Four Tips to Teach An Old or Young Dog New Writing Tricks - Dundurn
Jun 30, 2022

Four Tips to Teach An Old or Young Dog New Writing Tricks

As a mature canine with a writing career spanning more than 35 years, I’m always looking for ways to grow and stretch my skills. To create stronger characters, more compelling plots, clearer, more lyrical prose, and all-around better stories for my readers. I have thought about taking a master’s degree in Creative Writing but always remember how my professors used to make me feel about my essays. “It took me years to get over my degree and be able to write again,” Sharon Siamon, a partner author echoed my thoughts.  Worse still, going back to school full time would mean giving up teaching. And I learn so much from my students.

When I’m working as a mentor or looking over other writers’ work, watching for implausibilities, tension sags, pacing flaws etc., a curious thing happens: I recognize their errors in my own work and ways to fix them. 

So my first tried and true tip for any writer is:

Read analytically to improve your own writing.

Recently I asked someone who was driving me from the airport to a writing workshop if he would like an autographed book to share with a special kid in his life. Turned out all the kids in his circle were grown up. “But if you’re a middle grade writer, I’d love to pick your brain. I’d like to try that market myself.”

I assumed he would want one of my books, but I was wrong. He wasn’t much of a reader, which is always a red flag. How can you get the feel and voice level of a new genre if you don’t immerse yourself in those books? On top of which, I couldn’t help wondering why anyone would want advice from a writer without first knowing if they like the way they write.

My second point for aspiring writers is

If you don’t like books and reading, don’t write. And always say yes to free books.

No matter where you are in your writing career, take classes and attend workshops, lots of them. Beyond helping with plot structure, chapter hooks, etc., courses give you deadlines that turn “someday I’ll write” into “today I will finish my story.”  More importantly, you will have a ready-made writing group.  Before the course ends, exchange emails with other writers so you can continue critiquing each other’s work. Meeting at regular intervals keeps those inspiring deadlines going.

My fourth important tip:

Join a writing group.

My own writing group is the best way this dog learns new tricks. While you critique their work, you’re growing your own writing skills. Your fellow writers become a strong support not only to improve your work but also to share your griping when the world fails to appreciate you. More importantly you will have a community with whom to celebrate successes. I wish you many.

My final tip:

Read What the Dog Knows.

Sylvia McNicoll has written over thirty-five novels for young audiences, including Body Swap and the Great Mistake Mystery series, inspired by her own errors and dog walks with her grandchildren. What the Dog Knows is a tribute to the many dogs she’s loved. She lives in Burlington, Ontario. Learn more here.