Writing Tips from the (MA)sters
This week’s post is an oldie, but a goodie. I share some writing advice I learned from my Master’s degree in writing. Consider yourself lucky; I got myself into thousands of dollars of debt to learn this stuff, and now I’m sharing it with you for free. Am I nice or what?
Research in 4D.
Even if your project is fictional, use your own experiences and observations to enrich your piece. Your work should be a reflection of yourself, to an extent. A wise man — Dr. don Carlos Mentley, to be exact — once said, “We can only view the world through the lens of our own experience.” We can only write the world through the lens of our own experience, too.
Make a space where you can rant about everything that’s bothering you about your project.
For some strange reason, I never thought to do this until my Independent Study professor suggested it in class last week. Having one place to get all your worries and fears out really does help. A lot of writers get caught in a web of self-doubt, myself included. Getting it off your chest and on paper (or in a document) is an amazing way to visualise your problems clearly so you can tackle them head-on.
Make a step outline.
Your formal outline for your project (if you choose to do one) could be 3-4 pages long. That’s a lot of space for plot holes and other inconsistencies to sneak through, so start small with a step outline and build gradually. This is usually done for scriptwriting, but it’s helped me focus on the core components of my story. To make a step outline, break your project down into key, bite-size “steps”. As you’re editing, you can refer to the step outline to make sure that what you’ve written is serving the story.
Never wear headphones when you’re out in public.
I suffer from social anxiety (among other things), so my headphones are a godsend when I trudge through town, ducking my head so I won’t make eye contact with anyone. Not only does this separate me from the present moment, but it also blocks out any useful real-world dialogue I might pick up along the way. Studying how people really speak is crucial for strong dialogue, so forgo the headphones when you’re next out and eavesdrop shamelessly.
Describe things in ways you’ve never heard them described before.
This is author May-Lan Tan’s secret to poetic, fresh writing. In her own words, “avoid using parcels of language you’ve heard before.” This is an easy way to avoid using clichés, and it will set your work apart. (Also, you should go out and buy her collection of short stories, Things to Make and Break, right now. Yes, right now.)
Act out your scenes.
It might sound ridiculous, but it’s a good way to test believability in both plot and dialogue. Putting yourself in your characters’ shoes and acting out their quirks and mannerisms will bring you closer to them, making them easier to write.
Be a vessel for your work; contain the story within your body.
When May-Lan Tan came to speak at our lecture, she read her work as if she knew every word by heart — because she does. You know your work better than anyone else, and you need to prove it, especially if you’re giving readings or discussing it. This is something May-Lan Tan does really well. (You can see for yourself in the video below.) Me, I’m not so great at it, but I’m working on it.
If you aren’t in a writer’s society or similar community, join online beta-reader groups.
If my MA has taught me one thing, it’s the value of having your work critiqued by fellow writers. They always catch something I miss, and I can always rely on them to be honest about what’s working and what’s not. Goodreads has a beta reader group with 6,000+ members, and I’ve found a few people there whose feedback has made my story much stronger.
‘Write it on accident. Keep it on purpose.’
This is my former poetry professor’s equivalent to Hemingway’s famous adage, ‘Write drunk; edit sober.’ Sometimes, when we’re 2,000 words deep in stream-of-consciousness, we projectile vomit some pretty shameful bits of description or dialogue onto the page. There’s nothing wrong with that — it’s expected in a first draft. But we also come up with some pretty brilliant lines off the tops of our heads, too. The trick is knowing what to keep and what to throw away. May-Lan Tan offers some guidance: ‘If it doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not.’
Microwriting can hone your skills unlike anything else.
Before I started this semester, I wasn’t really a Twitter person. Now I can’t seem to stay away from it. The 140-character limit constantly entices me to push my writing abilities, and it teaches me good word count discipline as well. Hashtags like #1LineWed, FridayPhrases (#FP for short), and #amwriting help me tell a complete story in just a handful of words. That ability transfers over into my novel, helping me recognise what’s overwritten so I can trim it down.
And there you have it — some writing tips I picked up from the last leg of my academic journey.
This was originally posted on my old blog, saidthelioness. I wrote this while I was still studying; I’ve since graduated with a distinction, which I thought was pretty rad.
What valuable writing tips did you learn in college? Share them in the comments!