The Bloggery

2021: Celebrating The Writers' Greenhouse
10 YEAR anniversary!

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

CELEBRATING 10 years with my 10 best tips for students

Over the last ten years of courses and workshops, I've found that whatever the topic, there are some tips that are useful for every class. And when a student gets back in touch years later, these are the things they say they still hold onto. These aren't the nitty-gritty writing advice on specific topics – rather, they're the simple practical tips and principles that unlock a whole new approach or resolve a problem that felt like an inevitable part of the writing landscape. I rarely teach by standing in front of the class and declaiming, but now I allow a couple extra minutes in each class for a spontaneous Preach on whichever tip will help most right then. So here, in higgledypiggledy order, are my best tips for you.

1 Get a fountain pen

Writing by hand, if that's physically possible for you, is brilliant. There's good evidence that we consistently produce more, of higher quality, writing by hand - and this is from 2009, well after you'd expect most people to be more adapted to devices. Writing by hand quickly becomes tiring though, if you're using a ballpoint. Most pens, ballpoints especially, rely on friction to pull the ink out. That means you have to press down harder and you also have to hold the pen tighter. If you've ever shaken out your hand after writing lots by hand, that's why. Fountain pens, on the other hand, don't rely on friction: you can hold the pen light as a feather, glide it across the page with the nib just touching, and still get a lovely line. Suddenly you can write by hand for hours and never cramp up.

A few tips for fountain pens:

  • You don't need to spend a lot to get a good pen with a good nib. I usually have a £20 Parker fountain pen. At the moment, I have a £10 Helix pen and it's a dream to use. Paying a lot for a fountain pen usually just means you're buying a more expensive case, not a better nib.
  • Choose a pen thickness that suits your hand size. The very narrow pens are too thin for my size-7 hands: I prefer a slightly thicker pen. You do you.
  • Stock up on your pen's ink cartridges and stash them everywhere: handbags, pockets, pencil cases, drawers. Never be without ink.
  • Don't let anyone else use your pen. The nib gradually shapes to your handwriting.
  • Don't drop your pen on its nib. That kills it. (And I'm dyspraxic, so that's why I have a £10 Helix pen these days.)

If you're left-handed, you might find that fountain pens smudge too much for you. In that case, look for a pen that doesn't need any friction - fineliners are a good option and some gel pens. To test a pen, hold it lightly between two fingers and drag it gently across the page. If it leaves a clear line, it's a good 'un.

2 Have a writing bag

This applies even if you're not leaving the house. Your writing needs a safe home to live in. Most people quickly find that they migrate about the place when they write, if not between parks and coffee shops, at least from room to room. I have a big leather satchel I found in a charity shop for £5 and beeswaxed back to loveliness, which trundles around with me – pre-2020, between my parks, pub gardens, and meadows; the last year, from room to room. Having one place where all the current writing lives helps you look after all those handwritten pages, plus any time you scribble a random idea on a receipt or an envelope, you have somewhere to put it.

One important tip: write your name and contact details on a piece of card, along with an urgent plea for the bag's return, and put it in the bag. Even if you're not leaving the house for another three months. Something about writing can turn even the most organised person into a dazy dreamy forgetful ditz, and you really want that note to already be in the bag so that when you're halfway home on the bus and the waitress finds your bag, they can phone you. (Thanks, Agne!)

3 Mess up the blank page

Often, at the start of a writing activity, I'll see half the class frozen, pens poised and unmoving above the endless perfect drifts of white that is the blank page. They're trying to work out the right way to start, the right first sentence. They're probably wording the sentence in their head and then trying to remember how it started when they get to the end. Sometimes an entire class is sitting in suspended animation, pens hovering.

At that point I get everyone's attention back, show them a blank page, and tell them to copy me, and then I scribble all across the top, as messily as possible. I get them to do the same. I usually try not to swear in class, but for this I make an exception: "Right," I'll say. "Now you've already f'ed it up, so you can't f' it up any more than it is already." And all the pens start to move.

You can mess up the blank page however you want. Tear it out and crumple it up then smooth it out again. Scribble all over it. Start with a deliberately rubbish sentence or by describing the weather. It doesn't matter how you mess it up, anything that gets your pen moving and helps you remember that you're writing a draft, not carving words in stone.

4 Stop in the middle of

... a chapter, a scene, a paragraph, even a sentence. Our natural instinct is to reach a logical stopping point (the end of a chapter, scene, paragraph) and then stop there. It feels tidy. But that backfires. The next writing session, you not only need to Start The Doing Of The Writing, but you also have to start a new sentence / paragraph / scene / chapter. These days, when we do writing exercises in class and time is up, I give everyone about a minute's notice and the ritual reminder "If you want to carry on writing this later, remember to leave yourself a half-finished sentence."

