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Alex Smith tutors several courses for NZ Writers College

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Alex Smith

Award-winning author Alex Smith tutors several of our online writing courses, including the popular 'Write a Novel' course.

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Grammar Skills Course (English 2nd Language) as well as our 'Literary Short and Flash Fiction Course'.

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Featured Article: Journalism

The 20 most important pointers to write better articles – by Nichola Meyer

Best Journalism courses at NZ Writers College
Never doubt that what may seem like an effortless read in a publication has taken hours and hours of conjuring, sculpting and editing. Here are 20 essential tips for better writing.


Pointer 1: Choose your point of view (POV), and stick to it throughout your article.

Point of view refers to the perspective of the narrator in the article. Who is “telling the story”? Is the story written from first person (I)? Third person (they/ him/ her)? Second Person (You)?

A common mistake among student writers is to start writing in one perspective, and then, to muddle the perspectives. Inconsistencies in Point of View can easily creep into an article, especially as many journalists use the “we” perspective, and then get it muddled up with the pronouns “you” and “one”.

For example, the sentence: “The important thing for us is to be able to channel one’s anxiety into positive action, instead of brooding inaction,” is almost nonsensical.  “The important thing for us is to be able to channel our anxiety into positive action, instead of brooding inaction,” works.

Ask yourself: What POV would work best for your chosen target publication and angle?

Analyse your target publication and ask the following: are most of the articles written in formal third person (e.g. “Statistics have shown that women in their eighties….”)?

Are they more personal, first person stories (e.g. “The statistics I’ve seen show that women like us, in our eighties….”)?

Is it the second-person, “you” form to create intimacy (e.g. “Statistics have shown that women like you, in your eighties….”)?

The point of view you choose has a direct impact on the tone and style of your article.


Pointer 2: Use transitions between sentences, and between paragraphs.

Transitions are “breather” sentences that lead the reader from one paragraph to another, creating a logical and cohesive flow throughout the piece. Transitions glue facts and explanation together, and help to keep the reader (who may be quite lazy!) interested.

Some ways to create transitions are:

Starting a sentence with a conjunction: like “but”, “however”, “and”, “nevertheless”, “therefore”, “also”, “secondly”, “when”, “since”, “while”, and “according to”.
Using punctuation that ties a group of sentences together, like the colon and semi-colon.
Balancing or contrasting ideas, such as listing a pro and then the contrasting con.
Using a graphic image woven throughout the story, which holds the discussion together.
Inserting colloquial opinion statements/ personal input from the writer. For example: Ending a paragraph with “See what I mean?” or “Right?” or “You may not be far off the mark.”  Even interjections like: “Sounds like garbage to me!” or “Here we go again…!” can be used as transitions.
Creating anecdotes or scenes to tie paragraphs together.
Examples of transitions:
Best Online Writing Courses
For example; for instance; in other words; put another way; seems clear from this; simply stated; stated differently; that is; to clarify; to illustrate the point, although; as opposed to; but; conversely; counter to; even so; even though; however; in spite of this; in the meantime; nevertheless; on the contrary; on the other hand; otherwise; sometimes; still; yet; again; another key point; first thing to remember; for this reason; frequently; important to realize; indeed; in fact; key point; most compelling evidence; most important information; must be remembered; on the negative side; on the positive side; point often overlooked; significant that; surprising; surprisingly enough; to emphasize; to point out; to repeat; truly; with this in mind.


Pointer 3: Use anecdotes to illustrate a point, or introduce a new one.

An anecdote is a little story, and everyone prefers a story to bland facts.

For example:

Fact: Since many self-destructive habits have been with us since childhood, we seldom recognize or question them. And because we feel most comfortable with the familiar, it often takes a personal crisis to precipitate change.

Now, the same thing, but using an anecdote:
Bob Horn’s crisis came in 1982, when a routine physical revealed pre-malignant growths in his mouth. Suddenly realizing that “the cigarettes I smoke today could kill me – tomorrow”. Bob stopped smoking that instant. Even after his lesions disappeared, he avoided his self-destructive habit.

