Writing Podcast Episode 152 Meet David Crystal, author of ‘Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar’


podcast-artworkIn Episode 152 of So you want to be a writer: Breathe magazine launches and Yen mag closes. Discover some great tips on how to write historical fiction and learn a neat trick for dealing with research for multiple articles. Meet the dynamic and engaging David Crystal, author of Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar. Plus: play with the ‘One Word' app, find out what your minimum author online presence should be and much more!

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Show Notes

‘Yen’ Mag shares sad news it’s closing after 15 yrs of indie goodness

Breathe Magazine

You Weren’t There? So What: 4 Tips on Writing Historical Fiction

How I Fixed My Broken Writing Process

Writer in Residence

David Crystal
David Crystal is an Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor and has been a consultant, contributor, or presenter on several radio and television programmes and series. He is the foremost writer and lecturer on the English language and has over 100 books to his name. In 1995, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire for services to the English language. He lives in the United Kingdom.

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Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers' Centre

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Interview Transcript


Thank you so much for joining us today, David.


It's a real pleasure.


Now, your book is Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar. And I am a sucker for these sorts of books. And every time I go to a bookshop, I buy books like this. And I've got several of yours. Now, for some of the listeners who haven't read your book yet, can you tell us what it's about?


Well, the thing that surprises people, I suppose, is the title as much as anything else. You don't normally associate a word like ‘grammar' with a word like ‘glamour' do you?




Most people remember grammar, if they ever did it at all in school, with a rather boring sort of, I'm going to analyse this sentence, and that is a noun and this is a verb, and that is a subject and this is an object, and all this sort of thing. And glamour doesn't come into it. But what is interesting about this is that the two words grammar and glamour actually have the same origin. You know, five or six hundred years ago, they were the same. And it was because ‘grammar' had all of these magical associations that we associate with the modern use of the word ‘glamour'. And that's what the book is about. It's to try and point out to people that if they restrict themselves to just the thought that grammar is about analysing a sentence and just labelling the parts, well, they've missed the point. It's a bit like learning to drive. And the driving instructor says to you, “now, I want you to learn all the parts of the car. So this is the wheel, and that is the brake, and that is the accelerator, and so on.” And you learn all the parts of the car. And you know how these parts of the car all work, and then you go for your driving test and the man says, “now can you tell me where the brake is?” And you say, “there it is.” “Can you tell me where the steering wheel is?” “There it is.” You've passed. But of course, you haven't even begun to drive yet. You have to know about being on the road, and being sensitive to other road users. You have to know where to drive, and why you want to drive. And it's exactly the same with grammar. If you restrict yourself just to nouns and verbs and things like that, then it's a bit like just knowing the parts of the car. You've got to know why you want to drive, where you want to drive your grammar to, why you want it to be used at all in language, how is it used in language. And that's when it starts to get exciting. And that's what the book is basically about.


Now, you are one of the very few people in the world, I think, who can make grammar sound glamorous or interesting. When you're writing a book about grammar, as you say, many people would think this is no easy feat because apart from having to have a good knowledge of grammar, when you write a book about it you have to make it interesting reading, if you're going to keep people engaged in the book, right? Which you absolutely do. From the first page, I was already laughing out loud. Now, what were your – before you started writing this book – what were your strategies in making this interesting, readable, and clearly a very entertaining book?


Well, the main strategy is to explore exactly why people use grammar in the way they do. Now this is the interesting thing. People don't ever ask the question ‘why' in relation to grammar. They ask the question ‘what' – you know, how do we analyse this sentence? That is a noun, etc. But why use grammar at all? Now if you say to people that grammar is all about the communication of meaning – that's why I call the book Making Sense. That's what it's to do with. Language is there, you and I are talking now because we want to mean to each other. We want to understand each other. It's all about meaning. So my next question is, where is meaning in language? And many people think meaning is in vocabulary. If you don't know the meaning of a word, you look it up in a dictionary. But you know, vocabulary is only the beginning of the story of meaning. A word by itself doesn't have meaning. Or rather, to put it the other way around, it has too much meaning. If I say to you the word ‘table' then you've got a vague idea of what I'm getting at. But you don't know whether in my head I mean a piece of furniture, a diagram on a page in a book, or a mountain in Cape Town in South Africa, or whatever. You say to me “put it in a sentence and then we'll know what you mean.” So I do. I say, “the leg of the table is broken.” Or I say, “I spent all morning climbing the Table.” Or I say, “there was a mistake in the second row of the table,” or something like that. And then you know what I mean. And this is the point. Sentences make sense of words. That is what sentences are for. They're there to make sense. Without sentences, language doesn't make sense. And grammar is the study of sentences.

