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 Journals, Writing, Writing craft

5 tips to make better use of your journals and notebooks

You have journals, right? Writers have journals.

The authors of an interesting article in The Guardian newspaper in 2018 about the inner workings of writers’ journals said this: “Note-taking is not just a method for remembering. It is a way a writer tells himself, or herself, a story―and this becomes a process of life, a mode of being.”[1]

But this story-to-self is unpublishable. And that’s where we begin.

Your notebooks and journals serve several purposes, but one of them is NOT to be published. Ever. They are for your eyes only. That’s the beauty of them. They are probably also the only time you write long-hand these days. I know a few writers write without a computer, but that’s not who I’m talking to here. I believe that a writer needs a pen-and-paper journal or two (or three).

I have five tips to help you make better use of your notebooks and journals. (Skip to the bottom to see me talk about these tips).

1 – Choose your writing instrument carefully.

Your pen (or pencil if you prefer) should glide across the paper. If it doesn’t, you won’t write as much or as often. There should be no scratching at all.

2 – Use it every day.

I mean it. Every day. Without fail. (well, almost veery day) Write something. Try Natalie Goldberg’s approach from her wonderful book Writing Down the Bones for writing practice. Start with “I remember…” and keep your hand moving for 10 minutes.

3 – Turn it into your artistic ritual.

Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit (which I’ve mentioner before) has a wonderful section on artist’s rituals. For example, composer Igor Stravinsky had to sit at his piano and play a Bach fugue every morning before he began work. Julia Cameron, author of the now-classic The Artist’s Way, talks about “morning pages” for writers: a ritual that gets the creative mind in the mood. Make your daily journal writing your own personal ritual.  

4 – Have more than one.

This is my approach. I have one for gathering snippets. One for each project I’m working on or thinking about. A “big-idea” book. I reach for one or the other several times of day as I sit at my computer when I see, hear or think of ideas don’t belong in that particular manuscript.

5 – Regularly review your journals to mine them for inspiration.

Your jotted notes that capture your thoughts and observations are a treasure trove of ideas. Think of them as a treasure chest you can open whenever you want, whenever you’re suffering from writer’s block, whenever you’re looking for new ideas. Remember that you were impressed enough by the thought to write it down. Why did it impress you? Go back and figure it out.

Is your notebook a diary? It can be, but for most writers, it doesn’t seem to be. Use it to try things and remember things. But just never publish it. And remember, it is the one piece of writing you’ll do that is unhackable!


‘Messy attics of the mind’: what’s inside a writer’s notebook?