Starting The Doing Of The Writing is always a little challenge and that half-finished thing makes it so much easier. I've learnt to not even Start The Doing Of The Writing: I get my writing stuff out, put on my playlist, light my favourite writing candle (fresh grass), make a coffee, and then sit down, not to write, but to read. I reread what I wrote last time and then I come to a half-finished bit and I'm already there, pen in hand, and oh look, I'm carrying on.

Leaving something unfinished has another bonus. Unfinished things take up extra headspace, nagging at our attention, which is why for most things we want to finish the task, close the tab, complete the admin, to save that headspace. For writing, though, we want it to be lurking around in our minds, prodding us with extra ideas, interrupting a box-set binge with an important realisation that the word "brandish" would be just perfect in that scene...

5 Write badly

If you're not prepared to write badly, you're not going to write much of anything. Many people think that early in a writing career, you start off writing badly, and then as you get better, your writing improves. Nope. The finished product may improve, but learning to write badly is an essential, valuable skill that you'll return to throughout your writing life. Any time you're having a difficult word day, any time you're trying something new, any time you're not quite sure how this is going to go, you need to write badly to write anything at all. Again, if you're not prepared to write badly, you're not going to write much. So write it badly. That's fine. You can fix it later. Neil Gaiman likes to say, "I'm a terrible writer, but a very good editor." 

Many people think they have to write it well the first time, because they haven't yet learnt about or experienced the drafting process. We don't write Alice-in-Wonderland style: "Start at the beginning, carry on until the end, and then stop." That approach might work well for your first few stories or poems, but then the moment they don't just "come out right", or you're having a bad day, you're completely stymied. Your first draft is the beginning of the process: everything can be changed, reshuffled, deleted, enriched, or pruned later. Once you've taken a couple short stories or poems through the process of reworking, editing, and finessing them, you'll discover a whole new freedom in your first drafts: it's fine to write badly, because you know you really will fix it later. And in that freedom, you discover whole new worlds of exciting ways to write.

I write my first drafts a lot more badly now than I did fifteen years ago. And my final drafts are a ton better for it. I tell my students that "Perfect comes last" – not that we're not allowed to be perfectionist, or that perfectionism loses some hare-and-tortoise race, but that it's the last stage of the process.

6 If you can't think of 1, think of 20

A character name. A location. A first line. An object for a character to be holding. An ending. Any time you're struggling to come with one, come up with 20 instead. One has too much pressure: it has to be the right one, each idea gets smacked with different perfectionist criteria every time it pops its head above ground, like an unhappy game of creative whack-a-mole. If you're writing 20, the rubbish ones are free to come parading out and the good ones sneak in alongside them.

7 Creativity loves constraints

Whenever you're struggling, add constraints. We hear a lot about the need for "creative freedom", but creativity responds a lot better to constraints. If I tell you "Write a story now about anything", you'll be stuck. If I tell you, "Write a story of exactly 200 words which includes a mermaid, a bobbin, and church bells," you can get to it pretty quickly. You might be furious that I said mermaid and want to write about a merman or a merperson: great! Rebelling against a constraint is also a shaping factor.

Depending on what you're writing, you can use all sorts of things for constraints. In poetry, we have heaps of forms that act as constraints. In fiction, any of the Story Elements could be a useful constraint: decide it has to be in a weird location, or from an unexpected point of view, or can only be written with dialogue or without dialogue. Give yourself a very specific length it has to be. Try some unusual stylistic choices: all the sentences have to be very short or very long, it has to be super-casual or super-formal, this bit of the story can only be told through documents... Draw blocks on the page and write inside the blocks, draw leaves and write inside the leaves, whatever constraints you can add, do, and the writing kicks back to life.

8 Quantity not quality

Whenever I tell my students "We want quantity, not quality!" I get at least one student saying what everyone's thinking: "Err... don't you mean quality, not quantity?" Nope. The quality will come, but not by sitting there earnestly trying to produce Quality And Only Quality. This harks back both to learning to write badly and to think of 20 when you can't think of 1, but it's worth repeating as its own separate mantra. If you focus on producing quality, you will steadily clam up into increasing rigidity, tension, and inability to produce. If you focus on producing quantity, the quality will come out, along with the rubbish and the unexpected and the silly stuff and the overblown stuff, and new discoveries and better ideas. Creativity doesn't respond well to a gatekeeper standing at the edge of your mind / pen demanding of every word and idea: "IS THIS GOOD ENOUGH?!" You can decide what's good later, once it's there. The good stuff will be there. It may seem a wasteful way to write, but when you see the head of steam you can build up and the speed with which you write when you stop judging and holding yourself back, it turns out it's a lot faster – and produces much better quality.

