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Back to School: Lessons learned from an online writing class

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BY GAIL JOKERST
Over the past few years I have increasingly felt the need to rock myself out of my writing comfort zone and stretch myself professionally. In particular, I wanted to learn to incorporate creative nonfiction storytelling strategies into my magazine and newspapers articles to make them more engaging. I also wanted to identify any bad habits I had unknowingly acquired and pinpoint the areas where my writing was weakest. Based on my remote Montana location, an online course that included critiques from a qualified instructor appeared to be my ticket. I trolled the Internet until I found a spot-on description for a creative nonfiction workshop offered by the Extension Program at the University of California at Berkeley.
Thanks to funding from the 2013 John Madson Fellowship, I participated in this demanding six-month course with its medley of reading and writing assignments covering memoirs, essays, reviews and interviews. Most of the readings introduced me to the work of talented authors with whom I was unfamiliar. The writing assignments challenged me to experiment with a more personal style of writing than I was accustomed to using and required excavating my own life for long-ago experiences that still loitered in memory. And the feedback I received from the instructor was invaluable. Here are just three of the many lessons I learned:
1. Use Sentence Fragments Sparingly
Most writing gurus allow occasional well-placed sentence fragments when you want to emphasize a point, with occasional being the operative word. However, if utilized too frequently, my instructor informed me, “they become annoying.” Ouch. I was unaware I had slid so deeply into this questionable realm until my instructor called it to my attention. Recasting several sentence fragments with both a subject and predicate clarified the statement’s meaning. My longest essay originally housed five of these undesirable fragments.
For example, in my final-project essay, “The Road to Becoming the Lincoln Lawyer,” I originally wrote: “For Ogden, it was all part of a normal day or night’s work. Though some first-calls remain more vivid than others to him.”
I rewrote it: “For Ogden, it was all part of a normal day or night’s work, though some first-calls remain more vivid than others to him.”
Once I revised the piece I retained only the most compelling fragments, leaving a not-so-grand total of one.
2. Avoid Long Quotes
We all know quotes make our stories sparkle and add the dimension of sound so critical to readers. However, readers don’t always need to be given those sentences in the same sequence we acquire them through interviews. Replicating an entire portion of conversation can be overkill, as I discovered. One profile I wrote included a 10-line quote split by one attribution. The instructor told me to break it up to draw attention to specific parts of it. The ideas within the quote were worth communicating but not all in the same paragraph. When editing the piece I found places which would otherwise have gone quoteless, where many of those lines fit perfectly.
I also noticed from the course reading that the tightest quotes were often the most effective. For instance, in the essay “Beekeeper,” Sue Hubbell deftly employs a minimalist approach with snippets such as, “Shore am” and “You the sweetest thing in Missouri?” I have to admit in my 20-plus years of writing I have rarely used a pithy two- or six-word quote. Now I look for them.
3. Don’t Rush Your Endings
The instructor liked my leads, hooks and the bodies of my stories, but she consistently found fault with the endings. Some came across like I was “trying too hard,” while others “lacked closure,” she told me. When I stopped to analyze why this problem kept occurring, I realized I start over from the beginning whenever I work on a story. That means I’m constantly tweaking leads along with what comes next – good thing I don’t write novels. By the time the finish line becomes visible, I’m typically focused more on wrapping things up quickly than in wrapping them up rightly with a seamless transition followed by one or two artfully crafted paragraphs. Although I have always tinkered with conclusions to try and make them memorable, it’s been years since they received the same careful attention bestowed on the previous sections of each story. Consequently, I spent untold hours polishing the ending of my 2700-word final project until it reflected the humor and insight for which I was aiming. My efforts were rewarded with, “Great quote; good placement. An excellent piece!”
Other Tips from Class

  • Read more and read more widely to be inspired by the work of other writers.
  • Read more critically and consider why you like or don’t like a piece.
  • Give yourself lots of time to complete assignments.
  • Take some risks and have confidence in the ideas that come to you.
  • Don’t hesitate to start over if you aren’t passionate about your subject. As my instructor said, “Good writing tends to come from intense personal interest.” ♦

Editors note: You can apply for the 2014 John Madson Fellowship. Applications must be sent to the OWAA headquarters, postmarked no later than March 1, 2014. For more information visit www.owaa.org/programs/scholarshipsfellowships/madson-fellowship.
— Gail Jokerst lives within sight of Glacier National Park’s mountains, where she spends as much time as possible hiking and photographing. Aside from writing for publications such as The Christian Science Monitor, The Spokesman-Review, and Montana Magazine, Jokerst has taught nonfiction workshops at Principia College and Flathead Valley Community College. www.gailjokerst.com.
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