Not all people can.

(Adapted from “Give Your Writing the Midas Touch,” by Barbara Bisantz Raymond)

Pointer 4: Vary your sentence lengths.

Short sentences quicken the pace (5 – 10 words); long sentences slow the reader down (30 – 50 words). Aim for a good mix of line lengths to keep the reader engaged.

Pointer 5: Aim for one idea per paragraph.

Aim for an average of 3 – 4 sentences per paragraph, each one covering the same idea. And remember, a simple one-liner can also make a complete (and effective) paragraph.

Pointer 6: Mix up your article components to keep the reader’s interest.

Avoid using consecutive quotations, or several sentences of consecutive paraphrasing. Rather create an exciting and interesting mix. The ideal flow looks something like: quotation -> paraphrase -> quotation –> fact/statistic –> paraphrase –> transition -> quotation, and so on.

Pointer 7: Logical flow is crucial for good writing.

Online Writing Courses at NZ Writers CollegeLogical flow can be defined as all the aspects of your writing that help the reader move smoothly from one sentence to the next, and one paragraph to another. Each paragraph has to lead logically into the next.

To illustrate, imagine that readers should ideally follow your thoughts as effortlessly as cruising down a river through the countryside. Happily sailing along, readers would hardly find it thrilling if the river unexpectedly cascaded 600 metres down a cliff, abruptly dried up, or if a massive boulder were wedged between its banks. Any of these nasty obstacles would probably make them turn around and go home.

So it is with the flow of your sentences. Readers don’t want bumps, unintended surprises or to feel threatened in any way. They don’t want to follow a train of thought, only for it to lead to a dead-end, or for a new idea to be dumped on them without some warning. Just because your sentences have a literal stop between them and a gap between paragraphs, doesn’t mean that readers want stops and gaps in the flow of logical thinking. They want an enjoyable, stress-free journey.

So how can you achieve logical flow?

There are three main ways:
Logical layout of content, addressing one point at a time in a reader-friendly, logical sequence.

Apt use of transitions to blend paragraphs together

Consistency in the finer points of style, tone, tenses and punctuation.

Logical flow of content and effective transitions tend to go hand in hand, for it is when you attempt to smooth the gaps between paragraphs, using transitional phrases, that incongruent ideas will stick out and be virtually impossible to connect.

Pointer 8: Be consistent with your punctuation use.

Check the punctuation regularly used in your target publication. How to they show lists: using bullets? Or numbers? What quotation marks do they use for dialogue – single or double? How to they indicate titles of books: using italics or quotation marks?

Your writing must mimic the style guide for your publication, and you need to be consistent throughout your article.


Pointer 9: Use details in your writing.

Create sensory appeal by describing people, experiences or objects in vivid terms. Details tend to draw the reader in; generalizations keep them out.

Here’s an example from Marie Claire magazine: ‘The Fake MySpace Boyfriend’. By giving Tatum a name, the writer helps ensure that the reader will identify with Tatum and her issues. Note all the details that draw you into her story.

Creating a fake boyfriend to make your ex jealous used to be a complicated matter (see The Wedding Date), but now, all it takes is a laptop and a little free time. After Tatum, a 28-year-old New Yorker, broke up with her BF, she started seeing posts on his MySpace page from women she’d never met (but who looked kind of slutty). So, she found a photo of a handsome, shaggy punk bassist from Portland and created a profile for him (a surfing nonprofit owner named Kai, with degrees in art history and business ethics). Then she started dropping flirty posts on both pages full of references to “last night.” Even after Tatum got what she wanted, a deeply satisfying e-mail — “So, he’s into surfing, huh?” — from her ex-boyfriend, she says she kept Kai around: “It’s kind of like having a pet.”


Pointer 10: But don’t be too detailed.

