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?