I ran my first online writers’ circle last week and was discussing the writing of articles with my students.
“I think I am more of a gardener,” said Nikki.
“Eh?” I think I responded. I had never heard this phrase before, well, certainly not in the context of writing.
“I am more of a gardener than an architect,” she continued.
I was none the wiser so asked for more explanation. And after she had explained I asked her to repeat it so I could take notes.
You see, some writers like to plan it all out first – to create a structure and then start writing. Others are more of the ‘put the pen on the paper and just go’ type of writer, as Natalie Goldberg writes in her book Writing Down the Bones, like me.
Nikki told me that the original concept is attributed to George RR Martin, the guy behind the Game of Thrones novel, who wrote:
“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be.
George RR Martin
The gardening bit
In the online writers’ circle, in my workshops and on Me-Treats I always include plenty of spontaneous exercises where I present an idea and immediately give students five, 10 or 15 minutes in which to write something. I give them with a seed of an idea, let them start gardening and just see where it takes them; how it grows.
For me, I start with the germ of an idea, one that is not yet fully formed, put fingers to keyboard and go with the flow, writing from my gut until my ideas run out. I work out what I am going to say while I am writing it.
The architect bit
After a break (a few hours or more) I return to the piece to put some structure onto it, adding subheadings if I feel I need them, maybe moving the text around a bit and cutting unnecessary words. I always ensure I include some kind of insight or takeaway because I like my readers to feel that my words are worth reading enough to come back again.
It makes no difference whether you are a gardener or an architect, or, better still a bit of both. It is okay to start off with a detailed plan or with just a seed. What matters is that you accept who you are and learn to craft your natural style into a coherent piece worth reading.
I often think about Susanne (not her real name). She was a regular on all of my workshops, eagerly signing up for courses on writing articles, books, life story and even blogs. But in all that time, and all those hours getting to know, and I hope, trust, me, she never once shared a sentence of her work.
“I never stop writing,” Susanne would say, telling us that she was now well into the third novel in a series.
“So, when are you going to show me?” I would weedle.
But Susanne would just bow her head and avert her eyes.
Even in class, whenever the students settled down to a writing task, she would take part with gusto. But when the time came to read out what they had done, Susanne stayed silent.
After a few years Susanne moved away and I naively thought that she might then email me some work to look at. But no, it seemed no one would ever get a glimpse of her work. Not even a potential editor or publisher. This really saddened me. How would Susanne find out how good her work was? Or how she might improve it?
In all my classes feedback and sharing are an important component. It can be tough listening to someone read work in progress and having to come up with comments right away. But I think it is invaluable for the student not only to hear what I have to say but also from the other students. Students tell me that this is empowering and helps them to increase in confidence. It is also valuable for the students to feel that their opinions are valid too.
Whenever I give feedback I can always, and I mean always, find something positive to say, and I start with that. I then go on to suggest what might be improved. I never say that something is downright terrible.
When, back in 2007, I attended a residential writing retreat in a Scottish castle, we all sat down over gins and tonic before supper and shared the work we had been doing during the afternoon rest-periods. I think I speak for all of us when we say that this was the highlight of the day, leaving us all feeling optimistic.
On my Writing Me-Treats we too always reconvene after the rest-period over a drinkie for feedback. And, at The Watermill, in Tuscany, when I run a life story writing course for the same folk who organised that Scottish retreat, the feedback happens over sangria on the vine terrace. I tell you, sharing is a treat. I only wish I could get Susanne to believe me.
Over the years I have tried a variety of learning methods in order to improve my writing skills and knowledge. They range in price from, well, nothing, to more than £1000 and I admit that can seem rather steep. But how effective are they and which provide the best value for money? In this blog I will give you my lowdown on seven different ways to learn. The costs I have used are based on my own experience living in Europe but can vary widely.
SEVEN OF THE BEST WAYS TO LEARN TO BE A BETTER WRITER
1) FREE – Join an online writers’ circle.
3) £10-20 – Go to hear a writer speak at a literary conference
6) £250-£500 – Attend a weekend workshop.
author, journalist, teacher and poet
'Sharing what I know to help others to grow.'
Jo Parfitt has published 31 books, helped more than 100 authors get into print and more than 1,000 to begin writing. She's an inspiring, compassionate and encouraging teacher.
Jo has run Summertime Publishing since 1997. She has lived abroad for almost 30 years – in France, Dubai, Oman, Norway, the Netherlands, Brunei and Malaysia. She specialises in inspiring others who write about expatriate issues.
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