Backstory Blog

Posted in Writing craft

Online Learning for Writers

It was probably the early 2000s. I was still a full-time university professor, and there was a newfangled thing in town: online learning. For as long as I can remember, the university where I taught had been at the forefront of what they called “distance education.” It was what we called “correspondence courses” in the early years. In the simplest of definitions, correspondence courses were those courses where the teacher and students communicated by mail―the old-fashioned kind. Picture it for a moment.

You are an aspiring writer living in a small town, miles from any place where you might be able to find even an evening course to learn something bout writing. You pick up a copy of Writer’s Digest magazine at your local newsstand, and as you’re flipping through those real pages, you come across an advertisement for a correspondence course.

An old advertisement from Writer’s Digest

You write to the company advertising the course, enclose your cheque to cover the course cost, and they send you course materials that contain instructions. When you’ve finished the first section of the course and completed the assignment, you put that assignment in an envelope and mail it to your instructor. Then you wait. (Not unlike waiting for an agent to get back to you, right? Perhaps it was good training after all!). The instructor grades your assignment and mails it back to you. Then you complete the next section, and the process presents itself until the end of the course. As I was writing this, I remembered that I had actually done this back in the early days of my writing career.

It was a novel-writing course, and the company promised to connect me with a fiction-writing teacher. The company sent me a binder full of materials, and I corresponded with the teacher, who critiqued my work all along the way. Slow but effective, in my view. Fast-forward to the twenty-first century and all our digital, online tools.

When my university began its foray into online learning, I was first in line in my department to begin the process of creating courses for online delivery. Courses designed to be presented in person don’t translate directly onto online learning platforms without significant alterations to how the content is chunked and presented. That’s why so many kids had so much difficulty with their schoolwork when their in-classroom learning suddenly moved online in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. I felt for them, knowing what I did about the differences between in-class and distance teaching and learning. However, a well-developed online course can be an excellent way to learn. And aspiring writers can learn so much from a really good online course. It doesn’t matter where you live anymore. You can find rich resources for online learning.

The online self-publishing space Kindlepreneur publishes a list of good online courses for writers every year. This year’s list, 16 Best Online Courses for Writers in 2022 [Free & Paid], includes courses for beginning writers, people who aspire to write children’s books, memoir writers, bloggers and much more.

Never let it be said that you can’t access or afford a course that might help you realize your potential to become a better writer. There are lots available.

And if you’ve ever considered writing a nonfiction book, you’ll need to write a book proposal. You might try this course…(you didn’t think I’d forget to plug my own course, did you??)

Of course, for my blog readers, I’ve created a special price that expires on June 17. Use the coupon code MAY2022BLOGREADER at this URL:


Some Resources:

Free Online Writing Courses.

16 Best Online Courses for Writers in 2022 [Free & Paid]

A History of Correspondence Course Programs,shorthand%20through%20weekly%20mailed%20lessons

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Posted in Writing craft

Improving the Building Blocks of Great Writing: Tips for Writing Better Paragraphs

Paragraphs are the building blocks of prose―no matter what your genre. They carry your ideas to your readers, bring characters and places to life, flesh out your scenes, and move your story along. Better paragraphs mean better writing. It’s as simple as that. Before we begin, though, it’s essential to understand what a paragraph is.

Most of us know a paragraph when we see one, but could you define it for someone whose first language isn’t English? Yes, paragraphs appear in other languages (thank goodness, or I wouldn’t be able to read French!), but providing someone with a definition can be a challenge.

According to the Purdue Online Writing Lab (if you don’t use this one as a resource, you should begin immediately)…

“…a paragraph is a collection of related sentences dealing with a single topic…”[1]

…and it’s this notion of a single topic that is at the heart of writing stellar paragraphs. If you know how to craft a powerful paragraph, you’ll find your writing flows better, and your eventual editing will be easier.

Here are some suggestions for creating those well-crafted paragraphs.

Begin each paragraph with a strong topic sentence.

First, your topic sentence is the most critical one in each paragraph. It’s so important because it needs to indicate the subject (focus) of the paragraph that follows. Another way of thinking about it is that it is the overview of the paragraph. A reader reading the first sentence of one of your paragraphs should know what topic you’re about to pursue.

Examine a sample of your writing. Review a few paragraphs. Does each of them begin with a strong sentence that introduces a topic? This is where great paragraphs begin.

Unity is the hallmark of a great paragraph.

In other words, if each one of the sentences that follow your topic sentence is related somehow to the subject of the paragraph, you can achieve unity. The Merriam-Webster diction suggests that one way to understand the concept of unity is to think of it as “a totality of related parts.”[2]

Your paragraph should contain no irrelevant pieces of information that came to your mind while you were writing. As you write each paragraph, you should keep in mind your topic.

Great paragraphs are coherent.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve written “incoherent” in the margin of a student paper over the years. It is probably the most common paragraph mistake that I’ve seen in over thirty-five years of marking student writing.

A paragraph that achieves unity―you are sticking to the topic―but presents the ideas in an illogical sequence (usually no sequence)―is incoherent.

