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 Book titles, Writing books, Writing craft

5 tips for choosing better titles for your writing [books, blog pieces, articles, short stories]

What is the one thing that all forms of writing―any fiction genre, nonfiction trade books, academic and professional books, magazine articles, newspaper stories, blog posts―have in common besides, of course, the fact that they all contain words? They all have titles. And those titles are essential for you as a writer if you expect anyone to read what you’ve written.

My question is this: how do you choose a title for an individual piece of your writing? How does any writer? There’s no easy answer to this because writers are inspired by various factors when choosing titles. But those titles are, arguably, the most important promotional tool you have in your toolbox.

After spending almost three decades in the academic world, reading (and writing) academic papers), I’m here to tell you that I’ve seen more hideous titles than you can ever hope to see in your life. Academics are the absolute worst. They seem to think that complicated, densely worded, erudite-sounding titles make them sound smart. They do not. However, this problem of wanting to sound clever isn’t confined to academics. Anyone who writes for a living―or even a hobby―would do themselves a favour by reconsidering the titles they place on their work for readers’ consumption.

This week I have five tips that I’ve picked up through thirty years of writing to help you choose better titles. Here is the summary. For the complete discussion, click on the WRITE.FIX.REPEAT. video.

  1. Your title should be unique. How can you figure this out? Search for it. For books, try Amazon. For blog pieces, plug a few things into a search engine.
  2. Your title should reflect what the book/blog/article is really about. Trying to be cute or smart or something else just to be clever without really reflecting the content is just wrong.
  3. Your title should be easy to remember. Wouldn’t you like readers to be able to tell their friends the name of the book/blog/article? If it’s long and complicated, they’ll forget it. Or their eyes will glaze over (I’m talking to you academically-oriented writers).
  4. Don’t pack it with keywords. (Sometimes referred to as keyword stuffing.) This includes things such as repeating words, adding words out of context, adding irrelevant words. It’s not necessary and makes for crappy titles.
  5. Try to incorporate a hook without being overly clever. How can you know if your title is a hook? Maybe it’s easier to examine those that aren’t. For example, one-word titles, or the label title, don’t really grab readers. (Jaws notwithstanding.) What if I’d called this blog piece simply “Titles?” Would you have been as interested? If I called “Better Titles,” that would have been marginally better. But specificity that focuses on the potential reader is the best.

Believe it or not, there are online assistants for finding titles, but they are generated by AI and usually have issues. But they might intrigue you all the same.

The site generates titles. It’s a bit odd, but fun, nonetheless.

Spend a little time finding the right title.

Some other resources:

JUDITH BRILES.  How to Create Titles to Hook Your Readers

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