. We seem to do that a lot. We should really explain ourselves.
If you were a musician, you would listen to different kinds of music to get different ideas, draw influence, and get a firmer understanding of your craft. It’s the same thing with writing.
There are two general rules to this, then some more specific ones. Let’s go general first:
Keep those tips in mind when you’re reading this article, and of course when you’re reading in general. This is the more specific stuff we were talking about earlier.
All told, reading as a writer is a matter of absorption. The more you read, the more you will understand about writing, both consciously and unconsciously. Continuing to write will obviously make your writing better, but continuing to read is your first line of improvement.
Thanks for your question! If you want to get in touch with us, feel free to use our ask box!
Anonymous asked: How does one know they are a writer? See, for me, I write. But is that enough? I know writers who say that if they don’t write they will go insane. They NEED to write for their mental health and well being. See, I don’t feel that way. I can live my life without writing. I have done so for a while. Does that mean I’m not a writer?
(another, presumably different) Anonymous asked: if I’m crying while writing something, does that mean I’m doing it right?
These two questions are getting one article because they pose the same problem, just worded differently. People like to be good at things, which is understandable. For this reason, loads of people try to find measuring sticks to which they can compare themselves. This article endeavors to address those measuring sticks.
Here at WriteWorld, we like to start articles with definitions, and since this question is about a definition, this seems like a pretty great place to start.
Writer (n): One who writes.
If you are a person who writes, you are a writer. That’s it.
For example, if you’re crying while you’re writing, your story could be still very bad. That’s not to say that it is, but how much emotion you feel while writing does not indicate how well you write or whether or not you are “allowed” to call yourself a writer.
But for the sake of the question, let’s take a look at some of the less correct definitions of writers and talk about them.
The moral of the story is that worrying about definitions like these is counterproductive. If you write, you are a writer. If you want to be a writer, but for some reason you’re not, then, in the words of Richard Rhodes, “apply ass to chair.”
Asking questions like this one will only be frustrating. They turn writing into this question of adequacy, when writing is whatever you want to make of it. Constantly wondering if you are a writer or how good your writing is takes time away from doing the one thing that makes you a writer, which is writing.
If you don’t feel a compulsive need to write, does this mean you are not a writer? Absolutely not. Is writing something you do? Yes? Then you’re a writer. Find a story you care about and write it down.
Thanks for your questions. If you have any questions about writing, hit up our ask box!
Christopher Hitchens: Advice for Writers
1) Ask yourself if you can’t live without writing.
2) Find your voice - if you can speak well, you can write well.
3) Avoid the booze trap - when to drink, how much, and how not to mix.
Of course, he sums it up much more eloquently in that British accent. RIP, Hitch!
As readers of a site that welcomes and encourages submissions, there’s a decent chance some of you want to be writers. Several months ago, I wrote an advice column on how to go aboutfreelancing for the Internet and magazines, but some readers have their sights set on short fiction or even novels. And right now, some are contemplating education choices like picking a major or attending graduate school to get that MFA.
Let me be clear: Education is wonderful. There is nothing you will ever learn that you will not ultimately use. Conceptually, I am fully in support of a liberal arts education, even when there is no obvious and immediate application of that knowledge to daily life. However, with rising costs in an appalling economy, racking up that debt seems harder to justify, and I find myself agreeing more and more with a column Robert Brockway wrote years ago questioning the need for college. I’m not going quite that far yet, but I have soured on graduate programs — particularly MFAs. (Brock’s still wrong about Nirvana’s cover of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” being superior, by the way.)
It’s a very personal choice, but consider this: Every important thing I’ve learned about writing I learned from a writer. Yes, one of those writers was a college professor (not grad school), but for the most part, I got all my best storytelling lessons from interviews I saw on TV or read in books. That makes sense, right? Who better to explain writing than writers? And yes, of course many MFA programs employ distinguished writers who can impart these lessons to you directly, and that’s great if you can afford it, but the knowledge is out there. Writers are showoffs who like to talk and give advice, and they like talking about writing most of all. Every one of these tips below can be learned for free, and I promise you, I could never have written my forthcoming novel, Notes from the Internet Apocalypse, without them.
Hi. Many opinions lie below.
There is a certain brand of question that irks me the most when I see it in our ask box. It’s not when people tell us that we don’t cite our image blocks (although those are frustrating, as we do cite our Image Blocks), it isn’t questions that can easily be solved by a search engine or our toolbox, and it isn’t questions that just require common sense to answer.
It’s questions that ask us to someone’s creative work for them. And not in a “can you guys do my homework for me” way, but in a “can you guys make large decisions regarding my story for me” way.
We have a couple of questions sitting in the ask box that go something like this: “I have this idea for a story. But I’m not sure if I should do the story one way or another way. Help!”
The problem with these questions is that this is your job. An idea for a story is not a story. A story is a story. The thing that we call “writing” is deciding how to execute (and then executing) the idea for the story.
To use an example (not from our inbox), if you want to write a story protesting war but don’t know how to do it, you don’t have a story. Are you looking to protest war by satirizing it like in Catch-22? Or are you trying to play it straight and show it as horrifying like in All Quiet on the Western Front? Those are two totally different things and require two different sets of skills. The two novels are nothing alike, even though they’re about the same thing.
Nobody says “Wow, you should read this book because it’s about class.” They say “this book is great because of what it does with class.” Or how it handles it, presents it, humanizes it. That’s what writing fiction (at least from one perspective) is: taking abstract ideas and making them into stories.
So when I see one of these questions, I’m at a total loss. I don’t want to do this person’s creative work. If I wanted to do that, I’d be the one writing the story.
A work of fiction is a series of choices. You choose which characters to introduce into which world under which circumstances. You choose what they say, think, and do. Everything is under your control. Do not surrender control of your story to anyone else.
If you are willing to surrender this control, figure out why that is. Maybe you haven’t thought about your story hard enough, maybe you don’t fully understand the elements of your story or you haven’t done enough research on the topic, etc. There is a reason why you are not owning the story you yourself are inventing. Figure out why.
This whole thing of course begs the question of why writing blogs exist, or more specifically, why I help operate a writing blog if I think this way.
The answer is pretty simple: I believe that writing fiction is hard. I am not very good at it. I need a lot of help. There are techniques to fiction, and I believe that a blog can help people understand them.
If you’re brand new to writing and have no idea what’s going on, you’re going to lose a lot of time trying and failing to figure things out that have already been established as good ideas. Writing blogs like this one (and the ones we follow) can help expose new writers to these ideas. They are ways for us to share ideas for how to approach the craft.
Basically, we can help you learn to make decisions, but we will never make decisions for you. We can demonstrate effective use of detail, but won’t tell you which detail to use.
Maimonides was a twelfth-century Spanish/Jewish philosopher. He had this idea that not all service is created equal. There are many kinds of assistance: giving help begrudgingly, giving help willingly but not giving enough, giving anonymously, etc., but the top of the ladder is helping someone become self-reliant so that they no longer need assistance.
That’s what we’re trying to do here. Everyone will always need some help (again, writing is hard), but that’s the sort of idea we’re looking for. We’re trying to spread ideas about plot and setting, characters and themes. This is so that you can digest these ideas and (if you like them, which you may not) and apply them to whatever piece you’re working on or will one day work on. We aren’t interested in helping you create one great piece of fiction that’s a weird amalgamation of our ideas and yours. We want to help you become great fiction writers.
Thank you for reading our blog.