Professional advice on creative writing

    Marguerite MacRobert

    In interviews on the creative writing process with four successfully publishing South African authors in 2009, I asked questions angling for advice for young aspiring writers at school and to teachers of writing. What follows is a summary of the advice given by bestselling novelist, journalist and film maker, Margie Orford, using as far as possible her own words.

    Tips for aspiring writers

    Orford does not see writing as something you can simply ‘fall into’ because you have the desire to write. Her conception of becoming a writer is that it takes time, training and strategy and that if you wish to become a writer, you are in for the long haul as much as a lawyer or doctor might be: ‘it’s like if you want to be a judge you don’t just become [one]. You study law and become an articled clerk and then become a lawyer and you work towards your goal’. This perception no doubt rests on her own experiences, where she studied journalism and English Literature, read voraciously, wrote for all kinds of publications and for different media before only much later in life penning her first novel. Her advice for young aspiring writers is that they should work out a strategy, studying what they need to and practicing by, for example, publishing for free newspapers so that they can build up a portfolio.

    A portfolio of published work, even if it is work published in a classroom newspaper, can help when you approach a publisher with a proposal to write a novel. As she explains it, many people want to publish, but if you can show the publisher that you have already completed several projects and have had them accepted for some kind of publication, this shows you produce work of a reasonable standard and that you have what it takes to complete a written piece, not simply good ideas.

    She admonishes aspiring writers to ‘read lots and try to work out why they read the things that they do and why they like them and why they don’t like the other things’ going as far as to say ‘you’re not going to get anywhere without reading.’ In addition, she emphasises that it is essential to ‘find out what you don’t know.’ She says journalistic writing is also good practice for the research needed to produce good fiction, encouraging writers to interview people to find out their stories or investigate a particular topic they feel they might like to write about, such as a particular kind of crime or a period in history. She says writing up these stories and information provides valuable practice, ‘like doing scales for piano,’ and if you want to become a writer you need to write every day, for example, by keeping a journal or jotting down notes.

    Tips for teachers

    Orford feels quite strongly that one should ‘never make people colour in between the lines’ and she claims to ‘hate’ teachers who did this,  actually mentioning this pet hate in one of her novels, Like Clockwork (2006: 30) where she describes one of the main character’s thoughts on his young daughter: ‘Yasmin used to draw him pictures like the one before him now, but the drawings she sent from her new country were less exuberant. She had told him proudly that she could colour inside the lines now. Shaiza would like that: getting Yasmin to stay within the lines. Riedwaan unlocked Clare’s front door. That’s what he liked about Clare, her disregard for limits’.

    Part of this ‘disregard for limits’ involves being able to tell an ‘emotional truth’ and not simply report facts or accepted wisdom. Orford says that ‘to write, you have to get youngsters to access some kind of authenticity and truth within themselves. I mean teenagers particularly are dreadful – sentimental – write rubbish. So you need to get them through that and reading other people’s writing helps’ to access a ‘genuine feeling’ rather than trite sentimentality.

    ‘Genuine observation’ is also important: ‘teaching children how to observe to go into a street and to watch people at a table and describe the interaction, so you make them go and observe other things [such as] how closely are they sitting, how they drink their tea, what they talked about, maybe so you get them to move to the imaginary from the concrete.’

    She also feels that teachers need to teach their learners about the different phases of the writing process, and ‘give them the space to free write and to do all of that unedited stuff.’ This can help them write out their personal feelings and then decide what belongs in the piece and what should not go out in public. Editing spelling and grammar are important, but this has to happen at the very end of the writing process or it will inhibit the generation of ideas and the shaping of those ideas into an interesting form. She maintains ‘the better the child’s language that they’re writing in, the easier it is to write’ but says that teachers are too often ‘inclined to jump on things that are wrong instead of the parts that are effective in terms of creating a response.’

    The discipline of form and pattern, building from a feeling or an idea to a story with a plot that works, or describing a sensation so that the reader can also experience it – these are things that need to be taught as they do not come naturally. What can help in terms of teaching form, apart from reading widely, is to give the students a particular form such as a poetic structure where there are certain repeats that must happen every second verse, or a particular rhyme structure, or a story which begins at the end. The learners have to fill in the content but learn to use this particular pattern or adapt it to their own needs.

    This is also where the observation and investigation she mentions in her advice to aspiring writers enters the picture. Orford believes teachers need to teach learners about point of view and what she describes in an example as ‘drawing that space that exists between a boy and a girl, where you can feel you are between them so that you can smell the chap is chewing gum and her deodorant or you’re watching them from further away.’ A technique she suggests for teaching this is to require that your learners write the same scene from many different places to experience the different effects of various points of view.


    In my research, I found that the four authors I interviewed did not have exactly the same advice on how a young aspiring writer should go about learning more about writing, nor were their tips for teachers identical. However, common threads from Orford’s interview do run through the other interviews and her comments on reading, observation, authenticity and practice, in particular, ring true for the other professional writers as well. There is much that can be learnt from professional writers on the writing process which can be passed on to benefit learners still at school. Hopefully some of Orford’s ideas will inspire teachers to try some new methods of teaching writing and to avoid getting learners to trot out practiced essays that ‘colour in between the lines.’ A variety of approaches is probably best, rather than taking any one author’s opinion as ‘gospel’ on the subject of how to write, as my research has shown that in the details of the process authors are as different from one another as people generally are on other questions of working styles.

    About the author: Marguerite MacRobert

    Marguerite MacRobert lectures English didactics, literature and creative writing pedagogy at the Faculty of Education, University of Stellenbosch. She has published poems and short stories in various journals and the occasional popular magazine article, in addition to her research papers on creative writing in academic journals.  In 2009 she interviewed John van de Ruit, Margie Orford, Lesley Beake and Imraan Coovadia in order to obtain a South African perspective on the creative writing process.


    Categories: Issue II