5 Things Teaching Writing Taught Me About Writing
Most writers have day jobs, which feed into their writing. Here I ask writers what unexpected lessons their day job or hobby has taught them about the craft. Today's post is by the talented Tiffani Angus, and I'm super happy to have her doing a post because she is not only the editor of both "Theo and the Forbidden Language" and "The Queen and the Dagger", but her debut novel "Threading the Labyrinth" was recently shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Association's award for best novel. That's a big deal! Here's a more complete bio, as well as the 5 things about writing that she's learned from teaching it.
Tiffani Angus is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing and Publishing at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England. She has published short fiction in a variety of genres including science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, horror and even erotica. She’s also the author of the BSFA shortlisted novel Threading the Labyrinth, about 400 years in a haunted garden. Currently, she’s working on a novel about the end of the world that she started way before the pandemic, so you can guess how that’s going! And she really wants a cat.
You can connect with her here:
I have that job that so many writers tell me they want to have: I’m a lecturer in creative writing and publishing at the university level and got my PhD in Creative Writing. Needless to say, I spend my days talking about writing, reading student work, writing feedback, and reading about writing, but (because of current workload due to the pandemic) not doing much of my own actual writing. However, teaching writing to my students has taught me—or re-taught me—things about writing.
Lesson #1: There are too many writing books out there.
Recently a writer friend on Facebook posted a selfie of his writing books. I thought it was a fun idea, until I realized I have 4-5 shelves worth (many don’t fit on the shelves, so I’m estimating here!). There are books on writing specific genres, books on writing in general, books on creativity, books on editing and proofreading, and even books on teaching writing. There is *so much advice* out there that you can’t take it all in let alone follow all of it. But I have a handful of go-to books that I return to over and over and even teach from. Find the one or two or three things helpful in a book, maybe compile a file of those bits of advice, and read the list when you get stuck and need some inspiration but don’t have time to read the whole book again. Lesson #2: There’s no one way—or one “right” way—to do it.
I teach all three levels of writers—undergrads, MA, and PhD students—and every time I sit with a student one-to-one or answer questions in class, I must pitch feedback to their individual or group level; I must meet them where *they* are. This reminds me that there are different ways to approach the same idea or problem, and that sometimes it’s perfectly okay to back up and try again from a different direction.
Lesson #3: Take advantage of writing time.
I have never been a “write every day” kind of writer, but the past year has taken its toll, so I’ve had to get creative in finding moments when I have enough brain to actually concentrate for longer than 5 minutes. So this semester when I make my students write, I write, too. This has given me the motivation to add writing sprints to their class sessions, and it gives me 10-20 minutes to work along with them—plus, I often do whatever task I’ve set them; this has helped me rethink things in a novel that I am already 75K words deep in!
Lesson #4: Go back to basics.
I have to re-read what I assign to my students to read each year—both fiction and non-fiction—and condense the ideas. This reminds me to keep some things clean and streamlined, especially the “rules”. Too much information is just that: too much. So I find ways of helping them with their writing by simplifying the process. I tell my students that if they find themselves in the weeds, one good way to get out is to go back to the good old plot pyramid (called the Freytag pyramid) and fill it in with the information from their current draft. It’ll help them see where they went off the rails. Same thing with figuring out characters: ask the old standby “What do they want? What do they need?” to clarify the motivations. And to remember that the theme isn’t a one-word thing; it’s the idea you’re exploring in your story.
Lesson #5: The only way to learn how to write is to write.
This is the biggie. I mean, I love my day job and think it’s worthy and important, but at the end of the day the best way to learn how to write is to do it. Because so much of writing is editing/rewriting, we can’t figure out how to make it work unless we deal with how it doesn’t work, and we can only do that when we have a draft. As I say to my students all the time: “We can edit shit on a page, but we can’t edit shit in your head.” (Yeah, I’m a sweary teacher!) Are you a writer who has learned lessons about craft from your day job? Or maybe you're a reader and your day job has taught you something about good stories? Feel free to comment below!