Content Writing at NZ Writers CollegeDon’t be so precise and explicit that the reader has no room to get involved. You don’t need to state everything. The writer who allows his audience to “read between the lines” and think for themselves will provide a richer, more rewarding read than if he spoon-fed (and bored) his readers. Less can be more, as long as it makes sense. (Adapted from “Give Your Writing the Midas Touch,” by Barbara Bisantz Raymond)

Pointer 11: Everything in moderation.

Be careful of over-quoting, and only use really juicy quotes that are essential to your piece.

In the same way, only use those statistics and studies that are vital to your piece. If information is irrelevant or superfluous, it can clog the piece and bore the reader.


Pointer 12: Play with words to create rhythm.

Experienced writers use rhythm and harmonious sounds to construct their sentences, allowing them to be more playful, light and subtle.

Pointer 13: Appeal to the senses.

Try to “show” scenes rather than merely telling the reader the facts. How? By describing people, places or issues using smells, touch, sights, sounds and tastes. Creating scenes that have dramatic sensory appeal and atmosphere can seduce the reader into finishing the story.

Compare the following two drafts:

Draft A: James Garner, 38, father of two, works full-time at the local supermarket. He shifts boxes, unpacks groceries, and re-stocks the shelves. For this he earns $850.00 per fortnight. His rent is $700 per fortnight. He is often nervous about paying his bills, and worries about whether his children have enough food.

Draft B: James Garner, 38, is the proud dad of two preschoolers. They love to tease him about his big biceps at the breakfast table, but James knows they’re the result of blood, sweat and tears after years at his job. Shifting 25 kg boxes for 10 hours per day may have left his arms rippled, but it’s also left him physically and emotionally exhausted. His gruelling 50-hour work week pays just $850.00 per fortnight, an income James says barely covers his rent, and leaves him constantly anxious about how to put cereal in his kids’ bowls each morning.

The details and images in example B make it more compelling and alive than A, even though they say the same thing.


Pointer 14: Stick to your article angle.

A good feature article only includes information that is relevant to the angle. Trim unnecessary content, as it will merely confuse – and lose – the reader. For each paragraph, ask yourself: does this content contribute to building the argument in the article? If not, cut it.


Pointer 15: Use tenses correctly and consistently throughout your writing.

Make sure you keep your tenses consistent, and choose the tense you are writing in carefully. Most often, you will write your article in PAST TENSE and THIRD PERSON (He/ She/ It/ They).

There are exceptions – some articles use “say” instead of “said”, and write in the present tense, but generally, past tense/third person is correct. If you write your piece as though you are experiencing the event at that moment, you would write in present tense (and in First Person, using I).

Past tense/third person example:

The ranger said these valleys are flooded every summer by the first monsoon rains.

Present Tense/First Person Example:
I’m on the plains, watching black shadows stretch like seeping mud towards me as the sun sets, and a chill vibrates the air.


Pointer 16: Punctuate your quotations correctly.

Online Writing Courses at NZ Writers CollegeHere are examples of the correct way to punctuate your quotations (UK grammar)
“I will not go,” said Mr Smith. Note that the COMMA is inside the quotation mark.
Mr Smith said, “I won’t stand for it.” Note that a FULLSTOP appears inside quotation marks for full sentences and when quote appears at end of sentence.
Mr Smith said he “would not stand for it”. Note that a FULLSTOP appears outside quotation marks for incomplete quotations.



Pointer 17: Refer to numbers in the correct way.

Always write out numbers from one to ten. Use digits from 11 onwards.

Exception: if starting a sentence with a number, e.g.: Twenty people were forced to seek shelter….

Large numbers: do not start a sentence with a large number. Rather re-work the sentence.


Pointer 18: Use apostrophes correctly.

These punctuation marks are often used incorrectly. They appear in the wrong place, or are missing. We see people writing “your” instead of  “you’re” – two entirely different words! Another common one is writing “its” instead of “it’s” for “it is”. Using apostrophes for plurals is also incorrect.

Here are some of the rules for apostrophes:

Apostrophe indicating POSSESSION of a singular noun (one person, thing, object, etc) appears at the end of the word, before the “s”: e.g. John’s dog; Sarah’s pen; Sue’s house.

