Thursday, January 15, 2015

Teaching Without the Paperwork

Any regular readers - or people who actually know me in real life - know that I'm a qualified teacher. I graduated in 2013 with a degree in Education, Religion and English. I've done my teaching hours. I've passed my exams.

But I haven't gotten a teaching job. I haven't registered to be a teacher - and that was a strategic decision, made on the basis of having to reach a certain amount of teaching hours within a couple of years...which I knew wasn't going to happen unless I started teaching immediately. Truth be told, I haven't actively pursued teaching as a career since finishing college, because I knew that I was going to be doing a Masters. I knew I wouldn't have time to teach and study, particularly not when I didn't even know what I would be studying.

In November, I was offered an assistant position in a web design course in college. It's a bit of a change from English and Religion, but more importantly, it came without a ridiculous amount of paperwork.

When I was on teaching placement, I didn't just have to teach. I also had to produce lesson plans every week - one for every class, each one unique, even if I was teaching the same material to different class groups. To add to the fun, I also had to send my Schemes of Work to my supervisors by Monday afternoon each week, for the week ahead. And each Sunday evening, my Reflective Statements for the previous week's lessons had to be uploaded for them to see, too.

Typically, a teacher should spend at least as much time preparing a lesson as they spend teaching it. That's an impractical demand, particularly for newly qualified teachers or teachers in training, but it ends up being something that has to be done - no complaining about it, because there's no one to listen.

Thankfully, this time around things are easier. No lesson plans. No schemes of work. No reflective statements. I don't have to spend six hours a day preparing the class for the next day.

This is, for all intents and purposes, teaching without the paperwork. This is liberating.

Web design is a funny ol' thing to teach, because in a few years it's incredibly likely that most of what we've taught the students will be obsolete, or at least less important. Heck, the only reason knowing how to code a website is important for the general user these days is if they want to set up their own website and edit the templates provided by Wordpress or Blogger. Just knowing what goes where, really.

See, unless you really understand the languages behind web design, you can't do much with them. If you don't understand the tags used in HTML, you almost certainly can't create a website that looks anything like a website. Trust me, I've been a student of the very same course I'm teaching and even though
tags existed back when I did it, we didn't use them. Even though CSS existed, we didn't use it. We had webpages that looked awful, and we didn't understand why.

The difficulty in teaching this sort of stuff in a week is that we need to teach the students what the tags do, why they're important, and how to use them. The last part is the most difficult one. With a little bit of time and playing around, students begin to understand that they need to close tags to make sure the page looks the way it's supposed to. They understand which tags they need to change. They just aren't sure how to start it from scratch. At least, I'm not sure they'd want to try.

And who can blame them? If I were on teaching placement, I'd have to come up with a reason for not teaching them to use everything all by themselves. The problem is, they only have a week. They have a week to learn something that's entirely new to them, and it seems that some the students don't even use computers at home. It's all mobile technology, these days.

Without a lesson plan to encourage teaching them everything from scratch, to have them create everything without a template (they've tried, then they were given a template to edit), and without the time to really let them at it, it's difficult to ensure that the students have learned anything.

The best we can do with a week - yes, a week - is to teach them to understand, and to try get them interested in web design. Some of them really have an eye for the design side of things, too, which was nice to discover. We can give them the tools to go and learn more. We can show them resources to use to create websites of their own. Sure, we can't ensure they'll actually continue. And we can't ensure they'll actually remember anything. But we can do an awful lot towards making sure they can come out of the class with a greater understanding of web design.

And all without the paperwork.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Marvel Reset Switch IRL

Comic books are fond of time travel the way I'm fond of rum; it happens every now and then, and usually it gets a bit of attention. Marvel Comics are especially prone to stories involving time travel of some distinction, whether it's someone coming from the future to prevent a doom the X-Men have yet to face, a hero coming to the present day to join a team of young heroes, or Wolverine going back in time to play the role of Marvel's Reset Switch. The seemingly immortal (ha!) hero is ideally suited to make all the bad things go away how and when it suits him.

And that's what we seem to consider New Year's Resolutions to be. A Reset Switch, in real life. Don't want to smoke? New Year's. Want to lose weight? New Year's. Want to travel more? New Year's. I could keep going, but I can be prone to repetition in the same way Marvel are prone to repeatedly sending Wolverine back in time.

The point is this: sometimes, the Reset Switch works out for the best, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes, Wolverine pulls through and saves the day, and other times he only ends up causing a different kind of apocalyptic nightmare, because apparently that's the power of time travel. (Age of Ultron anybody?)