So, the best way to study grammar is to go and look at the way sentences are used in the real world and show that the way in which we use grammar is actually the only mechanism we have to allow us to talk to each other in a sensible kind of way. It therefore underlies every act of communication that we have. And so in writing a book like this, what you do is you go out into the real world and go looking for real instances of grammar. In the streets, in the home, in the shops, in the towns, everywhere you can go. Go on a grammar hunt, as Michael Rosen once called it. We're going to catch a big one! We're going to look for grammar out there. And that's when it gets exciting and glamorous.


And so this is not your first book about words or sentences of the quirks of the English language. When did you personally first become so interested in words and English?


I think it's… There are two stages to this. One is an interest in language generally, and then an interest in English in particular. Now, I'm speaking to you from Wales where I live now. And this is where I grew up. Now, this part of Wales where I live, in Holyhead, it was back in the 1940s very much – it still is – very much a bilingual area. You know, English and Welsh. But I was growing up in an English-speaking household. But on the street, there was this other strange thing that I couldn't understand. And I remember my mum told me, I was about three at the time, asking her why can I understand these people and not understand those people? What is going on? What is this thing called that is causing me a problem? And she said, “well, that's called language dear” or whatever. And we had a conversation about it. And I think when you grow up in a bilingual area, you end up with a natural curiosity about language. The different languages, as it were, come on to your consciousness, and make you wonder, why this way, why not that way?

And then gradually, of course, I learned other languages in school. You know, French and Latin and this sort of thing. And then I wanted to have a university course where the two sides balanced. There would be the language side and the literature side. And I chose English, because I liked the English language. And I was very much a creative writer in those days. I wanted to be a great novelist and things like this, not a linguist! That was the least of my thoughts. But when I went to university, I met a crowd of English language enthusiasts there, real specialists in the language, and they just bowled me over, like teachers often do. And at that point I switched from being a general linguist to being an English linguist.


And the rest is history.


In a sense, yes.


Now, people's grasp of grammar – and you talk a little about this in the book – seems to have declined over the years. And now some people, even some publications that twenty years ago would never have said this, some adopt the approach that anything goes. That the English language has evolved, and therefore it's okay to say this or that. How important is grammar still in today's world?


Oh, grammar rules we're talking about now. Still very, very important. This notion of anything goes was always rubbish. No linguist ever, ever would say anything goes, no more than anybody else would. Because the issues that we're talking about here are just a tiny part of the language as a whole. You know 90% or more of the grammar that you and I are using now is uncontentious. Nobody ever argues about it. The fact that the word ‘the' goes before the noun, so we say ‘the car' and not ‘car the'. Well, who would ever argue against that? That's an obvious rule in the language. And if you're teaching English to people who learn it as a foreign language, then you're teaching them that sort of rule that everybody agrees about without any issue at all. So when people talk about ‘anything goes' what they mean is that for those areas of the language where usage is divided, where you might say one thing, and I might say another – you know the sort of thing I mean. People say, “you should never end a sentence with a preposition.” You should never say, “this is the man I was talking to.” You should say, “this is the man to whom I was talking.” Well, this is clearly a difference between speaking in a very informal way – “this is the chap I was talking to” – and a very formal way – “this is the man to whom I was talking.” Now, when you say ‘anything goes', all I mean is that both are possible in the English language. So long as you make sure that you know that one is more informal than the other and you suit your choice of which one you use to the circumstances in which you find yourself, then you're in a much more powerful position to use your language well than if you take the old-fashioned way which is only one of those two is correct. Only the formal way is correct. The informal way is wrong. So when people talk about ‘anything goes' all they mean is different stylistic alternatives in the language are equally valid. But it only applies to a very, very small number of cases. There aren't very many rules in the language like the preposition one we were talking about.


Now you've said that you have studied some other languages when you were at school, French, Latin, that sort of thing. In comparison to the way they treat their grammar, do you think that English grammar makes the most sense? Or makes sense?


Well, I think you've identified a very important point there, Valerie, when you mention that a lot of listeners simply never did any grammar. Once upon a time, everybody did, of course. Back up until in this country, in the UK, up until the 1960s. And Australia was the same, actually.