Writing a paragraph is not a simple matter of coming up with a few ideas that relate to the topic sentence and writing them down. They must flow in a coherent manner. There needs to be a connection between the ideas you are presenting. It might be a logical argument, a chronology, comparison, or contrasting ideas presented as such, cause and effect as examples of how to create unity.

Your coherent, unified paragraph must be clearly linked to and necessary for your overall story idea.

In other words, each paragraph must flow from the overall topic of the piece without presenting irrelevant flights of fancy. Often when I edit writers’ work, I notice that there are whole paragraphs that could be cut without detracting from the story or article or essay.

These are the ones to edit out (or not write in the first place).

Strong paragraphs have solid transitions in the final sentence.

Every paragraph needs to relate to what comes next. If you are reading along in a book or story or article and suddenly feel jolted, asking yourself, “Where did this come from?” it’s likely because the paragraph above provided you, the reader, with no transition.

Transition can be subtle, but it has to be there to maintain the overall flow. That’s the purpose of transitional sentences: to maintain flow. Review a page of your writing, examine each paragraph and ask yourself the following question: Does this new paragraph flow seamlessly from the last sentence of the paragraph above? If the answer is no, then you need a transitional sentence.

According to H.W. Fowler, a British grammarian writing in Modern English Usage,

The purpose of paragraphing is to give the reader a rest. The writer is saying to him: ‘Have you got that? If so, I’ll go on to the next point.’

It was so when he wrote this in 1926, and it’s still true today.

[1] On paragraphs.


Posted in Ethics, Self-Publishing

Ethical issues in self-publishing: Why you should care

It’s probably safe to say that most of us don’t think about ethics on a daily basis―at least not consciously. But every once in a while, we see, read or hear something that makes us think that something is not quite “right.” Something about it makes us feel that it’s just wrong. That something might be perfectly legal but still doesn’t feel right. That’s your internal ethical compass telling you to look at the issue more closely. The problem is, often, when we ought to see something as not quite right, we don’t even notice. Self-publishing comes to mind.

Writers have been self-publishing for many years. Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, Beatrix Potter and Virginia Wolff come immediately to mind, giving self-publishing what should be a kind of positive cache. However, the image of self-publishing has, over the years, diminished in the eyes of many―the media, literary critics and even many readers are among those who often carry a negative prejudice toward self-published works and their authors. This bad reputation is not always unjustified. There are myriad ethical transgressions perpetrated by self-publishers every day. These are the activities and people who give everyone a bad name.

Historical novelist Jane Steen in her article, “Opinion: Why We Need to Talk About Ethics in Self-publishing,” suggested we should be concerned about ethics because “we owe it to our readers,” but perhaps even more importantly,” We owe it to ourselves. Our indie career is not just about the books we write. It’s about the person we are” because improving the image of self-published works is essential to broader acceptance and in the end, it has to be said, success as an author. 

My personal experience and observations suggest that a few key areas have contributed to negative perceptions and are ethical minefields for indie authors. They are behaviours to be avoided at all costs.  

  1. Writing 5-star reviews for crappy books:  It is beyond irritating to buy a well-reviewed book only to find it riddled with stylistic errors (grammar, punctuation, sentence structure etc.) at a minimum and just plain awful at the worst. Some indie authors write these reviews for others to ensure glowing reviews for their own publications. This is dishonest and, therefore, unethical. Don’t do it.
  2. Asking friends and family to write glowing reviews for your books: This is hardly a third-party endorsement. These individuals are biased and likely want you to succeed, so their reviews are not objective. Readers are looking for objective, honest recommendations. This is unethical. Don’t do it.
  3. Buying reviews: Since the surge in self-published books, a whole industry has grown up for paid book reviews. You can find thousands of review writers more than willing to write and post (for a fee, of course) glowing reviews for you. Traditionally published authors can also use this disingenuous practice. Any way you look at it, it is a dirty practice and should be avoided at all costs. Dishonest. Unethical. Don’t do it.
  4. Flooding the ebook stores with appallingly poor, ill-conceived ebooks: There is another cottage industry that has grown up around the notion of simply writing ebooks on anything you can think of merely to generate income. This practice is one of the most insidious ways that the reputation of all self-published authors is dragged through the mud. Unless you are an expert on your subject matter, step away from the computer with that brilliant idea for an ebook. 
  5. Over-inflating your wonderfulness and success: This is so problematic in the self-publishing industry. Every time someone sells themselves to me as “best-selling” or “award-winning,” I get out Mr. Google and have a look. That award should have been from a credible, well-known organization, and you had better have had a best-seller on the New York Times (or equivalent) best-sellers list, or you’re padding. This is dishonest. Unethical. Don’t do it. (If you want to see how even being on these lists can be dishonest, read “Here’s How You Buy Your Way Onto The New York Times Bestsellers List.”)

There have been several bloggers who have suggested codes of conduct for self-published authors. They are worth reading and are among the following list of pieces you should read if you care about your reputation as a self-published author.

Some Resources for You

The Mystery of the Book Sales Spike

Opinion: Why We Need to Talk About Ethics in Self-publishing

Here’s How You Buy Your Way Onto The New York Times Bestsellers List

Ethical Author

Ethics in Self-Publishing : An Indie Author’s Manifesto

Code of Ethics for Self Published Authors vs. Hell

8 Issues In Author Ethics