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Writing Course Case Study: Taking My Writing To The Next Level

A case study by Ian Dodsworth, short story writing course student

Quick links on this page:

Introduction, by Chris Fielden

Ian Dodsworth is a short story writer who has completed a short fiction writing course provided by the Professional Writing Academy.

Ian has very kindly written a guest post about his experiences as a student of the course. The post includes examples of writing exercises undertaken as part of the course, along with examples of constructive criticism from the tutors.

I've been a guest tutor for PWA in the past, undertaking student Q&A sessions. I've also recorded interviews about short story writing with PWA staff. Videos of these are featured in the post, as Ian refers to them.

Professional Writing Academy

Susannah and Christina, the founding directors of the Professional Writing Academy, have kindly offered an exclusive discount on their short fiction writing course to my website users.

The offer will give you £50 off the price of their short fiction writing course. When you've finished the course, you'll also be able to make use of a free individual feedback report from one of the tutors, worth £120. In total, the offer is worth £170.

Simply use this code during the checkout process: ChrisFdiscount

I hope you enjoy Ian's post. Comments are welcome – please see the form at the bottom of the page.

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Taking My Writing To The Next Level, by Ian Dodsworth

I’ve been writing short stories for a few years, but without any publication success. In 2017, I decided to find out what I may have been doing wrong. I wanted to learn and receive some constructive criticism along the way. I was also hoping to gain the confidence to keep going.

Researching Ways To Learn

I have tried learning from books before, but I realise, from my day job in IT, that I can only really learn new skills by doing, rather than reading.

After a bit of research, I decided I needed to take a course in writing short fiction. Two or three years ago I took a face-to-face writing course, but didn't really take full advantage of it. The group was fairly large, so it was a little too easy to disappear.

After more research, I chose an online course offered by the Professional Writing Academy, for a number of reasons:

  • The flexible timing (I would struggle to commit to a certain evening each week)
  • Location (study at home, or wherever you happened to be)
  • The availability of more experienced tutors
  • Cost

Skills and Training

Starting To Learn

How did the course work for me? It was split into six sessions, each lasting a week. In each session, we looked at a particular area of short story writing, such as point of view, character and setting etc. But the two topics I found most useful were structure and time.

The structure section brought up topics I hadn’t really come across before, including description of Chekhovian and modernist stories. The time session was particularly useful, talking about when to use scenes and summaries, as well as how to work with backstory and narrative gaps.

Both of these changed my writing practice. Now, I think more beforehand about how a story will be structured rather than just focusing on ‘what happens next’.

Writing Exercise Example

Here is an example of one of the writing exercises I undertook.

Session On Time – Exercise Prompt:

A Day in the Life

Write about 24 hours in someone's life (could be your own), in which you recount the events of the day using a mixture of scene and summary. Experiment with different ratios of scene to summary and note what happens.

My Piece, In Response To The Prompt Exercise

A Day in the Life

The tube train pulled out of Bank station. Tom swayed into the man next to him while trying to hold onto the handrail. Apologising, he took a step back and banged into a woman behind him.

He thought about his day. The morning commute was particularly bad, with too many people in too small a place all trying to get to the office. Someone had been taken ill half an hour earlier, so the entire line had ground to a halt. When it eventually got going again, Tom had to wait until the fourth train to be able to get on and squeeze in.

The morning was a standard day, until his annual appraisal with Joe, his manager. He thought things had been going well in the job, but things started to take a wrong turn as soon as he sat down.

“Tom, thanks for your work over the last year. I’ll come straight to the point – your performance is not up to the standard we expect here and we’re putting you on a performance improvement programme. Your teamwork is just not up to scratch.”

The rest of it was a bit of a blur. Some stuff about collective targets and living the values but Tom wasn’t really listening. He was just waiting for it to be time to go home.

Tube Train

As he was being bashed on all sides on the tube on the way back to his flat, he was wondering why he left home two years ago to come to the bright lights of London. He knew the answer – there weren’t any jobs there and he was ambitious – but that didn’t make him feel any better. It hadn’t turned out to be the endless stream of parties and champagne that had been in his imagination when he had received the job offer.

The train finally pulled into Tooting Broadway with the standard announcement apologising for the delay in service. Tom spilled out of the train and the station with the rest of the herd and headed to his flat. Opening the door, he said “Hi honey, I’m home!” but there was no response. He would be surprised if there were – other than an instantly regretted one-night-stand while drunk last year nobody other than Tom had been in the flat since he started renting it. The hallway smelled of lavender, courtesy of a Glade plug-in. He took off his jacket and hung it in the wardrobe, and put his shoes on the rack. He switched on the TV and tries to not think about things, unsuccessfully. He thought of home, his family and of Nicola, who we had broken up with six months before moving south.

