Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Today I will be sharing some lessons from the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop, written by Gboyega Otolorin, a fellow participant. My blog posts on the workshop have been accused of being too much of a personal account, like a diary (which was actually my intention). Anyway, for those looking to learn what we did, Gboyega’s summary should be quite helpful and it’s posted below with his permission.

Hey guys, I was scanning my workshop notes and I thought ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if someone summarized the main bits and pieces of writing wisdom we received during those miraculous ten days?' So, that’s what I did. Started with Chimamanda; summaries of Binyavanga, Adewale, Tash and Faith will come later. These are the points I got. Wrote them down the way I understood them. If there’s something I missed or misinterpreted, please feel free to mention it.

Alright! This is for you, my fellow voyagers on the seas of linguistic playfulness, from Gboyega Otolorin, forever and always, in the eternal sense!

From Chimamanda Adichie:

One: Chimamanda’s central dogma: Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell. SHOW, DON’T TELL. Show us what the character is feeling. Don’t tell us. Showing is more effective in conveying emotional truth than telling.

Two: Avoid clichés. Don’t use clichéd plots, storylines, expressions, sentences. Try as much as possible to create something original. Avoid writing thrillers like James HadleyChase. Avoid writing romance that feels like Mills & Boon. Avoid any story that reminds you of Nollywood.

Three: Include SIGNIFICANT details. Details make your story believable. Let your reader be able to imagine the scene as clearly as you saw it. However, never include TOO MANY details. It shows a lack of confidence in your own skills as a writer. Don’t compensate for insecurity by overdoing it. Less is more. Significant detail.

Four: Art is to be enjoyed. We write because we want to be read and appreciated. Otherwise, we would just finish our pieces and lock them up in our drawers at home. If we want our writing to be read and enjoyed, our writing must be comprehensible! Comprehension is KEY. The reader MUST be able to connect to what we are saying.

Five: When writing about religion, be honest. Write something that both believers and non-believers can relate to. Don’t preach the converted.

Six: Be real. Say it like it is. Don’t get all ‘writer-y’ and try to decorate simple sentences with stylish language. Don’t let truck drivers speak like university graduates. Use pidgin and local languages where necessary so your characters are believable. However, if you’re writing for an international audience, use local details and language in a way that doesn’t leave readers confused. But you shouldn’t write local language and then translate side-by-side e.g. “Mo ti n bo,” Jumoke said (“I’m on my way,” Jumoke said). Let the local language be in the middle of the speech, in a way that the international/non-local reader can guess at the meaning from the context.

Seven: Consistency. The language of your work should be consistent. Chimamanda said ‘a story tells you how to read it’. The way we read dreamers and fable-tellers like Ben Okri and Amos Tutuola is different from the way we read realists like Chinua Achebe. The language of our work must be consistent.

Eight: If you’re writing about a familiar subject e.g. love, domestic abuse, marriage, sibling rivalry, drug abuse e.t.c, look for a fresh approach or a new angle. Again, avoid clichés. Again, avoid Nollywood.

Nine: On style. Style is good. It is good to play with language, to be ‘linguistically playful’. Stylish language and clever turns of phrase delight readers and they are a major part of the pleasure we get from reading. Your style is part of what constitutes your ‘voice’ as a writer. It’s how people can pick up your book and immediately know you wrote it. However, too much style gets in the way of the story and can distract the reader. Also, making every sentence clever and every paragraph ‘an intricate work of art’ can signal a lack of confidence in yourself.

Ten: The most prescribed rule of writing: Write what you know. Chimamanda said: Don’t write what you don’t know. Make sure that if you’re going to write about something, you’ve studied it and done your research appropriately so that when you write about it, everything feels real and tangible. For example, if you’re going to write about prostitutes, it would be a good idea to interview a few. Just like Chika Unigwe did with ‘On Black Sister’s Street’.

Eleven: The Hating-Your-Own-Work rule. Chimamanda called writing ‘a pathetic way of seeking validation’ and it is true. The only way to feel good as a writer is when other talented people (i.e. other writers/discerning readers) tell you your work is worthy. But how do we deal with hating our own work? First, realize that uncertainty is a good thing. When you stop feeling jittery about your work, you become smug. And being smug makes you write trash. Also, find gifted people who can critique your work. Not your close friends or family members, but people who you know can help make your writing better. They may be writers themselves, or readers, or teachers; anyone you know who can tell the difference between Mills & Boon and Shakespeare. Writer’s workshops and online forums are a good place to find such people. The more positive responses you get, the more your confidence grows. If you keep getting negative feedback, ask what you’re doing wrong, and fix it.  Whatever happens, keep writing and never believe that your work is perfect. There is no perfect writer. Everyone is a work in progress.

Twelve: The Unbreakable Rule: Read. Read. Read. A writer can never read enough. The only way to be a good writer is to read. There is no school for professional writers. There is no workshop or degree programme or certification. There is only reading. We are professional writers only because we write. Not because we have published anything or received any prizes but because we write. And the only way to write well is to read. The simple prescription we got from the workshop was thirty books a year. But for a good professional writer, it should be one a week, fifty-two books a year. Or more if you can. You cannot be a good writer if you do not read. A writer can never read enough.

Thirteen: The Thirteenth Commandment: When you know the rules, you can break them. There is no rule of writing that cannot be broken. Except for the Reading Rule; a writer MUST read. But you can break all the others. Just make sure that in breaking a rule, you are achieving something uniquely creative and interesting. Almost all of the best writers have broken rules at one point or another. As long as the rule-breaking doesn’t turn the story to trash, then go ahead.


  1. The thirteenth commandment is absolutely fantastic.

  2. @Jaycee: I agree. It wraps everything up nicely.

  3. I whole heartedly agree. It's so depressing though, isn't it, this validation thing? I always feel totally shit and I keep forcing myself to stop destroying my work because I think it's not even worthy for pigs to clean their bottoms with.
    Ah, life as a writer. What a lonely road we tread.

  4. @Igbo marriage: The confidence thing, or lack of it, is a constant issue. But it can be helpful. And please, don't destroy your work o. I like reading your stuff on your blog.

  5. Very nicely written article.
    thanks for sharing.
    Exam Notes

  6. Very useful and informative Post. I do agree with you. Thanks for sharing.