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Ten Things I've Learnt From My Writing Degree That Worked

My first year of university was filled with all sorts of disasters, ranging from too much pride over my own very self-made-up vocabulary, my inability to share work, all the way to my keen love of every adjective and adverb and other-than-said word and punctuation mark I could ever find and use.

When I'd click onto blog titles like mine, I'd be given the usual facts (like, write a lot, that sort of thing). Sometimes I'd get the tips that actually helped, and even some tips I wouldn't consider helpful at all --- like 'take the afternoon classes'. That tip just seemed like an escape route for progress, and not necessarily something that would get my pen (and bank account) rolling. Below, after twenty-two years of living (with four of them as a creative and professional writing and publishing student), are my reflections on what actually helped.

1. Workshop. It's at the top of the list for a reason.

The first time I had to workshop my writing was at the start of university. I was this skinny eighteen-year old entering the land of the wolves (aka. hipsters that talked a big game but then never ended up turning up to class). My face was bright red and I stuttered the entire class. Suddenly, I went from being an A student to becoming the most inexperienced writer in class.

When you're trying to be creative, you're quite strongly-verging-on-literally ripping out your soul and putting it on display. So every time there was knowledge that a workshop was on the way, I would turn my work into the most boring mess you could ever see: a G-rated exchange that made no attempt to be funny, scary, romantic, or intense. I could see the monkey clapping in my classmates' heads as they read it.

The thing is, however, that workshopping remains my strongest ally. Because, without it, I would not have progressed from the feedback I was able to receive, the body language I was able to interpret, and the backbone I was able to develop. Sometimes you've got to face a few punches to know how to dodge them next time.

2. Read and write and read and write.

This one, I can't even counter argue. My best writing comes when I'm in that writing world, and I can't be in it if I'm not learning from the pen masters before me. Anything and everything is inevitably influenced by the world around you. Stephen King makes the attempt to read five hours a day, and encourages his aspiring fans to do the same. Gotta take words from the king. By reading, you learn what works and what doesn't, the failures, the successes, and the inspiring pieces that never quite leave you.

Originality counts for nothing if it's without history.

3. You've bought the cow, so milk it.

I remember the group work I did for a core unit with a young divorced mother of two kids, who, despite having a lot more to juggle than me, turned up to almost every single lecture and tutorial and stayed alert and curious the entire time. She questioned points every lesson. She did all the extra studying and readings and went ham with printing out all her course work. "I'm paying for it," was her reason. Made sense enough. Being out in the real world where people and books and experienced writers aren't surrounding you as easily, it made sense to take advantage while you could at university. The best I ever did in class was when I started approaching my tutors with more questions, surfed the library a bit more, and got involved in some extracurriculars like editing workshops.

4. Leave your ego at the door.

The problem with introversion is that it can feed narcissism when there's no one to ask how well you write except yourself. For years I imagined my writing was this beautiful and ethereal thing right up until the point I had my work handed back to me asking why I've used such big out-of-context words with everything. I'd try and flesh my language out and use passive tense just to see my writing look a bit more eighteenth-century and flowery. Right up until the point I started sharing my work, I didn't realise no one could understand it. And sometimes there'll come a time in group work where someone who I might not think had the best writing would try to critique my own. However, as much as I didn't trust their expertise in some ways, they were still a reader. And while it might not always be best I take their exact advice on punctuation, grammar, or just what to write in general --- it told me that there were still areas in my writing that had people lingering and zoning out instead of being sucked in.

5. Get Snooks & Co. Style Manual.

This is less a personal suggestion than an absolute necessity for all writers in Australia. The publishing market here is tough, and if your writing isn't at its absolute best, most will just turn it away at the first sentence. Snooks & Co. Style Manual is the editing handbook used by the majority of Australian publishers. But remember: what's most important is that you have a consistent editing style (one that is still widely recognised as being arguably correct). Consistency is key, and so is knowing how both to write and edit your work before submission. That's why owning one of these books will at least give you a handy step forward when you're sitting back wondering whether you've used a semicolon correctly.

6. Know the business as well.

It's not fed enough into our student minds, but the business side of things are integral to chasing a writing career. Writing can be largely entrepreneurial, and if you're not willing to know the business, you're likely to fall behind. Writers constantly have to market and promote themselves online to engage a potential readership/client; they are figuring out how to approach people in a business transaction for their writing so they aren't written off as a starry-eyed amateur; and a resume isn't enough to square off against everyone else.

In terms of business, here is what I'm finding really was important to listen to in class:

  • How to research and target certain magazines for publishing.

  • How to market yourself online.

  • How to use SEO, website creators, and Adobe Photoshop and InDesign.

  • How to write business letters, proposals, etc.

7. Writer's block is an old wives' tale, but laziness isn't.

Writer's block just isn't real --- and if Stephen King says so, I have to agree. Writer's block happens when you fall out of practice, and forget that first drafts aren't always going to flow on without flaw or brief pauses. No one is a talented little butterfly. It's all myth, and perseverance is where it's at. The more you write, the easier the words will come. Just like coming back to work after a few weeks holiday, you'll find you'll have to get back into the groove of things again.

8. Write for you; edit for your audience.

First drafts are for you and for you only. Write what excites you and draws you in. Write how you dream the story to come together. Finished? Great. Now tear it all up into pieces, lose some parts, and fiddle with any bits that don't fit right. Your editing is what entirely decides if this book will sell, if it captures conflict and entices readers enough with its characters.

9. Free-writing isn't taboo.

I always have trouble with this. Free-flow writing is integral for people like me who can't help but edit every word and sentence they write as they go. However, with this kind of advanced thinking, nothing really gets done and the words lose their natural rhythm. The more you write freehanded, I've noticed, the more words you're eventually able to get down, and the better your writing gets. Give yourself a time slot like ten minutes, and write as much as you can without editing. A lot of the time, things I've never thought to ponder on suddenly drift into my writing and give it a new edge.

10. Stay curious.

A writing career isn't at all bubble wrap and expensive coffee. On the contrary, writers are very much involved with the world and its misgivings, for you can only really write and publish successfully if you can connect with your readers and the rest of the world around you. By staying curious, you invite yourself to stay relevant and to learn more about what there is to learn.

Think I'm missing something important? Comment below some of the best things you've learnt in your writing career!


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