Very similar, yes.


Everybody did formal grammar in school, and learned all about prepositions and nouns and what they meant and so on. And then it went out. And the reason it went out is complicated, there are lots of issues that were involved, but basically people argued that there was no point to grammar. Why do we have to spend all this time teaching kids to know what a preposition is? And it simply went out of use and was replaced by, well, nothing. There were of course general chats in classrooms about the importance of language, and how advertising is a kind of language you have to watch out for, and let's think about ads and what they do in life, and all this sort of thing. But two generations of people were raised without any knowledge of grammar at all. And if you don't have any knowledge of grammar, it's a bit like trying to talk about anything without any technical terms.

And if you want to talk, you're interested in language – and everybody is – and you want to talk about why this particular sentence has an effect, a really dramatic effect, and this one doesn't. I'll give you an example. The sort of thing you get when you're studying a novel or something like this, or a poem. Or even an advertising slogan. And you get two sentences. Like, “the old ruined house stood on the hillside.” And the other sentence is, “the house, old, ruined, stood on the hillside.” And you say to people, which is the more atmospheric sentence? And they all say, well the second one of course. The house, old, ruined. And I say, “explain it. Why? But you mustn't use any technical terms.” And you can't do it. You say, well, the two, and you start to flutter, and you don't know what to say.

Whereas if you know the words ‘noun' and ‘adjective', and you can say to people, “look, normally in English the adjective goes before the noun. ‘The old ruined house stood on the hillside.' Whereas if you put the adjectives after the noun it immediately makes the sentence more atmospheric.” And as soon as you do that you've got a rule. And then you can say, “I'm going to test that. That sounds really good. I'm going to look at Roald Dahl and Terry Pratchett and all these people and see if that's what they do.” And of course, they do. And at that point, you suddenly realise that actually knowing a little bit of grammar is very, very useful. It doesn't just enable you to make sense, it enables you to see how people use language, and why they use language, and why you are so affected by language when you read people playing with grammar in this kind of way.


Now, as you've said, a couple of generations in both our countries missed out on learning this sort of thing. What's your purpose in writing a book like this? Is it to educate those people? Is it just to amuse yourself? What is the prime driver for you to write this book?


Well, a bit like the BBC really. And I suppose the ABC, too. What's the function of the BBC? To inform, educate, and entertain. It's trying to bring all those three things together.

To inform, first of all. The main reason for writing Making Sense was to answer the question I get all the time from people, which is ‘why?' Why grammar? And that's what we talked about a few minutes ago. The aim of grammar is to make sense of words. The aim of grammar is to show how it is that we can communicate meaningfully. So there's a kind of educational purpose there. And you can explain about grammar by showing its history, first of all. By showing where the grammar notions come from, who invented these terms in the first place? Where did words like ‘subject' and ‘predicate' come from? Now this is very interesting. It goes right back to classical times. So that's one dimension.

But as you'll have seen, there's another dimension to the way I talk about grammar, and that is to show how children learn grammar naturally, as they grow up. There's no grammar when you're born. So when do kids start to put sentences together, and how do they do it, and how do they learn these rules in the first place? So there's a kind of parallel track approach to grammar in the book, isn't there, Valerie?


Yes, absolutely.


You get, on the one hand, the historical side which is the more academic side, if you like. And then there's the side that I think most people find absolutely fascinating which is how did your little kiddie learn grammar? What were the stages through which that little kiddy went? And at what point could you say, “my child has learnt the grammar of the English language?” Or the Aboriginal language, or the French language, or whatever language that the kid is happening to learn. And so that is the entertaining side, if you like, the fact that you can easily identify with children's learning of language, as much as understanding the more academic dimension to the subject.


Yes, that is a great insight and a great explanation of exactly that. The thing that's very entertaining for me, as well, are the interludes. Now, every so often you include these interludes which are, some are historical trivia, some are little explanations of certain things about grammar, which are just little snippets. And I found them great little insertions in the book. Did you have a favourite interlude or bit of trivia that people would find interesting or fascinating that you would like to share?


