writing coursesQ&A on Doing a Writing Course

An Interview with Ann Harth


Ann Harth, our columnist on running a home-based writing business, wears several different hats as a writer. One of her income streams comes from being a tutor for a large distance education company.


Ann interacts with writers on a daily basis, so I asked her if she'd answer a few questions about doing a course, from her perspective as a tutor. Here are her answers:

What is the most common reason for someone to do a writing course?
There seem to be quite a few. It kind of depends on which course they're taking.

Writing for children: They often undertake this one because they have kids of their own and love to read / tell stories to them. If they aren't parents, they tend to have quite a lot to do with children, either at school or day care. They want to take it a step further. Their imaginations are begging to be released.

Writing for adults: Often students choose this because they love to read and have a great idea for a plot or mystery. There are also a few who are looking for something more in their lives and have always dabbled a bit with writing. They just want some guidance.

Non-fiction: This is a bit different. I'm finding that many of my students who take non-fiction are quite competent writers, some even accomplished. Whether they write well or not, they all seem to be passionate about getting their experiences / views out there.  Some have gone through pshychological, physical trauma or are trying to come to terms with an experience and want to share what they've learned in order to help others through similar experiences.
Can you predict from the way assignments are handled which writers are likely to succeed?

Not always, but I get a feeling about some of them.I don't have a lot of hope for the students who send in assignments filled with typos and obviously dashed off in a hurry. I do have hopes for those who have at least the basics of writing mastered and can communicate well. They obviously take the time and effort to work hard on their assignemnts and are quite eager to learn as much as they can. I also have a lot of hopes for the students who use constructive criticsim and apply it in their next assignments. These are my favourites (even though you're not supposed to have favourites)
Can you tell from the assignments how professional someone is likely to be in their approach to a writing career?

Pretty much.  It seems to me that they would approach a writing career much the same way they approach a writing course. If they're meticulous and careful with assignments and try to do their best, this will probably generalise to their career. Also, writing is never ending learning curve. If they display that hunger for learning, they will become addicted. This can only be positive and will mean that writing isn't just a means to an end but is also a passion.
What are the most common mistakes?

Again, a broad question. If I had to choose the most common, I would say sending in work too soon. Once an assignment is finished, I would suggest putting it away for a few days and then reading it again to get that distance that's needed for a truly objective view.

Another isn't necessarily a mistake, but it would be beneficial to them to change their tactics. Some students send in three or four assignments at a time. This means that the feedback I give them on the first assignment will not be applied in the following three. I end up finding the same mistakes through all of them when we could be moving on to polish other points as well. Sending in one assignment, waiting for feedback and then applying it in the next, would be the most helpful for them. This way, if there are any questions or misunderstandings about the changes, we can deal with them immediately.
What kind of short cuts do you see some writers taking - and how do you think this might affect their dream of being a published writer?

Short cuts rarely seem to end up that way. I think I've covered some of these above - Not checking work, not giving it enough time to "rest" before sending it out.

Another one is not reading instructions and following them. Some students, in their eagerness to finish an assignment, will only read part of the question. They will write the specific scene but not explain why they used the techniques they did. If writers are rushing through to finish a course, it seems to me that this would generalise to writing an article or book as well. Publishers have very specific guidelines: font, spacing, whether to send three chapter and a synopsis or just the synopsis, etc. When an editor picks up a manuscript for a first read, at the very least, he expects the writer to have followed his submission guidelines. This is a sign of care and professionalism.
I often tell students to enjoy the process and not just race toward the end. I think this goes for any writing, although I may ammend my suggestions about enjoying the process to  appreciating the process. Sometimes it can simply be hard work, but I guess everything worth pursuing is.
What tips do you have for anyone embarking on a writing course?

  • Take your time
  • Ask questions
  • Open your mind to constructive criticism BUT
  • Remember that your work is your own. It should encompass your tone, your style and your ideas.  If your tutor / teacher suggests you make changes (apart from specific technical problems), ask for his / her reasons. If they make sense and you agree, great. If not, examine your work a little closer and define your reasons for originally writing it this way. Then make your decision on the changes.

What advice do you have for people who have now finished their course? [This question particularly relates to writers who seem to need to hand in an assignment to get motivated!]

Carve out some time for the writing. It's been said hundreds of times, but if you want to be a writer, you need to write. An hour a day, 15 minutes a day, once a week. Try to set aside that time for your writing. If this is too difficult, start by journaling. Keep a diary, write first thing in the morning or right before bed. No one will ever have to see this, so this takes the fear out of wriitng, but it will help grease the writing wheels. When this becomes a habit, you'll find that a blank sheet of paper is much less daunting.

Second piece of advice: Live like a writer. Notice the details. A flickering light in a shopping mall, fingernails with chipped black polish, the sound of your feet as they hit the wet footpath, the smell of the market stalls, the way the shampoo is cold when it hits your palm (especially in winter). Eavesdrop, observe and jot down the details of the world around you. These are the snippets that will show up in your writing to make it richer and more believable.

copyright to Ann Harth and Writing4Success


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