Jerusha Cowless, agony aunt: "I have to write a scene but the subject horrifies me"
Postiversary Competition Highly Commended: Hairnet Aardvaark, by Lev Parikian

Would love to do a writing course but "don't know any grammar"?

A couple of weeks ago, a writer emailed to say that he was interested in joining the course that Debi Alper and I teach, on Self-Editing Your Novel. He thought it might be what he needed, but was worried that he knows nothing about the technical side of writing, wouldn't be any use at the workshopping aspects of the course, and would look and feel a fool in consequence.

He's not the first writer, by any means, to admit in a private email what he or she can't bring themselves to display in even the mildly public space of a writer's forum: that they don't know grammar, or don't read great literature, or can't articulate what a book makes them feel or think. Even to ask questions - let alone join a course - will make them feel such an ignorant fool that they don't dare open their mouths. And, of course, we can all suffer from the basic human tendency to home in on the bits of ourselves we feel insecure about. It's such a reflex that we hear even neutral comments as critical, when and where we feel critical about ourselves.

It doesn't help when aspiring writers see how often a certain kind of person loves getting together with their cronies on Facebook and Twitter to have a nasty, sneery cackle about the ignorant others who misplace apostrophes or don't know that it's not to hone in, or a chest of draws or a damp squid. (Personally, I adore the latter error: much more fun than the real phrase.) It's perfectly possible to know what's correct, or what's right (which is different), without scorning those who happen not to have encountered that information yet. People who use this stuff to sneer at or despise others are either masochists (getting off on fear and misery that the barbarians are at the gates), or they're sadists, (getting off on making someone else miserable), or they're busy compensating for whatever they feel insecure about. Either way, they may have homed in on a fact worth learning - in which case, feel free to learn it - but you don't have to listen to their scorn, and I hope you won't.

It wouldn't matter, I guess, if feeling insecure about their lack of formal knowledge didn't hold so many writers back from seeking out the formal and informal help which we all need, and always have. There ought to be no shame in saying "I don't know X" - Socrates did it a lot - because we all know some things, and don't know even more other things. And writers have been seeking help from other writers since the first cave-dweller wielding a paintbrush's load of oxblood asked the next Neanderthal along the rockface whether uh has one H or two in it. So I found myself writing back to this potential student, saying:

The thing is, asking questons and critiquing isn’t about being knowledgeable and experienced from the off (that’s Debi’s and my job! - at least, we try), it’s about responding to other people’s work naturally, and explaining how the piece seems to you, however that is. You're not teaching, or  even, necessarily, offering solutions. You're holding a mirror up, as it were, to reflect your experience as a reader back to them.

And the next thing that critiquing is for, is for you to start learning to work out why a piece has the effect on you that it does have: what words, what ideas, are doing what. Again, it doesn't matter where you start from, in learning to do that. What matters is how hard and how much you're willing to practice. The best way of finding and exercising the muscles that you need to use on your own work is to use them on other people’s. With other people's, you don’t already know what they’re trying to do, so you read like a reader. It's often said, truly, that you need to read like a writer, but you also, in a sense, need to learn to write like/for a reader. And, of course, because everyone’s writing is different, the others on your course introduce you to things that you’d never have tried, and vice versa: your work helps them to learn just as much as theirs helps you. Questions come up in the comments on work which you hadn't thought to ask, and a range of solutions follow, for you to pick and choose among for yourself.

Debi and I designed the course to work for writers at all stages, because everyone uses their own work-in-progress as the basis for learning what the self-editing course teaches. That means the course is useful for writers with all levels of experience in writing and technical knowledge, and we’ve had lots of students who’ve never done anything like this before. Though sometimes they feel a bit shy about saying stuff at first, there’s help at hand, and everyone’s basically in the same boat, with a novel or creative non-fiction which isn't as good as it could be. Out of the 100+ who’ve done the course, everyone felt comfortable and got hang of it all really quickly,  even though everyone’s come from wildly different places and amounts of experience. In fact, it’s a plus that every writer and every project is different.

So, what I'm really saying here is that if you have insecurities of this sort, do please be brave if you can be. Click here for more about the pros and cons of writing courses. If you do want to go for it, find out if the course or forum you're contemplating expects to be dealing with people who don't have much technical knowledge and/or writing experience. Then try to disconnect the circuit in your head that hears neutral stuff about your insecure territory as critical, and jump in. Apart from anything else, I can guarantee that if you ask a question you feel is stupid, there will be several others on the same forum who've wondered that too, but weren't feeling as brave as you, and one or two more who, in answering it, get to sort out their thoughts for the first time. You'll be a hero not just to your fellows, but to your tutors, who are delighted that the question's come out into the open, and that you felt safe enough to ask it.

And, finally, I hope you'll forgive a shameless plug, which is purely for those who are wondering whether the course itself might suit them. This is a demo I did of the sort of microscope work we do in Week Five. And here a lovely recommendation from terrific writer-teacher Andrew Wille, in his post about giving yourself a DIY MA in writing. And, finally, here are a some threads where several graduates give their impressions of the course: have a look here, and here and here.

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