An apostrophe used in place of a letter – in a contracted word – appears in place of that letter: e.g. do not becomes don’t, would not becomes wouldn’t, shall not becomes shan’t.

An apostrophe indicating POSSESSION of a plural noun (more than one person, thing, object, etc) appears at the end of the word, AFTER the “s”:

E.g. The girls’ tea party; the traveller’s delight; the peoples’ marketplace.


Pointer 19: Use simple words.

If you have a choice between a simple word and a longer one, always use the simpler word. No-one is interested in ‘clever’ writing – only in writing that is readily understood and interesting.

Avoid jargon, technical terms that only a few people can understand. Any dictionary is packed with complex words and complicated ideas. But it also contains the simple words that many more people understand. The point of your writing is to express, not impress. And there’s always your Thesaurus* to help in the choice of words.


Pointer 20: Be 100% accurate and check your facts twice.

Get your facts right. Always check your facts using at least two different sources to make certain they are correct. Mistakes make you, the writer, look ignorant, ill-informed or just plain careless.  They can kill your writing career, so be thorough in your research.

We recommend using books, journals and interviews to gather information for your articles. Other sources, such as magazines and websites, provide information that is second-hand. If you cannot check the source of your information, don’t use it.


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Featured Article: Creative Writing

How to write effective dialogue in short stories, novels and scripts – by The Writers College

Best Fiction Writing Courses at NZ Writers College

In all stories, certainly those that get published, people talk to each other.
Do you remember reading when you were a child? Most children enjoy the “talking bits” the best, and will happily skip the scenic descriptions. Adult readers are no different: they enjoy reading the conversation. Dialogue is also visually essential. But more about that later.


Writing believable dialogue

Conversation between the characters breaks up the paragraphs that describe action or scenery, and keeps the reader interested, but this conversation needs to sound like the real thing.

To write believable dialogue, listen to people around you talking. Listen in supermarket queues or wherever there are people chatting to each other, and train your ear to hear the differences in their speech patterns. Hear how they interrupt each other. Hear how they often repeat themselves in slightly different ways.

Listen to the ways people from different ethnic backgrounds speak and use these speech patterns or colloquialisms when you can, but be very careful not to mock or make fun of the person in this way. Use it for authenticity only.

What you write must sound like actual conversation but without the repetitions, hesitations and unnecessary bits. In other words, better than the real thing! People don’t always use complete sentences when they talk, but if you break off written dialogue too often, it doesn’t read well. Only break off sentences if the speaker is being interrupted.


Interesting dialogue moves the story along.

Dialogue should always be interesting but it must sound like something the character would say. Don’t have a security guard quoting poetry or let a barmaid sound like a professor.

Conversation can be used most effectively to move the story along. For example the following exchange is pretty common, but makes boring reading:

“Hi there,” said Susan

“Hi,” said James.

“So… how are you?” she said.

“Okay,” he answered.

This dialogue is stuck in a rut and going nowhere.

Here’s another very common, realistic conversation between two young people that makes the same mistake:

“Like, he was sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, it was a serious bummer, you know what I mean? So I just sort of, like, told him, man.”

“Like what did ya say?””

“Like I told him, you know, like…”

and on and on. Boring to listen to and even worse to read!

Don’t give too much information.

Another mistake many new writers make is to use the dialogue to tell the reader too much information. Follow this rule of thumb: Never use dialogue to tell the reader things the characters already know.
“Guess what, Ellen? Our cousin Jenny who lives in the next street on the corner and is getting married next month to the accountant from her office, is bringing him here for supper tonight.”

The same information is more believable if done something like this:
“Hey, Ellen. Did you know Jenny’s coming over for supper tonight?”

“By herself, or is she bringing that handsome fiancé of hers?”

“The accountant? I don’t know. Why not phone and ask her.”

So from both conversations we know that cousin Jenny’s getting married, lives nearby and is coming over for a meal with her accountant fiancé. But the second example sounds more realistic.