After a microwave meal and three bottles of lager he decided to go to bed.

It seemed very shortly afterwards that the alarm went off again. On auto-pilot, he showered and dressed. After making the bed, he looked up and headed out towards the tube station.

As he started to walk down Tooting High Street along with the other worker drones, time seemed to slow down. All of the men and women heading to the station, mainly in suits but some in very expensive-looking leisurewear, were pouring past him as if he were walking backwards. He finally reached the entrance to Tooting Broadway station. He looked around at the people surrounding him and thought about the day in store. In amongst all of the suits, a woman walked by with a little girl holding her hand, both smiling at each other.

The sun was shining, but the High Street was its usual uninspiring picture of concrete with not a tree to be seen – the complete opposite of home. The cacophony of horns from the drivers trying to inch their way around the double-decker buses added to the aroma from the greasy spoons.

Sad and Depressed

Tom looked at the information board just inside the station – minor delays on the Northern Line due to signalling problems. He could hear a lot of others tutting and going through the ticket barrier to face another commute. Tom stood still for a moment, being barged by the morning crowds, and then turned around. Leaving the station, he got on the first bus that was waiting outside.

Tutor Feedback

Hello Ian,

This certainly captures the de-humanising trudge in and out of work every day. I used to do a similar commute so I recognise pretty much all that you describe here with painful clarity...

Your observations, therefore, are very astute and there are some little details that really bring the story to life. Tom swaying into passengers standing around him on the tube, for instance, and the delays, cancelled and over-stuffed trains. All of it reads like you’ve lived it. The biographical re-telling is a particular strength of yours.

Tom’s situation is also pretty universal in its appeal – he becomes an everyman/woman. This immediately engages the reader and garners sympathy for your main character. We’ve all been subject to that journey in and out of work that destroys your soul and we’ve all had a horrific job then returned home to an empty place. It’s also good to get a look at Tom’s personal life – his loneliness, especially.

I particularly liked the ending. We’ve got no idea where that bus is going but it can only be better than where he is. It’s great that you don’t tell us – you leave that bit up to the imagination of the reader.

The way you have embraced the scene and summary nature of the exercise is great – we skip over the bits where we don’t need to linger and repeat some scenes for obvious effect. There’s energy and a clear narrative thrust here and I was engaged and interested. Nice work!

Cheers, Mark

Mark Jervis

Course tutor, Mark Jervis

My Comments About Doing The Exercise

I found it quite interesting, playing around with different methods. I guess I had done this before, but probably not consciously as thinking 'this would be a summary, this a scene, this a slow motion' etc.

I'm currently reading the collection of all of Raymond Carver's short stories and I'm pretty sure that this has had an impact into this piece. To be honest, I'm not sure what I think of Carver – the endings are always (or at least the ones I've read so far) very ambiguous, often to the point that I don't know what he means!

How The Course Works

Sessions opened on a Monday when I would listen to an introductory podcast, read the notes from the tutor, look at the reading materials (usually examples of short stories) and start the writing exercises for the week.

I found that completing practical exercises was key to getting the most out of learning how short stories work. There were two or three exercises per session, which you could post up to a discussion board if you liked (some I did, some I didn’t) but the main drive of the session was a final exercise to write a 500–1,000 word piece for feedback. The prompts for these were interesting – enough scope to come up with something original, but also enough leads to ensure my ideas were relevant to the subject at hand.

Getting Feedback From Other Writers

Getting feedback on my fiction was one of my key reasons for taking a course. There was feedback on this course from the other students, and I also had to give feedback on their stories. It was a small group, meaning everyone got to give and receive feedback from everyone else.

Here are some notes from the Introduction To Critiquing document that explains why this approach is so important:

Critiquing other writers’ work is an essential part of all our online writing courses – because it’s one of the most useful skills you can develop as a writer.

After completing and posting up your own writing exercises in each of the sessions, you’ll be expected to read fellow participants’ pieces of writing carefully. You will post your responses on that session's forum. In turn, you will receive critiques of your own work from other writers.

Although critiquing and receiving critiques may at first seem daunting – especially if this is the first time you've shared work with other writers – the process really helps to build a supportive group of informed readers offering constructive feedback on your writing. And this is something all writers yearn for!