The real question is, how can we make sure we stick to our resolutions? How do make sure our personal Wolverine's actually succeed in the mission without needing to go back and do it all over again because he messed up the first time?

I had planned on recording a video for this, but I'm not sure I could sustain the Wolverine analogy long enough face-to-camera without looking like a mad man. Instead, I'll use bullet points. That's almost the same thing, right?

  • If you choose the way of the Reset Switch IRL, choose to change something that's important to you. You're more likely to stick to it if it actually matters; "go to the gym more often" is not as important as "live a healthier, more active lifestyle", because it doesn't specify what's so God-damn Reset-Switch-important about the gym itself.
  • Set positive goals, not negative ones, if it can be phrased in that way. Don't "give up junk food", when you can "eat healthier food". Don't say you'll "stop being so lazy" when you can say you'll "be more active".
  • Be specific in your goals. It's easy to say you'll go for a run twice a week, but it's better to say you'll run a specific amount each time, and increase upon that amount over the course of the year.
  • Declare your intentions in writing, in public or in private. Phrasing your New Year's Resolution the right way - a positive, specific goal - means you'll be more likely to stick to it. Saying it publicly is an even bigger motivation not to fail. (That's why you see so many people saying on Facebook that they're going to give up smoking. It's the mindset behind the Reset Switch.)
I happen to be a fan of the ol' annual Reset Switch, particularly because New Year's is about the time that I have a few days to myself, and I'll have just gotten over the rush of Christmas retail. The difference between this year and every other year is that I'm not going to aim to write every day, or publish something every day, because inevitably that falls on its face before the end of June or July. This year, I decided I would do something more for me, and less for my social media sites and various blogging sites. I decided I would attempt to do something significant every day, something I can talk about.

Already this year I've gotten to meet up with different groups of friends for dinner, and work on a screenplay that I've been wanting to write. They count towards my goal, and I write them down in a year planner as a record of what I've done, and to encourage myself to do something to include.

Added to this, I'm setting myself goals for each month. These include the number of videos, blog posts and short stories I want to write in a given calendar month, as well as a number of other goals. This month's list includes the writing of my screenplay, because I know that once college starts back, the time I'll have to do something like that will be more difficult to come across.

Here's the big question: what's your Reset Switch about this year?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

And Finally

Less than a week before Christmas, my first semester of college at a Masters level came to an end, all assignments submitted, all the panic over and done with until the results officially come out in February. (I suspect the reason for the wait is actually because of the courses that have examinations after each semester, so we have them to thank for the delay in finding out how we did. Thanks guys!)

Despite the fact that being a Masters student is in some way supposed to be an indicator of maturity and adulthoodness (Blogger's spell-check doesn't recognise that as a word, but neither does it recognise its own name) we decided to go the way of the Undergrad. Namely, we went out for a few celebratory drinks.

Thirteen weeks before this, we hadn't even met each other. We had our orientation, in which we were commended on being mature, responsible adults, capable of the anticipating the challenges of adulthoodness. I might be paraphrasing. The point is that we were strangers, save for two trios who either (a) were in the same classes at Undergrad level or (b) were one year apart in the same Undergrad programme. That's about a quarter of the class entering with some sort of familiarity with someone else, even if that was just a face and a vague memory.

(Side note: as I mentioned in a previous post, one of my friends' girlfriends is actually sort of a neighbour of mine, whom I've never met. It also happens that someone else went to the same secondary school as someone else's boyfriend, the someone else originally from the States. And about a quarter of the class - at least - have some connection to Galway. We're not sure how to explain these small coincidences. Retrospectively, someone might say we were meant to come together as a class group, and I like to think that means we did/will do well enough after the programme to warrant mass-stalking of the group. Or just someone reading my blog.)

I could, once again, break down the thirteen weeks of the course for your reading pleasure, but it's much easier if you just read the previous posts about my progress in the Masters. What you'll find in there, aside from a brief overview of what I've been doing in the course and how sentimentally attached I've gotten to the group (on the few occasions we've gone out for drinks, I estimate I've been between 1-3 drinks away from "I love you guys!" Those of you reading this - that's how you know you've reached 100% completion in the game of Get Paul Drunk! Alternatively, just re-read this.)

[Insert incredibly subtle segue here!] 
No, today I want to talk about me, because eventually my egocentricity had to come to the fore.

