Linda Donovan - The Impact of Style

The philosophy of To Write Well (click for website) is that writing is a complex process that begins with having something to say and proceeds through learning to say it well, mastering specific skills along the way.

Their ten week online course, Impact of Style, is designed to teach writers of all levels, of fiction and non-fiction, to present their ideas through the tools of the writing craft. As well as lectures, reading assignments and a discussion forum, students are encouraged to comment on each other’s work.

To Write Well is led by Linda Donovan and Eric Stark and Linda has agreed to talk about how she became a teacher of writing and what led to her setting up an online classroom for writers.

How did you get into teaching people to write better?

You could say it's the voices in my head, but that's probably not the most confidence-inspiring response. However, those voices have always fascinated me. Even as a young child, I wondered about this mysterious — and precious! - thing called "ideas." I realized very young that no one thinks the same as I do, and therefore the converse must be true-- that I cannot think in the same way as someone else. So how does our brain create ideas? and how in the name of Sam Hill do we get our thoughts into someone else's head? Obviously, speaking and writing, and frankly the process of discovering and articulating our ideas, getting them onto paper so other people can unpeel and absorb them from the page — well, that's endlessly fascinating.

So I began writing, learning about the physiology of the brain and the writing process, learning the mechanics of plot, character, dialogue, et al, then focusing on language and structure (syntax). Along the way, I realized knowledge is useless unless it is shared. It's not about our knowing more than the next person; it's about sharing and adding to the understanding of those around us.

I want people to be able to delve into and uncover ideas that make their lives better, and what better way than to teach people how to dredge through that mysterious ectoplasm called the mind, and emerge with ideas dripping through their fingers onto the page?

What's the best thing about being an educator?

The energy. Both the energy I expend and the energy the student expends. It's — and I hate this word, because business has abused it — but it's synergy. I tutor one student who is recovering from serious brain injuries as the result of a car accident. A fourteen-year-old boy who over the past three years had to learn to talk again, including vocabulary! Yesterday, he had to write a persuasive essay as part of his placement testing for school. Out of a possible eight points, he earned seven. The look on his face cannot be replaced. He had arrived, and in learning how to delve into his mind and communicate his ideas, he succeeded against the odds. Amazing thing, the brain.

And what's the worst thing?

Oooooh, you do NOT want to get me started on the "sweet, young things" in high school, who have great potential, but purposely perform at the "dumb kids" level, so they can be part of the in-crowd. I'm not sure which is worse: their purposeful stupidity or Hummers. I'm not a violent person, but I can say the fingernails itch.

Oh, you mean about being an educator in writing? Students—usually writers—who say they want a tough critique, but then whine and justify and rationalize and excuse... Take the criticism and either accept or reject it, but don't browbeat the person whose opinion you asked for in the first place!

What's the one mistake you made, when starting out, that still haunts you?

I didn't ask for enough money. No seriously. I undervalued my expertise — after all, no one had paid me for it before, so I must be an amateur, right? Wrong! I'm still paying for that mistake. Once you set the scale for your work, it's hard to dig out from under it. So start high, and be verrrry good at what you do.

A wise person recently told me that "we are worth what we can ask for without laughing." I agree.

Which writer(s) do you most admire, and why?

I most admire essayists, such as Montaigne, Harold Bloom (Oh, his work "Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds"), George Orwell, and Joan Didion (her early works), and especially Italo Calvino. I just picked up "A Temple of Texts" by William H. Gass. I had never read his work, and this particular collection of 25 essays speaks "to the nature and value of writing and to the books that result form a deep commitment to the word." I'm looking forward to reading it, but promised myself that I'd finish this interview first.

What advice would you give somebody who is thinking of improving their writing?

First, listen. There are stories all around you.

Second, write.

Third, write at the same time each day. The brain is a capricious thing, but it can be trained to help you create. If you write at the same time of day each day, your brain knows that this is the time to delve deep. Always edit in a different place than you create. Otherwise, you're training your brain to judge your creative efforts. When you're creating is not the time to edit.

Fourth, LEARN. Know what you do well, and find a way to acquire the skills you need, either through self-study books on the craft of writing (for those who don’t know where to start with self-study, Linda publishes an excellent review every month of a book that deals with style in relation to writing – you can find them here -reviews) or writers' groups or online courses.

Finally, for heaven's sake, stop using clichés!

And what advice would you give writers hoping to be published?

Be professional. Present your writing and yourself in best light, and never take your self-image as "an artist" so seriously. If good spelling and grammar are beneath you, let me clue you: agents and editors aren't going to correct it for you. They're not your lackeys.

Stop whining--there are many writers in this world, and being "temperamental" is pure childishness.

Never stop learning!

Smile--it makes people wonder what you're up to.

Is there something else you can see yourself doing if you weren't a teacher?


If you were abandoned on a desert island, with just one book for company, what would it be?

Oh, dear ... "The Complete Essays of Montaigne."

Wait! Maybe "The Essential Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson," though that would require "The Collected Essays and Poems of Henry David Thoreau," and of course, "The Western Canon" by Harold Bloom.

Then there's the Harold Bloom one I mentioned earlier, "Genius..................

The next Impact of Style course begins on 18 September 2006 and you can register as a student by visiting the Impact of Style Registration Page