Teaching Writing

Itchy Bitesized 14: "Effect" vs "Affect"

One of the most common word confusions I see, even in writers who aren't easily confused, is between "effect" and "affect". It's very understandable - both can be a verb, and both can be a noun - and sorting it out is a bite-sized job, so here goes. Read more →


Are You Looking For Help With Your Writing?

Are you looking for help with your writing? Whether you write fiction, creative non-fiction or short stories in any genre, I currently have a few spaces in my diary. I offer one-off tutoring, advice, appraisals  and editorial help, as well as longer-term mentoring, and workshops for all kinds of groups & courses, in-person or online. Read more →


Itchy Bitesized 7: What You Need To Know About Comma Splices

Comma splices are probably the punctuation mistake I see most often, and it's frequently in writing by people who otherwise know why punctuation matters, and use it very well. But what is a comma splice, why do they matter, and what do you do about them? Read more →


Itchy Bitesized 5: Sixteen Things You Need to Become a Writer (and twelve things you don't)

When I meet someone who says they'd love to be a writer but they've never studied Creative Writing, or they can't spell, or they always got bad marks in English at school, I say, with truth, that you don't need any of those things. So, first, let's be clear: Read more →


Itchy Bitesized 2: Three Things about Semi-colons

The second bite of the new Itchy Bite-sized series is nibbling at a much-despised, often confused and actually very useful and very simple punctuation mark: the semi-colon. Read more →


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 →