Advice for aspiring writers from La Trobe’s alumni authors

Are you ready to unleash your inner wordsmith? La Trobe's experienced authors share their top five tips for advancing your craft and making writing your career.

The Bendigo Writers Festival is just around the corner. This year, several well-known authors who graduated from La Trobe University will be presenting. Among them are graduate researcher and refugee Akuch Anyieth, Indigenous feminist Celeste Liddle, political writer and criminal defence lawyer Russell Marks, and Young Adult (YA) Fiction author Biffy James, to name a few.

To help aspiring authors hone their craft and make writing their career, these authors, as well as the festival's Guest Curator, Professor Clare Wright OAM, are sharing their top tips for aspiring authors.

Read, read, read!

‘There are no writers without readers,’ says memoir author, Akuch Anyieth.

Akuch is a South-Sudanese-Australian academic and memoir author. Civil war broke out when Akuch was just five years old, and her mother was forced to shift their family to a refugee camp. She later moved to, and studied in, Australia, where she began to write her life story to raise awareness about the profound impact of war and the trauma that refugees experience. Akuch studied a Bachelor of Legal Studies, 2014, and Master’s Degree by Research, 2020.

‘Writers develop a sense of storytelling and word usage through reading. This includes both fiction and non-fiction. Reading books that I enjoy and challenging myself to read different styles and genres helped expand my knowledge of the craft and has taught me new ideas about how to compose a piece of writing.’

By reading the books you want to write, you can find your style. This is particularly important for non-fiction writers who want to develop and improve their authentic authorial voice.

‘In the early years of learning how to read in English, I found myself liking a particular format or genre, and by reading more of that type of writing, I learned to hone my own style,’ said Akuch.

Find yourself first

There is an immense amount of value as a writer to discover the creator within you than to be discovered by someone or something outside of you. This is especially true for opinion writer, Celeste Liddle.

Celeste is an Indigenous feminist (Arrernte), an opinion writer, a trade unionist and public speaker. She started her blog, Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist, in June 2012, and has since been picked up by several publications. In her time as both a writer and speaker, she has gained recognition and praise for delivering heavy topics in accessible ways. Celeste has a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Theatre and Drama from La Trobe University.

‘Figure out who you are, and therefore what it is that makes your perspective interesting and different,’ says Celeste.

She explains that having your own expertise will separate you from the rest of the pack.

‘If you just want to be a shock jock type who comments on any-and-every-thing, fine, but there’s nothing quite like opinion written from a unique standpoint, showing knowledge and insight. It’s so much more compelling than yet another opinion from a conservative cookie-cutter white man.’

Further education is a tool – use it

It takes time to learn effective writing tools, techniques, tips and tricks. But education is a powerful resource that more people should take advantage of, according to lawyer and writer, Russell Marks.

Russell Marks is a criminal defence lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System and Black Lives, White Law: Locked Up and Locked Out in Australia. Russell has worked for Aboriginal legal services in the Northern Territory and Victoria, and writes for The Monthly magazine. Russell completed a PhD in Australian political history at La Trobe University in 2012.

Russell says that post-graduate study at La Trobe was foundational to improving his writing skills.

‘I completed a doctoral thesis in the politics department at a time when its staff included Robert Manne, Judy Brett, Dennis Altman and Gwenda Tavan. All have left now, but each of them taught me a lot about writing. I was lucky enough to be supervised by Judy and Robert, so for me the PhD program became a three-year workshop on how to write. I only wish I'd been able to soak up even more of their collective talent!’

Don't listen to anyone who says there's no such thing as 'writer's block'

'Bullshit. If you feel the writing jam, write it down. If you don't, whatever,' shares YA Fiction author, Biffy James.

Biffy James writes contemporary novels that capture the daily life of the current teenager. After 20 years of reading and loving YA fiction, she finally decided to write her own. Biffy has poured her love for the genre into her most recent book, Completely Normal (And Other Lies). In May, she’ll be presenting at the annual Bendigo Writer’s Festival on the changing climate of YA fiction. Biffy completed a Bachelor of Arts, 2005.

According to Biffy, creators and authors in Australia cannot rely on writing as a sole means of income. The expectation on authors to write every day overlooks the reality that it's a privilege to have that kind of time.

'If you're fortunate enough to be inspired and feeling authorish while you have some spare time, that's just bloody luck,' says Biffy.

'The olden days writers who said crap about writing every day were probably making an actual living from writing. And all they had to do when they woke up was to write a few hundred words and that was their working day.'

Biffy explains that writers should give themselves the credit they deserve for working when they're able. For the majority of current writers, time is a luxury few can afford.

'My book definitely wouldn't exist if it wasn't for the COVID19 lockdowns.'

Be Generous

An intimidating part of writing is that it is very reclusive, so it’s important to build networks and support, says co-curator of the Bendigo Writers Festival, Clare Wright.

Professor Clare Wright OAM is an award-winning historian, author, broadcaster and public commentator who has worked in politics, academia and the media. She is currently a Professor of History and Professor of Public Engagement at La Trobe University. Clare is the author of the best-selling The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, and You Daughters of Freedom, which comprise the first two instalments of her Democracy Trilogy. Additionally, Clare hosts the ABC Radio National history series, Shooting the Past, and co-hosts the La Trobe University podcast, Archive Fever.

Clare's advice is to be generous with your time and with yourself when writing.

'Writing, as one of my writer friends puts it, is ‘hard and hateful’. It is also a fundamentally solitary exercise,' she says.

'You need to be comfortable in your own head. But you also need a community of other writers to ground you in the here and now. Share your time, your heartbreak, your joy.'

It's important to celebrate your fellow writer's wins and hold space for their losses, says Clare, and they will do the same for you.

'Writing takes a village.'

Keen to hear more from these alumni authors? Get tickets for the Bendigo Writers Festival here!