Interview with Nichola Meyer, Principal of SA Writers' College

Nichola MeyerNichola Meyer is the principal of SA Writers’ College. She has a background in lecturing at secondary and tertiary institutions, and is also a journalist specialising in parenting and women’s issues for several magazines, including O, The Oprah Magazine, Femina 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? As someone who has set up a successful online writing college, what are your thoughts on this?

Nichola: That’s an interesting question, and there are a few sides to the answer.

I believe any art form can and should be taught. 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. Every field of expertise requires training and development. Writing is no exception.

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 someone focusing intently on specific writing skills: your sentence lengths, your style, structure, content, and the logic in your writing. Your teacher needs to point out to you, again and again: “Here you have used dangling participles four times in one paragraph. Get rid of them. You’re using passive voice. Throw in active verbs. Here are five clichés.” And so on.

Writing is a craft with a specific skill set that can be learnt, honed. Finding your voice as a writer is a different matter; usually a personal journey accompanied by not just a little pain and frustration.

Finally, there’s the question of “Can writing be taught to anyone”? And here the answer would be, almost anyone. It really depends on how far the writer is willing to go with the training. It was Stephen King who wrote in On Writing: “…While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer,… it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”

T: I think many writers would agree with what you say, and the point made by Robert McKee in his classic on writing, Story: yes, you can write a story without going into the theory – even a good one – but to write consistently good stories you have to learn the craft. But the Writer’s College has students from different countries. Does this pose additional problems for teaching?
N:  Writing, good writing, is universal, but the use of colloquialism or slang that is unique to a country can be important in Magazine Journalism. Where a match between article 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. A few are remarkably successful. Others clearly are not ready for that tough world. 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, though, will always be huge. 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 assume all of 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. With this amount of exposure, your online reputation as a writer has to be impeccable.

If you want to self-publish in print or online using 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 top colleges, you took the courageous step of starting your own writing college?
N: Actually, the word I would use is perseverance, 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 in South Africa in 2004. To become a journalist, you had to study for four years at university, and 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. 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. When I say we, I mean Lisa Lazarus and I. She’s a co-journalist, author and was then principal of CityVarsity, a leading creative university in South Africa. We co-designed the magazine journalism course.

It was Lisa’s idea that I take the course online. What excited me 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. 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?
N: It’s a tricky one. Working in different time zones, means I often work long hours. I am 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, the site gets a virus, we get an offering for a new course, or some work crisis demands my full attention. I have two small 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?

I currently oversee the content development for all our courses – something I enjoy doing and I’d love to be writing more, but it’s an ongoing and demanding job that leaves little time to pursue my personal interests.

T: Want to share those interests with us?
N: Given the chance, I’d be writing about psychology, youth well-being and environmental sustainability. Australian scientist, Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species is the book that I didn’t get to write yet!

As for fiction, I did sign up for our Write a Novel course. LOL. I am currently a third of the way 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, kudos to you. I am so impressed by the dedication and slog it takes to get to 60 000 or 70 000 words. 

T: That’s some challenge. I wish you success with it.

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
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