Another mantra for this is "You're here to do it, not to judge it," which I heard from my art teacher. He followed it up with, "You can judge it in two weeks' time." I still remind myself of that, when I freeze up on a first-draft scene or a new poem. 

This applies to coming up with ideas, to poetry, to fiction, to every aspect of early drafting. You can judge it later, choose it later, and fix it later, but start with freedom, not judgement – and the way to find that freedom is "quantity not quality".

9 Set time, not goals

We're constantly told that to be successful, we should set goals. Goal-setting is an excellent way to... stymie yourself, shrivel up any shred of joy in your writing, and lessen your productivity. Setting goals for your writing is like starting a soil-salination programme for your crops: you won't see full results overnight, but in time you'll have acres of arid, lifeless soil. You might still be able to grow a few things, by hand-watering and hand-composting each one, with back-breaking labour and blood, sweat, and tears, but it won't be fun, and it won't be lush.

This might seem an extreme way to put it, but we're so brainwashed into Goals Goals Goals that it deserves a brutal metaphor. The truth is, goal-setting backfires. A lovely study at the University of Chicago and the Korea Business School explored goal-focus versus process-focus on a wide range of activities, and every single time, the people who focused on goals did worse and less than the people who focused on the process. The real kicker, though, is that the goal-focus people felt really motivated, thought they were doing loads, wanged on about it and bigged it up... The process-focus people just kept on quietly moseying along, doing better and more. Remember that, when someone tells you how awesome goal-setting is and how productive and motivated they feel, having goals: they do believe that, but they're wrong about it working. (I have a separate post on this if you want to delve into it more: The joy is in the doing.) And for the record: the worst kind of writing goal you can set is word count. Lorem Ipsum can generate word count. We're clearly not after just word count.

Without goals, though, how do you protect and prioritise writing, in the face of the rest of life's demands? Set time, not goals. Carve out the time, protect it like an angel with a flaming sword, and within that time, be free. Focus on what you're doing, not what you want to have done. Fiddle about with when the time should be, how long at a time works for you, ways to protect it, but work on setting the time.

10 Join the circle of writers

The archetypal writer, we're taught, is shivering alone in a garret, working independently on their striking original masterpiece. This is nonsense. Yes, many writers are introverts, but introverted or not, we are still social animals and we flourish, our creativity flourishes, in conjunction with others. Reading the acknowledgements pages of any novel is always staggering, when you see just how many people helped, and how. Bouncing ideas off other people works better than always working alone. We can see and solve other people's creative dilemmas much more easily than our own – and in return, they can do the same for us. Having readers and feedback is motivating and keeps you going when you hit a hurdle or a dry patch. And other people can do the one thing we can never do for ourselves: tell us how our vision is coming across on the page. We always know what's meant to happen, the effect we want to create, but we can't escape our own knowledge: only other people can tell us what is happening, the effect they're experiencing. 

My sister's graphic design blog shared this wonderful quote about finding one's tribe : "I lived outside community, I lived without a tribe. I needed women to listen to my pain and honour my tears. Then I needed women to tell me it was time to dry my tears… and do something. ... I needed women to tell me to rent a silly film and laugh hysterically. I needed women to say 'Celebrate! Go shopping!' The best thing I ever did was tiptoe out of isolation and join the circle of women." It's the same with writing. We need to tiptoe out of our isolation and join the circle of writers.

I have two blogposts on writers' groups, one on running a group and one on giving and receiving feedback. The circle doesn't begin and end with a single writing group, though. That's one part of a larger community. Make friends with other writers. Swap work with them, beta-read for each other, pass on details of journals you've spotted, go to fiction conventions, support other people's readings and book launches. If you're shy and introverted, you're in good company: most writers are! These are your people!

I try to foster what links between writers I can, through the courses, and have gradually learnt to do this more explicitly: by starting a Facebook community group for everyone who's been on the courses and workshops (now moving to Slack), by encouraging classes to have WhatsApp groups and start writing groups, by including social evenings in the courses, by having Summer Drinks (which will resume when we can do things like that), and, when the world permits, we'll have a fabulous ten-year-anniversary celebration party.


Happy writing and thanks for being part of my writing community!


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