Back when the course began, I hadn't considered much of myself. I didn't immediately introduce myself with "I've published 7 books on Amazon, and written a few more on top of that." I could have. The opportunity was there. Instead, I chose to talk about The Curve and my desire to get into publishing, and the fact that I come from an Education background but never managed to escape retail. Now, I want to talk to about another book - one I haven't gotten to actually read yet, but which I've taken part in a small section of a course based on the book: The Motivation Manifesto, by Brendon Burchard.

Early into the course, homework was set: write your own Manifesto. So I did. I'm not going to share the whole thing here. There are some things on it that are still quite personal. But the main point I want to make from it is the ending of what I'd written.

Life should be fun. Life should be full of joy. There will always be struggles. There will always be fear. But they don't need to define how you live. Let yourself be happy. Let yourself get to know people. Let yourself get hurt. It's all part of the adventure.

Okay, it's a little bit...dramatic? Sappy? I don't know. It's supposed to be something that keeps me motivated. And did it?

Well, as it happens, yes. Inadvertently. I guess putting it into words helped immediately. This is where we get a bit personal. Very early on, I got a feeling about one of my classmates - like, a vibe, not a crush. It's hard to put this into words - easier when drunk and talking with someone who knows him. The feeling said to me that I could be friends with this person. I won't name him. I'm sure my classmates know who it is. What was significant for me was that I hadn't felt this way about someone since I met one of my very close friends four years beforehand, and a year beforehand with pretty much everyone else from my Undergrad college I still talk to (including one who wasn't in my year.) I didn't get much of a chance for this to happen with other people, in fairness, but I hadn't felt something so certain in a long time.

And it was a scary feeling.

Historically, I'm not great at close friendships. I don't tend to be close in the right way. I know exactly why I behave this way, but when the other person doesn't, that's very difficult to deal with. So, I have a tendency not to talk about myself. At all. It's not healthy, I know. I didn't really break that habit until the summer of 2010, and not again until 2012, And then, nothing. Not until late October this year, and much more much quickly than any other time.

End result; more panic. More worry. It wasn't enough to talk about myself, if I wasn't sure it was the right idea. I promise that in due course this will all make a lot more sense, but the effective result of everything going through my head was a belief that I needed to alienate myself from that one person who I'd actually let myself open up, and who had been ridiculously supportive about the whole thing.

What happened next completely shocked me, and this really goes to show how far gone I'd become. A little bit of madness on a Monday morning was dealt with rationally and compassionately, and not with anger. Not with vehemence. Not with any sort of disdain for me having a freak-out in the same week we had deadlines for assignments. I hadn't thought that this specific person would react in this way; my fears were - and I suppose still are - founded on how I think everyone would react in this situation.

The conversation we had wasn't especially long - at least it didn't feel that way - but it was incredibly important. He talked me down from a freak-out, asked all the right questions to help me understand what was going on in my own head...and it seems like that was what I'd never experienced before. Historically, whenever I had a similar sort of freak-out (and it only ever seems to happen with people I feel like I'm getting too close to too quickly, because how unfair is it on me to dump any of my personal stuff on them) I didn't deal with it very well. It usually repeated itself on a regular basis. We're talking daily, here. But since Monday, nothing.

See, I didn't really pay much attention to the Manifesto I'd written for myself, despite the fact that it's within my eye-line so often. I didn't pay attention to a part near the top - Be Yourself. Be Honest. Be Open.

The thing is, I'm trying. I'm trying really hard to pay attention to my own Manifesto. I'm trying to be a good friend. I'm trying to be a good son, and brother, and uncle (as well as nephew, grandson, cousin, godson, etc.) I'm trying, and it's difficult coming from the point of view that getting close to people isn't necessarily the best thing I can do (there's a whole set of stories about that one, but basically things got better for a while when I started my Undergrad, and then plateaued until recently.)

I don't believe life should be spent alone. I'm not very good at practising that belief, but I carry it with me every day, and I try not to be alone when it matters, when it can be helped. It took a long time to get to this point. I definitely wasn't ready for this way of thinking a year ago. I wasn't ready for adulthoodness and the accompanying pressures, expectations, and maturity that come from it. Similarly, I was completely unprepared to make even one extremely valuable friend - valuable not because I'm allowed to talk about whatever's going on in my head, but because I'm allowed to just be myself and speak my mind, and even when our opinions don't match, they still fit. I'm not sure I can really count how many I've made this semester, and I can't quantify the good it's done me.

