Nichola Meyer is the principal of NZ Writers’ College.
Previously she was a lecturer in magazine journalism at various tertiary institutions, and she wrote feature articles for several magazines, including O, The Oprah Magazine, Femina, Your Baby and Baby & Me.
Nichola is interviewed here by writer, Trish Nicholson.
Trish: Hi, Nichola. I’d like to jump straight in with the obvious question. Can writing really be taught?
Nichola: Every field of expertise requires training and development. Writing is no exception. Great painters apprentice under a master; musicians study their instrument for years before they stand on a stage; most well known novelists have studied writing.
There are, of course, issues around how writing can be taught. Most would agree that sitting in a class absorbing hours of theory is not going to give you the results you want. You have to practise your craft, over and over. You need an expert focusing intently on specific writing skills: your grammar, sentence lengths, your style, structure, content, and the logic in your writing.
Finding your voice as a writer is a different matter; usually a personal journey accompanied by not just a little pain and frustration.
Writing is a craft with a specific skill set that can be learnt, honed. So it really depends on how far the writer is willing to go with the training.
T: The Writer’s College has students from different countries. Does this pose additional problems for teaching?
N: We have tailored our courses to suit each country. While good writing is universal, the use of subtle colloquialisms that are unique to a country are important. Where the match between the article or story and target publication is critical, we use online research to check format, tone and style of writing for a particular publication. Thanks to the Net, this is easily done. It wouldn’t have worked 15, 20 years ago.
T: Interesting that you mention the Net as changing the writing scene; right now it’s exposing the publishing industry to rapid change. Every week, new writers are by-passing traditional gateways to publish themselves online. What advice would you give to emerging writers to prepare themselves for this volatile environment?
N: Well, firstly, I am inspired by the changes. It is probably the most exciting time to be alive for a would-be novelist, poet, blogger, journalist, or any writer. The entire industry is in flux. Even copywriting is in transition as old forms of advertising are less effective with a more cynical public.
Blogs have encouraged more people to write, thanks to the ease of hosting sites like WordPress and Blogger, but the sheer volume of content on the Net means it is harder than ever to make your writing stand out. The demand for excellence and originality is constant.
For writers who are serious about developing their talent, online writing communities and publications offer fantastic opportunities for writers to receive critiques and a supportive audience. Quality is essential – if you choose to publish your work online, even on a Blog, your writing has to be word-perfect.
For commercial publishing, if you are not following the traditional route of using a professional publisher who oversees editing, proof-reading, design and page-setting, not to mention the marketing and distribution of your work, then you have to take on those roles yourself. Hard work is an understatement! To be successful, you must become a business: marketing and selling your wares online in a global market. Your online reputation as a writer has to be impeccable.
If you want to use a self-publishing company, researching the field before making your choice is critical. Get recommendations from other authors. Do a thorough Google background check to determine the reputation of the company. Shop around. Find guidelines on the going rates, and if it feels like you’re being ripped off, do more research before you sign any contract.
T: That sounds like excellent advice. And on the subject of change and its attendant risks, I’m intrigued to know why, as a successful journalist with teaching posts in colleges, you took the courageous step of starting your own writing college?
N: Actually, the words I would use are perseverance and passion, rather than courage. I started with only one course – magazine journalism. I really didn’t anticipate adding more; it just happened, one course at a time. I didn’t even advertise. I hadn’t heard of Google ads and there was zero budget for marketing. I relied on student feedback, and somehow the word just spread.
I think the writing college took off because the timing was perfect. There was a gap in the market. To become a journalist, you had to study for four years at university. We found that many of the university students signing up on our course said they didn’t feel equipped to write articles and break into the writing industry. They were looking for practical training in real-life scenarios. Back then, there was also a real shortage of material about the practicalities of writing and submitting work to publishers. So really, we designed the course to answer all the questions we had when we began as writers.
What excited me when I started out was the thought of reaching people living in small towns and deep in the rural areas, people who might dream of selling an article or story to a magazine, but who can’t get to a university to study. We have students living in remote areas with sometimes not the most reliable Internet, but they manage to complete their courses!
T: I imagine that many of your students, like most of my writing friends, have full-time jobs or are caring for children at home, sometimes both, so how do you do it – balance all those different demands on your attention?
It’s a tricky one. Working in different time zones means I often work long hours. I'm a writer, but the college consumes my time to the point where I no longer get a minute for journalism. Each time I promise myself that I will write an article, we get an offering for a new course, or our older courses need their revamp, and that demands my full attention. I have two children, and being present and enjoying them is a big priority in my life. I often have to re-focus and ask myself: did I talk work at the breakfast table, or did I spend time enjoying them?
T: What would you be writing if you had the time?
N: Given the chance, I’d be writing about youth well-being and environmental sustainability.
T: That’s some challenge. I wish you success with it.
As for fiction, I did sign up for our NZ Writers' College Write a Novel course. I am currently halfway through the course, have already applied for an extension, and find myself deleting more sentences than I’m writing. For all those students who fly through this course, well done to you. I am so impressed by the dedication and slog it takes to get to 60 000 or 70 000 words.
About the Author
Trish Nicholson lives in the far north of New Zealand near 90 Mile Beach. After careers in management training and development, she now divides her time between writing, photography, raising native plants and running her therapeutic massage practice.
Trish has previously had non-fiction books and articles published, and this year began writing fiction for the first time. She recently won the Flash500 Writing Competition
out of entries from 16 countries for her story Runnin’ the River. Trish was a finalist in the Winchester Festival 2010 from 3000 entries. Apart from being shortlisted in the NZ Writers’ College 2010 Short Story Competition, she made the H.E.Bates Short Story competition shortlist and her story will be published in an anthology in Spring 2011. Trish is a member of New Zealand Society of Authors