Tuesday, 20 December 2011

My experience studying at university

In case you’re visiting my blog for the first time, 

And for my French-speaking readers: je vous en prie

I’ve been studying Certificate IV in Professional Writing and Editing part-time at Victoria University since the middle of 2010. I’m a stay at home dad with two kids under 5—leaving just enough time to study two subjects per semester. The decreased workload and ability to study from home allows me to pursue my dream of becoming a novelist while focusing on raising my little ones and maintaining our household.

A fairly accurate dramatisation
So far I’ve completed Fiction Elements and the first semester of Editing 1 online. I’ve also studied Story Structure, Short Story, Novel, Professional Skills, Writing for Young Adults, and the second semester of Editing on campus. Next year I hope to complete Industry Overview and a second year of Novel and Editing.

Over the last eighteen months, I’ve learnt tons of stuff that didn’t sink in during VCE (oh so many years ago). I’ve gone from not knowing the difference between nouns and pronouns and verbs and adverbs to being able to pull apart sentences from my favourite books and put them back together in my own words with my own characters. It feels great calling myself a writer, and believing it!

I write short stories, poems and reviews, maintain this blog and am a few chapters into my sci-fi novel for Young Adults. I’ve been published a couple of times (three to be exact!), received Commendations and High Commendations in national writing competitions, and, most recently, won the 2011 Melton Short Story Competition.

I'd like to thank my wife and children for supporting me through the tough times and the academy for...

I couldn’t have done any of this without the skills I’ve gained at university, and the support of my tutors and fellow students. Sure I could have found a lot of the stuff on the net, or in books, but there’s a lot of rubbish out there and it’s really hard to separate fact from fiction. By the time you research the source of the information, make sure they’re a credible, active author and they’ve covered every aspect of the topic, you’ll have a massive headache and be over the whole learning process.
Is this illustrator following me around or something?

The classes at uni are fairly casual—certain topics need to be covered, but the delivery is adapted to each group. Almost all of the ideas and practices to do with writing are customisable. We discuss the relevant theories and come to our own conclusions. I don’t agree with everything the other students say, but I listen to them and make up my own mind. If something I’m initially against is repeated often, by different students or teachers, I look closely at whatever it is and adapt it to suit my way of thinking. The great thing about being a student is you don’t loose points for changing your mind.

I quite like the workshopping. Hearing what others think of my work, and giving feedback on theirs, makes the writing process a social experience. After all, I want my stories to be read by, and appeal to, as many people as possible. And it’s great learning from other people’s mistakes.

Bender, my robot friend, you are hilarious. How about some new episodes?

The tutors have a lot of experience in their fields. They teach from experience in a practical way. They are writers, too, and understand how tough it is for an emerging writer. They’re extremely approachable and many will look over your assignments the week before they’re due. Don’t expect them to correct your spelling and punctuation, but they might give you a little nudge in the right direction. If you’re really lucky, some might even read the stuff you’re trying to get published. Every bit of help counts.

If any of my tutors are reading, it’s probably best you skip the rest of this paragraph … Still here? Consider yourself forewarned ... Failing a subject is almost impossible! There, I said it. All you have to do is turn up to all the tutes on time (apart from the most exceptional of circumstances), participate in the discussions, listen to what others have to say and hand in all your assignments—no matter how crap you think they are.

The real challenge, the challenge you should set yourself, is achieving Distinctions and High Distinctions. These grades are quite elusive, especially if you have little prior experience as a writer, like me. But they are achievable.

How do I add 'And Writers Smell Bad All the Time'?

It would be nice to get 100% for everything you hand in but it’s just not realistic. The randomness of everyday life has a way of getting in the way of the best laid plans. Like your kids getting sick the day you're meant to hand in that big assignment; your hard drive getting wiped the day before, taking with it the changes you made since your last back up to USB; or, a plane crashing in your driveway, blocking your only path to uni. Two of these happened to me this year!

Make your own!
Whatever your goals, be realistic and kind to yourself and pat yourself on the back, often. Little steps like handing in assignments are just as important, if not more than, the grades you receive.

What maters most is that you learn the core principles in each subject, and how to apply them to your chosen field of writing, whether it be fiction, non-fiction, editing and publishing or a mixture of these. I’ve found that effort counts for a lot when you’re studying. If you put in the effort you won’t be able to stop yourself from being a great writer!

The most relevant piece of advice I can give a fellow student is to use all the resources available to you, especially if you’re struggling. If you’re having trouble understanding a particular idea, tell the tutor. Pardon the cliché, but some are worth their weight in gold. They’ll answer all the questions you put in emails, be available before and after most classes and may host study sessions during the week. A rare few even answer the office phone. Take advantage of all this, especially if you’re struggling—you wouldn’t be studying their subjects if you knew everything.

Merry Christmas and good luck in the new year to you and your families, and I hope you do well, whatever you choose to do.


Merlene said...

I'd be interested in reading your opinion of the value of writing groups to writers and if you would recommend others find a good writing group.

Emanuel Cachia said...

Great idea, Merlene.

I'll try to post something in the coming weeks, once things slow down after Christmas.


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