These past thirteen weeks have brought me almost entirely out of my comfort zone. I have practically no technical background that would have helped with the course. I didn't study art or the media at an academic level before. More significantly, more personally, I don't do well meeting large groups of people for the first time when the expectation is that I should be able to work with them. (The first three days of teaching placement every year were especially terrifying in that regard.) I haven't been in a new class group since 2009, and I've never started in a new educational institution without my twin brother. We've been with each other the entire way, from the first day of primary school to our graduation from Mater Dei in 2013. I was scared. I was nervous. And bit by bit, as the first couple of weeks went by, I started to get the vibe-feeling about other people. Bit by bit, I started to feel like I was in the right place. Finally.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

How Did We Get Here?

I have a single week of lectures left in the first semester of my Masters. I'm still coming to terms with that one. How did we get here so quickly?

Let's go back, to before the Masters started. Let's go back to March. In March, I was acquiring copies of transcripts to be sent off as part of my application. In January, I moved from one bedroom in the house - the largest - to another - the smallest, and ended up misplacing a few things as I tidied up. I know where my original transcripts are. Unfortunately, there are also about three thousand other sheets of paper in that one place, and that may be an underestimation.

So, new transcripts, application completed, and I waited. I got an interview, I was offered a place, I almost cried (yep, that happened) and I paid my deposit. We've reached May. By July, I know how much the course will cost. I checked my budget, and I knew then that I could afford a laptop and a camera - specific ones that I'd had my eye on for a while. I practised with the camera. I got used to framing things, to playing with depth of field. I didn't know much about photography, except that depth of field was cool.

I was still shooting in Auto. Then: September.

The month dragged by after I paid my fees. I was waiting all the time. The day of my orientation, I met up with a friend of a friend, from Germany. The orientation was boring. It rained heavily as I walked home, and for the next two weeks I was sick. Brilliant start, right?

Well, yes. The first lecture was moved forward in a timetable change, and even then I didn't meet my classmates properly until Wednesday - everyone was in, and our lecturer encouraged us to meet up for coffee after the first lecture. And that lecture was, in itself, an ice-breaker. We went for coffee, we set up our own little Facebook group, we added each other, marvelled at how many people were from Galway, and at the little coincidences that seemed to pop up. I had a couple of mutual friends with various people already, and live near one of my friend's girlfriends. (By near, I mean she's essentially around the corner. And we've never met. Whatever happened to suburban values?)

Week two, lectures started.

So, we'll fast forward through this. We've been through this, mostly. I put together my audio drama, I took some photographs that I love, I gave a presentation on the Selfie, as understood from a reading of Susan Sontag's On Photography. Pretty early on, I considered many of my classmates friends. By Halloween, having only just parted from someone's company, I was texting to say I considered him one of my best friends.That was perhaps the most embarrassing thing to happen that night, and it's not really all that embarrassing. (I did try to teach people to do the Time Warp, but I'm not embarrassed by that.)

Foggy Path
The path became clearer the further I walked.
By the end of week eight, I was exhausted, stressed out, and feeling entirely comfortable in the company of my new friends. We were also getting ready to start our next projects, including creating a new soundtrack for a video - foley, dialogue, environmental noises, music, everything. By the end of week eleven - that's where we are now - we're getting ready to write essays, and complete reflective journals. We've met industry professionals who work as photographers, marketers, a social media strategist, a videographer, to mention just a few.

I can remember it all, yet I don't understand how we've gotten this far. We're almost done with our first semester. We've had several varieties of home-baked food. We've been to see some less-than-conventional films. We have our in-jokes. Some people have nicknames they don't want. We've gotten used to using ProTools - I even composed some music for it for my group's soundtrack in our second project - and we've been dabbling in various aspects of the Adobe suite. We've had to use Macs for everything, to the point that when I return to my Windows laptop, I scroll in the wrong direction way more often than I'd care to admit.

But see, it's more than all of that. I'm now at the point of wanting to produce short documentary pieces. I want to create audio dramas, to actually release to the public. Eleven weeks ago, I thought my main focus would be on photography. And while I love photography, while I still want to pursue it, to develop (ha!) my abilities further, I'm not restricting my options so much anymore. I want to work on sound design more in the future. I want to write about visual culture, and new media. I know that by the end of next semester, I'll be looking to learn more about multimedia authoring. I'm dying to learn more about video production already.