Keep your dialogue current

Have you ever noticed how you can date a film by the way the people speak? Before the 1970’s they seemed to talk slowly and clearly, in perfect sentences and never interrupt each other.

It’s the same with stories – older stories have stilted, unnatural conversation between the characters.

See what I mean:

“I am going to have my dreams instead, they are lovely dreams, Cassandra, funny and true. They will be born of me and I will send them out into the world like pigeons from a dove-cote. I shall never know how far they will fly but I do know that I must send them out. They are there in my heart and my brain, beating with their soft wings and crying to me to go free.”

(Excerpt from White Wings by Elizabeth Goudge, 1952)

Okay, what was all that about? Beats me! Very poetic, but no one really talks like that. It’s too complicated for today’s reader.

And what about dialect? This can be badly overdone. For example,

“Arrrh, ‘ee knows summat but ‘ee ain’t a- tellin’ the loikes of we!”

An entire page of phonetic speech like that is un-readable and should be avoided. Readers very quickly become tired of trying to ‘interpret’ speech that is represented phonetically, or with apostrophes everywhere to reflect dropped letters. The trick is to choose one or two words or phrases that will give a taste of what the person is like to others. A little bit goes a long way.

Sometimes just one line of dialect-driven dialogue is enough to set the tone:

“Bro, you’re munted as!” said Herman, “What’s going on?”

After that, carry on in good English and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination.

But this sample from Truffled Feathers, by Nancy Fairbanks needs the dialogue to be sustained in the casual, sloppy way every time the waitress speaks. It’s easy enough to read and keeps her in character.

“You’d have to ask the cops. They didn’ tell us. Ask a hunderd questions, don’ answer none.”

Later the waitress says…
“Well, it’s not like people don’t get offed in Jersey, too. Ma’s got MS. She thinks someone’s gonna break in an’ tip over her wheelchair. Like anyone would think she’s got anything worth stealin’.


He said/ She said

The word “said” might sound over-used but “said” and “asked” are the best words to use in almost every case, and very occasionally, use whispered or smiled.

At school you might have been encouraged to use appellations such as demanded, enquired, shrieked, expostulated, sneered, giggled, etc but editors frown on these. Keep your writing as simple as you can.

Here’s a horrible example of using too many fancy verbs:

“If my Mom won’t let me go to the disco, I’ll run away!” exclaimed Joan.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” protested Shane.

“I will if I want to,” affirmed Joan.

“Because she’d call the cops,” continued Shane.

“She’d never do that,” declared Joan.

Taking it a step further, the aim is to even use ‘he said’ as little as possible. It’s simply white noise and you can leave it out. For instance, instead of writing,
“Hi there,” said Robert, tipping his imaginary hat;

rather write it as two short sentences:
“Hi there.” Robert tipped his imaginary hat.

Get into the habit of describing the action that follows the dialogue:
“Give that to me at once!” She thrust out her hand. (instead of ‘she demanded’)
“It’s icy out today, isn’t it?” Alice blew on her frozen fingers. (instead of ‘she shivered’)

“Help! Help!” Her desperate plea echoed through the deserted building. (instead of ‘she screamed’)

When you have two people bouncing conversation back and forth, only mention their names once. After that it should become obvious who is saying what.

Sometimes, instead of “she said,” describe the action that follows the words:

“Give that to me at once!” She thrust out her hand. (She demanded)

“It’s icy out today, isn’t it?” Alice blew on her frozen fingers. (She shivered)


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NZ Writers College is a leading online writing school in New Zealand.

We offer specialised, online writing courses tutored by award-winning writers. Get the writing tools you need, expert insider advice and hours and hours of writing practice. Work one-to-one with a professional writer and realise your writing dreams.



NZ Writers College offers online writing classes all over New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Islands. We have students from Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Napier, Whangarei, Rotorua, Hastings, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch, Invercargill, Dunedin, Hawkes Bay, Palmerston North, as well as Sydney, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne, Australia.

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