This year we’re taking you behind the scenes to see how PWC operates and hear from key people on the administrative and teaching staff. Professor Nathan Whitlock teaches PWC’s Storytelling and Narrative course in first term and the Professionalism Skills: Internship Preparation course in second term. We asked him what he likes about teaching writing, and our usual favourite question about grammar rules!
How did you get started in writing? What has been your career trajectory so far?
I wrote stories, reviews, and articles in high school and in university, but didn’t really start writing for real until I got a job as the managing editor of a literary quarterly in my mid-twenties. By that point, I had piles of unpublished stories and ideas for novels, but no real connection to the world of books and magazines. I have made my living as a writer and editor, in one form or another, ever since. I have written about books, movies, music, cars, parenting, ice storms, and more – anything that fits the bill. I have also published two novels, A Week of This (2008) and Congratulations On Everything (2016), and am at work on a third.
What do you like about teaching writing?
I like demystifying the process. I always try to connect an abstract rule or concept to as many real-life examples as I can – especially the idea that writers cannot count on editors to catch their mistakes, for which I can always find a lot of egregious examples. But I also enjoy exposing students to pieces of writing that are fun and surprising, to show that it’s not all about drudgery and sweating the rules of grammar.
What is your best advice to students as they enter the writing world?
Write for free for a while, than at some point, stop writing for free. Both are important steps. (But don’t ever pay to write.)
What is your favourite grammar or writing rule?
It’s a bit abstract, but every piece of writing should work like a body part – with bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves and veins, and skin. Every part has to have some function. I read a lot of work (including my own early drafts) where I can feel the writer going over the same idea over and over again, without adding anything. Like an arm that is all bone. Or the writer leaves out a crucial detail or element – an arm with bones but no muscles to make them work. In my classes, I overuse the word “organic” to describe how a good piece of writing – fiction, non-fiction, even pr copy – should work. Nothing should feel stitched in, everything should work together as a seamless whole.