I feel like I've come a long way with a lot of amazing people, and I'm not entirely sure how I managed to get here. That said, I love it. I love every bit of it. Choosing this course was one of the best decisions I've ever made, and I refuse to apologise for getting sentimental over it, not after everything I've done in the past eleven weeks, not after the people I've met. I can't be sorry for that.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Learning by Doing

Week nine. That's how they define time in my college, by how many weeks into an academic year we are. By this point, I've been to see one night's worth of short films, one 3D museum experience, and one actual museum; I've read more for a single class than I think I did in my entire final year of my Undergrad; I've baked three times for friends in the course, and been out with them three times; submitted one photography project, and one audio design project, with artist statements for each, and; met some amazing people I am proud to call my friends.

The semester thus far has proven to me once again that I find it easier to learn by doing, by participating in the material, practising with Pro Tools and the Adobe Suite, and implementing suggestions from various and assorted guest speakers.

What has this meant, in reality? That, I think, is something best looked at across three areas: photography, audio design, and professional development.


For the sake of understanding how my understanding of photography has changed, we need to go back to before I started the course. To eliminate most of the history of my life with cameras, we'll start in July 2014 - when I bought my DSLR camera. Everything before that was with camera phones and standard digital cameras.

From late July to early October, I made one big mistake: I shot everything as JPEGs. They look great - the camera did a lot of the work, I just found things to photograph - but they're practically useless. That was mistake number 1.

The second mistake was in using Auto. Sure, you're guaranteed to use the best settings for the lighting available, but you have a lot less control over an image. In terms of learning how to take a good photograph, that's less than ideal.

The end of week eight - last week - marked the deadline for my first imaging project. Between week's four and eight, my understanding of photography, and ability with a camera and with Camera RAW, were put to the test. Thankfully, I took an approach to learning that my years studying Education suggested was the best option available: learning by doing. Practical work. 

I could read about taking photographs, or I could out with my camera and take and re-take photographs until I found one I actually liked. I could study Camera RAW meticulously, and watch dozens of videos online showing tutorials of how to use the program, or I could just try use it based on a couple of demonstrations to show me where the relevant sliders and editing tools were.

In the end, I had twenty six photographs to choose from, fully-edited to achieve the look I desired for the project. I needed ten. Thankfully, my classmates helped me whittle it down. I had thought maybe one person might help. I ended up with about eight people contributing ideas and thoughts while we waited for the Mac labs to open one Tuesday afternoon. Fundamentally, I feel like I could go out and do the project all over again, different idea, different concepts, and manage to do it in half the time, with less hassle. I understand the process a lot better.

Audio Design

Once upon a time, I took a class in college called Digital Storytelling. The course required us to figure out to use one programme particularly well; Audacity. Now, Audacity is great, but limited. Great in that it works, and it's free, and I have enough experience with it that I would have been extremely comfortable using it in college.

Instead, we were required to do all our sound editing in Pro Tools 10. A new interface to get used to, a whole other arrangement for tracks. New terminology. More complex. Not free - which meant I had to accustom myself to use of the Macs in college. (End result: scrolling in the wrong direction when I returned to my laptop.)

The learning of Pro Tools was just one part of the project I had to put together. I also had to record sound to actually edit, which, for me, lead directly into writing an audio drama. As I mentioned in my 'What's New(s)?' post, I wrote a short play called Love At First Date, which starred two of my former colleagues in the Mater Dei Drama Soc - the leads I had cast in our production of The Playboy of the Western World - Darren Lalor and Aisling Hayes.

Of course, I had problems with it. It wasn't just a script and some actors. It required me figuring out how to use the recording equipment, where to get the sounds I wanted, and then how to actually use them. Part of that included producing my own music.

I'm no expert at music. I listen to a fair amount - often albums on repeat - but I don't have any formal training that could have been useful in any way. In the end, I had to teach myself four chords on my six-string ukulele (that's apparently more difficult to play than a standard four-string, and therefore not suitable for a newbie - thanks Music Shop Guys all those years ago for not helping out with that piece of information!). Those four chords then formed the basis of the small piece of music that played during the drama.

Again, the best way to learn how to actually use Pro Tools was to dive in half-blind. We had done a project on it before, resulting in the reiteration of the word "Gatekeeper" on an almost daily basis. When volume is no concern, it gets even more fun. And that's the thing - the whole project was fun. Difficult at times - especially trying to get rid of wind from my dialogue tracks, or find a way to make the noise blend together well enough with my background noises to be less noticeable - but highly enjoyable all the same.