Positive criticism can, of course, be very inspiring – but you'll find equally important the comments from fellow writers that let you know when something you’ve written is not quite working. Being critiqued allows you to pinpoint and build on your strengths, identify areas for improvement, and sharpen your work in ways you may not have considered.

Writing critiques yourself encourages the skill of careful and analytical reading and editing, which in turn will help you to assess the quality of your own work in the future. It can also help you to hone your grasp of grammar – by making you look up points of punctuation or word use you may not have considered in your own writing.

You may find that responses to your writing are contradictory, since no two readers respond to any work in exactly the same way. You do not have to give equal weight to each comment, but you should consider what your fellow participants in the group have to say, even when you feel there are good reasons for not agreeing with them. The point is to think carefully about their comments, rather than rushing to a defensive response.

Giving feedback to other writers is interesting. Considering and writing constructive criticism gives you thoughts about your own work, as well as hopefully being of use to other writers.

Tutor feedback was also invaluable and, in a small group, our tutor, Mark Jervis, was able to go into more detailed feedback each week than might have been available in a larger group.

Coffee and Writing

Chatting With Working Writers

An added bonus of the course was a webchat with Chris Fielden, which generated lots of interesting discussion, including useful tips for getting stories published.

What did I learn from Chris that most applied to my own work? Not giving up! Also starting with an initial scene, conflict and characters – for me, this fed in well to my increased focus on planning. The act of simultaneous submissions still seems naughty to me – but I intend to do it! Oh, and not giving up...

In addition to undertaking an online chat, Chris also provided some video interviews about short story writing for the academy.

The first is about the common mistakes that short story writers make:

The second is an interview that concentrates on general short fiction writing advice:

Applying The Learning

At the end of the course, I took the knowledge and feedback from the different subjects we studied in each session and applied it to a longer short story. I decided to expand something I’d written earlier, and it certainly helped to have covered topics such as time and to have given and received feedback.

I have subsequently reworked the story based on the changes suggested in the final review from the tutor, and am planning to submit it for publication soon. I haven’t done that yet, mainly because I decided to do another course soon after – this one on exploring genre, to help me decide which sort of short stories I want to write. I’ve found an unexpected skill for writing Young Adult fiction!

But I am also working on a couple of stories looking for a more detailed critique –and I do tackle short stories differently now. I do a lot more planning before I start writing: thinking what sort of story it is, the pace required and so on. And I also have a new checklist of things to look at while editing the first draft.

Takeaway Tips For Writers

In conclusion, here are some tips for short story writers that are looking to learn and improve their craft.

  • Find out more about how to structure short stories
  • Get feedback on your work – to see if it’s worth continuing or submitting work for publication
  • Remember that almost everything you learn about writing short stories is useful for longer form fiction
  • Learning from other writers can give you the confidence to keep going
  • Think professionally about your writing: set yourself deadlines and schedule writing sessions as if they were work
  • Try an online course: it means that there is nobody over your shoulder encouraging you to do the exercises
  • Give yourself enough time in the week to read, try writing exercises and spend time with other writers – you won’t regret it
  • Know that everyone starts off not being very good – you have to stick with it

And you might like my favourite tips from other writers:

  • Neil Gaiman: “Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.”
  • Ira Glass: “For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.”
  • Stephen King: “Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.”

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Ian Dodsworth Biography

Ian Dodsworth

Ian Dodsworth

Ian has worked in IT for 20 years and is married. Originally from the north-east of England and currently living in Kent, he is now determined to see his creative work in print.

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Big Thanks to Ian

To share your work, particularly examples of writing exercises you've undertaken as part of your own learning experience, takes courage. I'd like to thank Ian for sharing his work so openly. From this, others can decide whether online learning or writing courses might be suitable for them.

If you have any experience of writing courses, or any other learning opportunities for writers, and would be prepared to share your experiences on my website, please read my submissions guidelines.

If you're interested in writing short fiction, you might find my lists of short story competitions and short story collection contests useful.

Short Story Critiques

You can find more details on the Professional Writing Academy and other writing courses, on my special offers for writers.

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Comments:

Your comments:

Mike M
Hi Chris. Just finished reading. In particular Ian Dodsworth's experiences. Very interesting!
Thanks for all your efforts.

Chris Fielden
No problem, Mike - glad you found Ian's post interesting :-)

Ian D
Many thanks Mike!