My "writing teacher" journey 

  

Can I help you?

"Love the research! But the writing ...?"

     Many genealogists are daunted by the thought of transforming their research into something readable. They turn to books and courses and writing teachers to help them in their endeavours, to people like me.

 

How I unexpectedly became a writing teacher 

My journey as a family history writing teacher began in 2009, largely because of a "supply and demand" issue. After my first two popular histories were published and the genealogy community saw that I could write gripping nonfiction, they "demanded" that I "supply" ...!    

     So I prepared a family history writing seminar.

     Then I thought, "Gee, I'm an author. Why not write a book?!" 

      So I did. In fact, I wrote the first draft of the first edition of Writing Interesting Family Histories in a week.  

     Later, I was asked to give writing workshops at Unlock the Past conferences on international cruise ships so I prepared multiple lessons.

     After my sixth popular history was published, I produced another writing book, a companion volume to the first, called Writing and Publishing Gripping Family Histories

   Throughout this period, I'd been reading books on writing, which increased my writing knowledge. Then I'd put that knowledge into practice as I wrote more critically-acclaimed popular histories.

     This "increased writing knowledge/improved writing skills" cycle has also helped me as a writing teacher. The more books I wrote, the better I could understand the writing process in general and my own writing style in particular. And the more books I wrote, the more examples I could draw upon as a writing teacher to explain my literary point.     

 

Other family history writing teachers

My journey has been different to that of most family history writing teachers. In fact, my decades in the industry have led me to conclude that most of them fall into one of the following three categories: 

  

1. I'm paid to teach history writing

The first type of teacher is paid to teach history or genealogy within a university or accredited institution. They teach their students researching and writing skills and mark them on their output. 

     But is this style of writing what the general market wants to read? Let me answer by way of an example.

     After I signed my first writing contract, I asked an academic historian I knew (an associate professor) to read my manuscript (that is, my unpublished "book"). I’m a self-trained genealogist, historian and writer, so I wanted to make sure that I’d dealt with the historical backdrop in an acceptable way. 

    A few days later, I received an email saying that there was a problem. I would need to rewrite my entire manuscript. I couldn’t write history in such a way.

     As you can probably imagine, I was upset at this response. But I was also confused. Because the chapters read by the academic were among those I’d submitted to Allen & Unwin.

     So I emailed my new "publisher" (the commissioning agent within a publishing house) to explain what had happened and to express my confusion.

     Ten minutes later, I received a frantic phone call. “Don’t listen to a word they say,” she told me. “We love the way you write history.” 

     As it turns out, so does the reading public. That's why I keep getting new book contracts.

     What’s my point? A lecturer might teach history or genealogy within an accredited institution. However, this doesn’t mean that the style of writing they promote is what the general public wants to read. 

     Of course, they might be wonderful writers and teachers. In fact, I use an example of beautiful writing from an academic in one of my lessons. 

     However, most academics struggle to gain mainstream writing contracts because of their style of writing. It's too dry. So keep this in mind when looking for writing advice.

 

  

2. I've got a certificate 

The second type of writing teacher has hung up their shingle because they’ve completed a degree or diploma in writing; for example, a master’s degree in creative writing. They might, of course, be a wonderful teacher with lots of helpful information to impart. But let me explain the potential problem by way of another example.

     I once saw a brand-new history book selling for $5 in a "remainders" bin. It was written as part of a post-graduate degree and it had won an award and looked a bit quirky, so I bought it. Within a couple of chapters, the quirkiness had become irritating. Within a couple more, it was unbearable. I soon booted it into my own "remainders" bin.

     It reminded me that if you mention to a literary agent or publisher that a manuscript was written as part of a post-graduate degree, they try not to roll their eyes and they sigh and they murmur that most manuscripts from these type of degrees are unpublishable. 

     Why? Because what university lecturers are seeking and what publishers are seeking are not necessarily the same thing.

     Publishers are looking for books that the average reader will pay to read. So what motivates readers to hand over their hard-earned money? An interesting subject that is well-written and readable. 

     By contrast, university lecturers usually don’t care about the reading tastes of the general public. In fact, some would consider "the masses” a bit low-brow. What university lecturers are looking for is something that interests them within the guidelines of the degree they’re teaching. Thus, thousands of writing students graduate each year - many with "high distinctions" - but they soon discover that there's little if any publishing interest. 

     Some are successful but the numbers are small. Some keep trying … and trying. Some self-publish their manuscripts. And some hang up their shingle as a teacher, and teach other aspiring writers the same skills they were taught.

     Some prove to be better teachers than writers. However, the best writing instructors I’ve encountered - that is, who are not themselves mainstream-published authors - are those who have spent years in the industry as editors or literary agents.

     Thus, just because a writing teacher has done “a course”, it doesn’t mean that they can write the type of prose that the general public wants to read. Nor does it make them a good teacher in terms of helping others craft the type of prose that readers want to read.  So keep this in mind as well.

 

  

3. I've done it myself 

The third type of writing teacher uses the fact that they’ve done it themselves - that they have written their own family history - as their claim to teaching fame.

     I once had an email from a man who said that he’d written and self-published a fictionalised family history, and that he wanted to know how he could become a cruise ship speaker who teaches others how to do the same.

     Why did he email me? Not only have I taught writing skills at genealogy conferences on cruise ships, I'm an "enrichment speaker" telling true tales of murder, mystery and mayhem to the guests on international cruise ships. 

    In my reply, I said that booking agencies were only interested in speakers who had a proven authority and credibility in their subject area. (In other words, a resumé saying that someone had self-published a fictional family history - of all things! - wasn’t quite what they were looking for.)

     So does this mean that someone who has self-published their own family history can’t teach you anything useful? Absolutely not. But it's probably limited to “I did it this way and I suggest you do the same.” So keep this in mind. 

 

Wrapping it up

It's a truth universally acknowledged - or, more to the point, it's a saying regularly repeated - that "Those who can't ..., teach."

    But the truth is, those who can ... !

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