How To Become A Better Writer

How much have you developed your creative writing skills? How far can you take your talent?

It is almost impossible to become a skilled writer without getting critiques from experienced scribes as well as your peers. It’s essential to maximise your knowledge of English, literary theory, genres of writing and to be able to edit your own writing and that of others.

The following is advice from a couple of people about creative writing study options inside and outside Northland. Mercedes and Mike each started studying creative writing at undergrad level and took it up to masters level and into the ‘real world.’


Mercedes Webb-Pullman:

“I started writing a decade ago, 40 years after leaving school. Back in NZ with a lot of spare time, in 2008 I enrolled with Whitireia in an online course for a Diploma in Creative Writing. It covered writing fiction, and poetry, in response to lessons and assignments posted on the site. There was also a ‘blackboard’ where classmates could ask and answer questions, and chat amongst themselves. Mercedes pull quote

“The sense you had ‘classmates’ was very important to the process of the course and although working online wasn’t as interactive as a face-to-face workshop, it suited me to work when I wanted to.

“I also participated in a couple of short courses from the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) at Victoria University – Chris Price convened the poetry course, and a graduate from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop the second. Both were excellent, not only for the exposure to new writers, new concepts, but also for the interaction between fellow participants. We ranged in age from 18 to 65, and I found invaluable knowledge there. Learning how to ‘unpack’ a poem made me more critical of my own work, as well as giving more depth to my comments. The best part of both courses was the individual attention to my final work by the tutor.” mercedes webb pullman photo

Mercedes began VUW’s Masters in Creative Writing (MCW) in 2010. “By the end of the year we had each produced the manuscript for a book. Although a full time course, it involved only two days attendance a week; one for lectures, and one for workshopping. This face-to-face workshop experience can be very deflating, but learning how and why people respond (or don’t respond) to your words is very important. I graduated B+, and attended another Iowa workshop the next year, to celebrate. Now I just write.”

Mercedes says she wrote more poetry than prose but studied both. Her MCW thesis was purely poetry and became her book Bravo Charlie Foxtrot.

Mercedes continues to complete online writing courses each year and looks for those offered by respectable universities such as UPen and University of Iowa. Mercedes contributes poetry to dozens of international literary journals every year.


Mike Botur:

“I started university age 18 in 2002, kind of a goth, metal-obsessed history nerd writing clichéd song lyrics. After a crazy, hedonistic 2003 I decided I wanted to hone my crappy emo song lyrics into decent poetry, and I was lucky to scrape into a second year poetry course at University of Otago, taught by Nick Ascroft (it’s essential to check your creative writing course is taught by somebody talented, publishable and relevant – unfortunately many are not.) Mike pull quote

“The Otago poetry course took my poetry from garbage to average and occasionally even good, and I started to get pieces of poetry published in literary journals from 2005. It’s really important that whichever CW course you are enrolled on pushes you to get your work published in literary journals, whether print online. You shouldn’t trust any course which doesn’t get you published.”

“During my Bachelor degree I also studied lots of literary theory. Although it is useful to have an understanding of different kinds of literature and know the history of NZ literature, reading the oeuvre of James Joyce will never make you a great writer. Just do lots of ordinary writing challenges and read lots of contemporary stuff.” Michael Botur with books photo credit AUT University

“After deviating into design, illustration and teaching from 2006-2007 I was stoked to get accepted into the first year of AUT University’s Masters in Creative Writing course. The year focused on producing a publishable-quality manuscript. I wrote short stories; most people in the class wrote 50,000 words of a novel. We did peer critiques of each other’s work in the method known as CRC (Commend, Recommend then Commend) or, to put it more simply, ‘Eating A Shit Sandwich.’ When you eat a shit sandwich, your peers in the class are coating a hard-to-swallow core with nice layers of palatable feedback. It’s essential to eat a shit sandwich to grow as a writer – otherwise you fall into the trap of selfishly ignoring your mandate as a writer, which is to make your audience happy.”

“When you do a master-level course you’ll be taught how to write for audiences, how to use genre, how to get good at tone of voice and point of view, and understanding the publishing industry. You’ll also start to meet published authors, editors and influential people, all of who should inspire you and make you feel you are part of a literary community. This is important because writing is such a lonely, insular activity.”

“When you are midway through or coming out of a postgraduate or masters level course, it’s a good time to take your writing to the next level. You’ll become truly empowered as a writer when you write for two hours a day, edit other people’s work and get lots published. Making money is important too – you should be getting paid for your writing by the time you graduate.”


What NorthTec offers (semester 2 starts July 24)

NorthTec’s diplomas in applied writing, levels 5-7, promise to develop writing techniques and critical understanding “to apply to the composition of original texts.”

The Level 5 diploma is made up of papers covering creative writing of a children’s or adult literary piece; basic editing skills; literary critique and word processing. Compulsory papers look at myths and legends, non-fiction, short stories, plays and scripts, novels, and there are options to focus on cultural studies, picture books, history of literature, poetry and editing.

Papers in the second year, level 6, look at business in relation to writing, personal career plan, project planning and execution, and there are electives in feature writing, poetry, e-books, research and short stories.

Third year, level 7, students work on a major project. I think that means writing a novel or something.

If you’re not keen on NorthTec but not keen on going to another city, correspondence/ online courses include:

  • Massey University –the Albany campus isn’t terribly far from Northland, so that’s a great study option. They offer everything from certificates to masters and doctorate creative writing options
  • AUT University – AUT offers the same great range of writing papers with pretty good quality tutors. Unfortunately AUT does little to support its writing students. Still though, being able to study some papers online is a bonus.
  • University of Auckland, which offers everything from undergraduate creative writing courses to postgrad and masters and adult community education, promotes its writers well and has lecturers who have published lots.
  • Whitireia, in Porirua, Wellington and online, has gained a good reputation in the last 10 years for producing creative writing graduates with a difference, and its publishing course is unique. Whitireia has a respectable literary journal and good tutors.
  • The Creative Hub –It offers everything online so you don’t have to leave Moerewa or wherever.
  • NZ Society of Authors list of writing courses at universities, polytechs etc.
  • NZ Writers College – Not recommended.


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