Teaching Writing

As a Mentor and Teacher and Writer and Reader, there's something I want to say to you

Floating around on the net is this excellent post by Bruinhilda, As a Library Worker There's Something I Want to Say to You. It was originally posted on Tumblr and, as with the original Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt column, and "Everything About My Writing is Awful and No, I'm Not OK", I found my mind riffing off it, to create a version for writers. So here goes, with huge thanks to Bruinhilda for the inspiration: As a mentor and teacher and writer and reader, there's something I want to say to you: You do not have to apologise for the... Read more →


How To Handle Feedback On Your Writing

I've blogged more than once about how to give feedback, but most writers get feedback even more than they give it, since as well as workshop friends, you'll get it from teachers, agents, editors, reviewers, friends and family. Here, I'm going to refer to them all as "the reader", because that's what we hope a feeder-back will be: a representative of the readers we're hoping for. Obviously the setup varies. Some settings are "live": a Skype session with a mentor, round a workshop table, at a one-to-one book doctor session, in virtual workshop on your online course. Some are written... Read more →


Mentoring for Writers: the Authors for Grenfell post

At the Authors for Grenfell auction, I offered to write a bespoke blog post for the bidder of the largest amount. The auction has closed now, having raised over £180,000, but the Red Cross's London Fire Appeal is very much open, and the needs of the victims don't vanish as the headlines do, so do please click through to donate. And for a lovely story of the power of social media in these things, click here. My idea, in offering the blog post, was that the bidder would get from some personalised advice. But the winning bidder turned out to... Read more →


Mastering the tyranno-thesaurus

Among teachers of English at school-level, using a thesaurus is a Good Thing, being a means of enlarging children's vocabulary. But a ticked box for the maximum number of different words on the page is a poor substitute for teaching genuinely good writing, so among serious writers, and teachers of writing, using a thesaurus is often spoken of as a Very Bad Thing. And when you consider the thesaursed version of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star", which floats round the internet attributed to John Raymond Carson, you can see why: Scintillate, scintillate, globule vivific, Fain would I fathom thy nature specific.... Read more →


Should I do a Creative Writing MA?

I've blogged about whether, and when, a course in Creative Writing might be a good idea, and about how to choose the right one for you. And if you're wondering whether, and how, Creative Writing can be taught, this unpicks that hardy perennial of a question. But a quick search on the UCAS website shows 459 Masters-level courses in Creative Writing. True, part-time and full-time versions of the same course are being listed separately, but the darned things cost a fortune these days (though student loans are these days available for both part- and full-time study). So, assuming you're thinking... Read more →


The Fiction Editor's Pharmacopoeia; diagnosing symptoms & treating the disease

The Society for Editors and Proof-readers is and does exactly what it says on the tin (and if you're thinking of self-publishing, it would be a very good place to start looking for proper professional help.) So I was delighted to be asked to speak to their Editing Fiction conference, exploring and explaining the decisions that we writers make, so that in tackling writing where the decisions aren't producing a good result, writers and editors can have a common language. As I was discussing in my post about giving feedback, it's one thing to recognise a problematic symptom: over-writing, say,... Read more →


Giving feedback: how to do it, how to make it really useful

I blogged a few years back about how to process feedback, but the funny thing is that many writers find giving feedback more difficult than receiving it. Often, they're some of the nicest people: they're worried about hurting their fellow thin-skinned writers' feelings and know that hurting their confidence can be be genuinely damaging. Sometimes they're some of the most self-centred people: they can't be bothered to put in the mental work to understand what another writer is trying to do, and can only "correct" in terms of how they'd do it themselves. I've also given general tips about how... Read more →


Psychic Distance: not just long-shot, but wide-angle, not just close-up, but narrow-beam

When Debi Alper or I are trying to explain Psychic Distance (which we very often are, since it can make such a spectacular difference to someone's writing), we often use the analogy of a film camera. We start with John Gardner's examples, which take the same moment in a story and re-tell it at five separate points on the psychic distance spectrum, and unpack them thus: 1) It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway. is like a long-shot: we can't discern much about the man. If we were even further away, depending... Read more →


Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction is published on 10th March

I'm ridiculously thrilled to have my author's copies of Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction sitting on my desk. It really does embody all the things I find myself saying when I'm teaching workshops and blogging, not just about historical fiction but writing fiction and creative non-fiction in general. Whether you're new to writing of any kind and have just fallen in love with a person or a period and can't rest till you've had a shot at bringing it to life on paper, or you're an experienced writer who's always loved reading historical fiction but have never dared to... Read more →


Download a chapter FREE from Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction

As you may know, my first non-fiction book, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, is due to be published next month as part of the Teach Yourself series. I’m delighted that John Murray Learning have produced a free e-book sampler which contains the whole first chapter. It’s a pdf file, and to download it all you should need to do is click this link: Download GS Hist Fic sampler. It's a .pdf file (click here if you don't have a pdf reader); it will either dowload directly, or display in your browser for you to save to your computer. If... Read more →


The only "rules" of writing are your rules. But you need to decide what they are.