I feel like I could it again, with more interesting and daring ideas. Hearing everyone else's projects really helped provide inspiration to create more complex and entertaining pieces. Thankfully, people seemed to like my drama, something I was repeatedly surprised about to the point of failing to return the compliment (genuinely, too - some of them were frighteningly good!)

Professional Development

My course has three theoretical modules this semester - Visual Culture, which loans itself to the theory behind my entire Multimedia Imaging module; Communication Theory and New Media, and; Best Practice in Multimedia. The latter pair are vital for professional development in the mass-encompassing field of work that is multimedia. Communication Theory has, thus far, provided a step forward in the field of understanding the field, particularly with regard to any journalistic and creative-entrepreneurial endeavours. Various ethical concerns, concepts in the field, and case studies have been explored.

The end-result: a more involved approach to the content I'm producing. Now, I can't put it all down to this one module. I have wanted to work in this way for a long time. But what's important is that, about a month before my lectures started, I stopped updating this blog. I wasn't producing any content, good or bad. I put the theory into practice, and despite the notion that blogging is killing culture, I've been happier for doing it.

I've also been doing some work on some Brain Things that happened, but for the time being I don't have much to say about them. They exist as concepts, barely fleshed out, but they are the practical implications of a module that had, in its first half, required research and written content on a weekly basis.

When it comes to the Best Practice module, things get a little less consistent. That's no judgement on the lecturer, mind you - the guest speakers are booked according to their availability (and, obvious, field of work within the broader industry). The diversity of work represented by the speakers is astonishing, especially considering that several of them were graduates from the Undergraduate Multimedia course in my college (the students of which we share the module with.)

Each week, a speaker comes in, and we'll be assessed on journals written on reflection of the talks and topics. One very important question asked in the assignment brief is to consider the call-to-action from each session - what can we do to begin working in a particular field? Thus far, we've addressed Television, Videography and E-Learning, with speakers working in multimedia in IT and politics. Most recently, and most immediately implementable, a speaker from LinkedIn.

I've been in my current role as a bookseller for over seven years, so it shouldn't come as a surprise when I say that I've been updating my LinkedIn profile since that session with a mind towards future work. I don't plan on staying in a minimum wage, part-time job for the rest of my life. It doesn't make me happy.

Conversely, actually updating my LinkedIn profile, while not the most obviously enjoyable form of procrastination, has been a pleasurable experience. Taking into consideration a depth of work I've done, and my involvement across a broad spectrum of work, going into detail on teaching placements, too, I feel like I've actually done something with my life. What was once a relatively empty page is now a more vibrant history of my professional work. I wasn't entirely sure I knew how to begin, but eventually it all started falling into place.

Moving On

I feel like I've set a standard for myself for the future. For a long time, I've been a cram-as-study sort of person. That works for exams, but not so much for the long-term commitment of knowledge. So, I'm going to work out a self-learning methodology. I'm going to teach myself to study. This isn't just for college - I don't have exams as part of this course. This is for future learning, and for future work.

The inevitable conclusion to this is that the classes I undertake that have the least amount of student interaction are the classes I least enjoy. While we've had a couple of passive, take-notes-only sort of classes for some modules, there's a a greater balance of work and in-class theory in many of them than in others, and it's been in those classes that I've felt my learning has been improved.

We'll see where all of this takes me in the future. For now, I'm hoping the 'learn by doing' approach will get me through the rest of the semester, learning outcomes achieved.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

How to Get Better at Writing

During one of the many Deep and Meaningful conversations I've been having with a friend from college online during the procrastination sections of our assignments, I stumbled upon a realisation. Stumbled, and fell, mouth agape. I realised that my ability to write has improved over the years.

I feel as if this shouldn't have surprised me, like maybe I should have known that I was getting better as time went on. But no. Surprise. A bit of confusion. All the usual things that happen when I stop paying attention.

Here's what I think happened: I wrote so much stuff that was bad, like the first three-four years' worth of blog posts here, that I reached my quota. At that point, my brain decided I had to start doing things right, like maybe writing any old garbage just wasn't going to cut it anymore.

Or, the following advice I can now impart upon you in the infinite wisdom that comes from systematic procrastination, I got better with practice. Here we go...

1. Write more. I think there's still something to that whole writing enough bad stuff that there's none left idea. With enough practice, everyone begins to develop their own authorial voice. They figure out how they write, their idiosyncrasies, what they enjoy doing and how they can make the most of a bad situation when writing. (Exams became an easier experience as my writing ability developed - I knew how to write the way I enjoy writing, even when I didn't like what I had to write about.)