There are lots of ways in which learning to write is like learning to drive, but the relationship of the craft to the rules and laws is not one of them. Whether it's that you should Show and Tell, or that "cut everything which includes was" is not only wrong but dangerous, I don't believe you should "know the rules before you can break them", because there are no rules (except copyright and libel, obviously), only tools, in writing. I've been talking a lot recently about writing historical fiction, and inevitably we discuss how you decide what you must research... Read more →


Why the Creative Writing A Level shouldn't be axed

Only a few years after it was introduced, the Creative Writing A Level looks likely to be abolished, and I think that's a big mistake, as well as a great shame. I should say that I've no particular axe to grind, as I don't teach A Level and don't plan to start. But I do have an MPhil, and a PhD in Creative Writing myself, I've taught it at the Undergraduate level for the Open University, and my first book about Creative Writing - Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction - will be published by John Murray Educational in March... Read more →


Creative thinking, creative writing, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, and all that (Darwin) stuff ...

What with finishing Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction (the copy-edited manuscript has just landed on my desk) and the way I keep acquiring new writers to mentor, I've been thinking a lot lately about not just creative writing, but creative thinking. It's what writers don't necessarily have in common with literary critics, and may have in common with geologists. It's what choreographers have in common with farriers, and mathematicians with symphonists, and architects with historians. And it's what my physicist grandfather Charles had in common with his composer cousin Ralph, and their shared ancestors Erasmus and Josiah ... Leith... Read more →


Writing Historical Fiction, Creative Darwins, The Genre Swap and other stories

There seems to have been a lot going on, lately, and if the blog's been a bit quiet, that's why. I'm up to my neck in the last work on Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction. It's due out mid-Autumn and, as ever, even when I've been living with a project for years, I can't quite believe that it is about to become a Real Book, but all the signs are there! And historical fiction's a bit of a theme elsewhere. Also in the autumn, I'll be heading down to Leith Hill Place, the lovely house where Ralph Vaughan Williams... Read more →


Join us on the Itch of Writing Workshop Retreat 15th-17th May 2015

ONE PLACE STILL LEFT ON THE ITCH OF WRITING WORKSHOP RETREAT! Writing can be - and maybe should be - stitched into your everyday life. But sometimes a short break, leaving all the quotidian rubbish behind, can free you to think, play, experiment and submerge in a project in a way which is very difficult when your mind is cluttered with the school run and the annual report. So I'll be leading a new Itch of Writing Workshop Retreat from Friday 15th to Sunday 17th May 2015, at Retreats for You in Sheepwash, North Devon, and I'd love to have... Read more →


"Who's Telling the Story?" All the posts I mentioned at City University CW MA

Yesterday evening I spent a couple of hours working with the students of City University's collected Creative Writing MA courses. It's a two-year MA, structured round writing a complete project - novel, non-fiction or script, and my talk was called "Who's Telling the Story? Voice, viewpoint and narrative in fiction and creative non-fiction", and in the course of it, several blog posts were mentioned: I promised I'd post the links when I got a moment. So, here they are, and if anyone who was there can remember one I've forgotten, then do mention it in the comments, and I'll dig... Read more →


Where's the real story? Not where you expected?

I hope I'm a kind and supportive teacher, I certainly don't tolerate seminar bullies, and I can honestly say that the only time I've been aware of tears in a workshop I was running was nothing to do with anyone's hurt feelings, and everything to do with writing fiction. Since the business of fiction is largely about imaginatively inhabiting consciousnesses and experiences which are not one's own, I had set the group an exercise of writing a scene from the point of view and voice of their main character, though not necessarily an event from the story. First I got... Read more →


How-To-Write books: Addicted to them? Revolted by them?

A while ago, my writer friend Annie Caulfield and I recorded a podcast for the Royal Literary Fund's new series, Writers Aloud. I was just beginning to try my hand at writing radio plays, and Annie, whose fantastic Writing for Radio I knew before Annie and I met as fellow RLF Fellows at Goldsmiths, was trying her hand at writing novels. We had a lot of fun making the recording (hats off to the producer, Kona McPhee, for disentangling it into something coherent!), and now the RLF has turned what we talked about into three 30 minute podcasts. The first... Read more →


Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "Everyone says my writing's competent, but I'm not getting anywhere"

There have been two exciting developments: first, I have a new website specifically for my work helping other writers, so if you're interested in my mentoring, teaching, events or appraisals, do click through to This Itch of Writing: The Studio, and have a browse. And then, just as I was recovering from the worst of the website-wrangling, I heard from This Itch of Writing's agony aunt, Jerusha Cowless. She's been busy un-contacting un-contacted peoples in the Upper Amazon, but at last I got a message through, enclosing a plea for help from an aspiring writer, and Jerusha sent her reply... Read more →


Ten Ways to Move Point-of-View (and don't let the self-appointed experts tell you otherwise)

If you've been hanging around the Itch for any length of time, you'll know that I think the creeping Creative Writing orthodoxy that you can't change point of view except between chapters is nonsense. (Click here for my full series of posts on PoV if you're not so sure what we're on about when we talk about point of view.) It's a "rule" which has only been invented in the last twenty years or so, peddled by would-be writers who don't know good writing when they see it, and, I suspect, writing teachers who don't know how to teach it:... Read more →