It's the standard advice given to every young write: write more, write often, and just keep writing, because you will get better. And it's true. If you don't believe me, look at the nonsense I wrote on this site back in 2009. Then, you will begin to understand the evolution of my writing.

2. Read broadly. Years of writing isn't enough. It never is. But it's one of a few necessary elements to developing your writing ability. Reading a lot also helps, and reading across genres and topics and authors is the best decision you can make when it comes to building upon your existing skills and vocabulary, which affect the way you write and think.

Just like you can't learn to make a movie by having seen a few and then picking up a camera, you can't write a book without having read a lot of other books, by a lot of other people. My advice is this: look for recommendations from people whose opinions you trust (or, look for a Staff Recommendations section in your local bookshop - independent bookshops are more likely to have them). Read across the board. Try some Contemporary Fiction, some Literary Fiction, some Classics, some Science Fiction, Crime Fiction, Fantasy, and yes, even try some Young Adult and Children's Fiction. Read a book on Business, on Personal Development, History, Biographies. Read newspapers, magazines, reviews, opinion pieces. Heck, even read those long Facebook status updates that are much easier to ignore.

Why? Because by exposing yourself to so many different types of writing, you force yourself to examine your own use of language.

3. Look for feedback. I know, the idea of sharing your writing with someone can be a terrifying experience. However, if you want to improve, you need to find out what other people have to say about your writing, and in a safe environment. Writing and critique groups are an essential part of many writers lives, where they can talk about their current works in progress, receive constructive criticism on the latest chapter they've written, and figure out whether or not an idea is working out.

Finding a writing group is easier today than it used to be. Facebook and Twitter are full of writers who write at different levels and across different genres. Even if sharing your material through email isn't to your fancy, you can still use social media to connect with writers you can then meet face to face.

(A note on meeting people online: public places are your best friend. Pick somewhere you know well, preferably somewhere with CCTV. It may seem paranoid, and things are definitely better now than they used to be - meeting people "from the Internet" is generally more acceptable than it once was - but there's no point taking unnecessary risks.)


4. Leave the house. I know, it's a counter-intuitive idea if you plan on writing using a computer (or a typewriter, if that's more your thing). But here's the thing: most writing is based in the real world. If you don't leave the house and see some of that world, you don't stand a chance at really capturing what it feels like to walk through a park, or along a beach, or through a city in the middle of the night. You might just know how a school feels, or your workplace, or the usual haunts you visit with friends and family, time and time again.

I'm not suggesting a trip around the world - though, if you plan on writing a story set in a foreign city, it does help to spend some time there. I'm merely suggesting that rather than write in a house or apartment in a town (or near a town), you actually get out and see what it's like. Keep a notebook with you. Use your phone as a camera if you have to, to capture some images for reference later. Get to know the world in which you're writing.

Importantly, you can also get to know the Arts world around you. Visit museums, especially when there are short-term exhibits present. Look for events, like poetry readings, or storytelling nights. They do exist, if you look for them. Get involved with the community of artists that live around you.

5. Do your research. I've put this last for two reasons: if I'd put it first, it might have turned people off reading the rest of the article, and; "last but not least" tends to stick with people. So, last but not least, you need to do your research. If you're writing a book in which a character has "a terminal disease" - an example I'm using because of its frequency in writing groups - "that isn't cancer", you need to figure out everything about that disease.

Whatever your specific subject of choice, knowing something about it beyond the standard Wikipedia entry is a must, particularly if your novel deals with one of a number of greater subject areas in Science, Business, Politics, History, Sports, or Religion. If your protagonist is a rugby-playing, devout Muslim, student, doing research in Theoretical Physics while helping his father run in the local elections, while his sister is running "a successful business" and his mother is undertaking a Doctorate in History, you really need to know a lot about each of those five specific fields. More generally, if your character is an expert, or proficient, in an area of which you have little to no knowledge, you need to educate yourself.

How do you research? That depends on what you're researching. Sports are maybe the easiest thing to research, if they're regularly televised. Watch it. Ask a friend who's interested in it about the rules. Pick up a book on tactics, look up the official governing bodies, read what they have to say. Business, you need to be selective in what you study. Think about how much you need to include in a story. If you need to know more about the legalities of running a business, focus on that area. If you need to know more about marketing, there's your focus. The same applies for everything you might need to research.

A good rule of thumb is to research more than you need, but not so much you never write anything. Read books. Read articles. Look for YouTube videos. There are dozens of channels out there that specialise in educating their audiences in a number of different areas, from literature to sexual health, the American Civil War to the psychology of mental illness. Mashable kindly listed ten of them here:

The reason research is important is that it gives your writing substance. It's not enough to try write a story with a modicum of information and a good idea. While the good idea is essential, good writing should immerse a reader into the story.

Plus, all of that extra reading nicely fits in with Tip #2. You're welcome.


Improving your writing skills is relatively easy. There's a lot you learn without a mentor or a teacher to tell you how to do it correctly. For the most part, I'm a self-educated writer. Yes, I turned to books on writing to pick up some advice, but I didn't have a teacher. I couldn't ask those writers questions. This isn't to put down participation in writing courses and workshops. I've taken part in a couple myself. They're incredibly useful and powerful experiences. But they're not the most important part of your learning experience.

By writing as much as you can, and reading as widely as you can force yourself, you're already ahead of the competition. Feedback will help you hone your skills, research help you focus on the finer details you wish you include in your book, and real life experience - both of activities and places - will help make your writing feel more authentic. You can begin now, easily and cheaply - even, it could be argued, freely, depending on where you live.

What's your best advice for people looking to improve their writing? And, for those who want extra help, what do you really want to know?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

How Well Do We Really Know Each Other?

Meeting new people and making new friends is weird. Society's pressure to "fit in" requires that we do what other people do, laugh at their jokes, make our own, talk to people, and maybe get to know them. Fitting in requires either finding people who are like you, or adapting to the status quo of social paradigms. That, or spend your days alone.

Those are the options, right?

What if I told you that, for the past six weeks, I've worn my passions on my clothes? What if I told you that, despite not knowing a single person in my Masters course, I wore t-shirts with Final Fantasy VII characters, Guardians of the Galaxy references, and Harry Potter icons on them? For all I knew, I could have immediately alienated myself from the class group.

The big question still remains: have I been myself? While I've been unironically enthusiastic about a lot of different things that aren't exactly "normal" (a word that loses all meaning when personal expression is the aim), and while I've exposed a lot about myself to my classmates, I certainly haven't been myself, not 100% of the way.

This is no reflection on them. I don't feel like I can't be myself around them. I don't think they would think any less of me if I showed my full palette of colours. However, like everyone else with an insecurity issue or two, it's not always a matter of whether the other people will accept me. The problem isn't that I can't be myself, in the sense that I would be in intimate, private situations, but that, maybe, I shouldn't be myself.

My reasoning is simple, maybe to its detriment: emotional baggage.

My formative years weren't the best for developing social skills. I take jokes slightly too far. I don't always read people correctly. I have trouble shutting up. These consequences of my youth - say, age 12-15, give or take - are obvious after spending a bit of time with me. But the reason why things turned out that way, that remains a secret except to those who probably don't realise the lasting effect those years have had on my life.

I certainly haven't spoken at length about those years with the majority of the people in my life. This isn't a trust issue, except maybe in the sense that I don't trust myself not to dump every modicum of emotional baggage I carry on those who don't know how to deal with it. Put simply, I don't think I can volunteer that information to anyone any more.

And just by that decision, I'm hiding part of myself. But the fact is, if I felt like I could trust someone, and if they really wanted to know, and if I could feel it from them that they wanted to know for more reasons that sheer curiosity.

I hide my secrets under masks, masks carved from personal truths. I wear masks that say I'm a nerd, that say I like to bake, that say I like to stay on top of college work and the little intricacies of information that fly about in emails. I wear masks that tell people who I want to be when I'm in public, to hide the person I don't like to be, the person who panics, who stresses out, who succumbs to fear and doubt and dread.

The evidence has been made clearer to me over the past six weeks than ever before that I'm not the only person who does this. We all hide things about ourselves, little interests, stories from our pasts we don't share, opinions on the world around us. Everyone does it, because there's a prevailing fear of the intimacy of personal knowledge about other people, and letting them know more about us than we care to admit.

Bad jokes, nerdy t-shirts, enthusiasm, anger, curiosity, baking; these are the masks I wear, to hide the rest of what makes me up. It's all true, it's just not the full truth.

Any friends or family who may end up reading this, here's the thing: the next time you see me, if it really matters for you to know something about me, just ask. The thing about masks is that eventually, they have to come off.