Yes. I love the interludes, absolutely. I think when you're trying to explain a subject that can be somewhat arcane, somewhat abstract, language is a bit like that. Whether it's pronunciation or grammar or semantics or vocabulary, whatever it is. Especially grammar though, it's a very abstract subject in some ways. And so I think people need time to breathe when they're reading a book on grammar, and that's what the interludes do. You've just been hit between the eyes with a big chunk of grammatical explanation, and you think, “Oh, I need a moment to think about that.” And that's the point where you put in a little interlude – I don't do it after every chapter, I do it only after the chapters where I think people need that kind of breathing space. Oh, and I love them all. But the one I love most, I suppose, what is it? Well, people in Australia will have encountered the phenomenon of Mr Gove, who was Minister of Education here a few years ago. One of the senior politicians in the Tory party. And he is on record as saying to his civil servants, when he changed his job and he became Chancellor, “you must never begin a sentence with the word ‘however'. You must not do this. It is absolutely wrong. It is fundamentally bad grammar.” And he issued a directive to all his civil servants saying “never begin a sentence with the word ‘however'.” Now, many listeners here will remember similar things in school. You should never begin a sentence with the word ‘and'. Or you should never begin a sentence with the word ‘but'. Millions of kids have been taught this stupid rule, because it never existed in English.

If you go right back to Anglo-Saxon times you'll find sentences beginning with the word ‘and'. Shakespeare does it all the time. The King James Bible, if you go to Chapter I, Book I of Genesis and you look at the 31 or so verses that there are, 29 of them begin with the word ‘and'. And God did this, and God did that, and God did the other. And ‘however' is another example of this sort of thing.

And what was interesting is to look at the way in which that Mr Gove said, “you really shouldn't begin sentences with the word ‘however'. You should follow various famous authors.” And he then named a number of famous authors and said, “you should write like them.” But of course the first thing I did is I went to those authors and found that they all begin sentences with the word ‘however', including Mr Gove himself, of course, on some other occasions. And so this is the thing about prescriptivism. People make rules which they don't follow themselves. They make artificial rules that are nothing whatever to do with the way the language actually works. And that makes an interesting interlude.


That's a great interlude. Now, I have a question for you which I suspect that you might not like, but I'm going to ask it anyway. Because I suspect people ask you this quite a lot. Do you have a personal grammar pet peeve?


Yes, I love that question. Because the answer is absolutely, unequivocally, no.




Yes. Nor do I have the opposite. Because people also say do you have a favourite grammatical like rather than a dislike. And the answer to that is no. Linguists don't have favourites. Or, at least, this one doesn't. It's a bit like going into a doctor's surgery and saying, “doctor, what is your favourite disease?” And the doctor will look at you and say, “what? That makes no sense!”

And to me as a linguist, questions of like and dislike don't make sense either. I mean, as a human being, of course, I have my likes and dislikes. I like certain authors. I like certain ways of writing. And so on. But you know, they're just, it's like going into a garden and saying, “what's your favourite flower?” And to me they're all wonderful. And maybe on one occasion I might like this one more than that one. It's very much like that with the business of grammar, for me.

I love the way in which grammar is there waiting to be used by individual authors. And if I can put it this way, my favourite thing is when an author does something really daring in the use of grammar, and tries to twist the sentence in a certain way. Robert Graves, the novelist, once said, “the poet should master the rules of English grammar before he attempts to bend and break them.” And it's the bending and breaking of rules that actually is, I suppose, if anything, my favourite thing about grammar.


Now, you've also written some books on pronunciation. And you cover in those books how things have been pronounced in the past, hundreds of years ago. Where do you go for that kind of research, I'm curious to know. Because how do you know how certain words were pronounced in the past? You know, in 1500 or 1200 or whatever? How can you be sure?


Yes, this is the historical side of linguistics. Historical phenology it can be in this particular case. Yes, I suppose you're referring mainly to the work I've been doing in recent years with my son Ben on original pronunciation in relation to Shakespeare mainly.

Well, what you do is you go to that period in the past and you look at the data that's there. So when you go to Shakespeare, for instance, one of the first things you notice, any listener who has ever listened to Shakespeare notices this at some point, that a lot of the rhymes don't work in Shakespeare.

You go to the sonnets, for instance, or A Midsummer Night's Dream, which is a very rhyming play, and you find that an awful lot of the rhymes simply don't work. Shakespeare rhymes a word like ‘love' with a word like ‘prove', for instance. And you say to yourself, what? Shakespeare, do you not know how to rhyme? And you have to say, well, actually what's happened is the pronunciation has changed. And it was luv and pruv. And you say to me, “well, how do you know it was pruv and not the other way around? loove and proove? Well, now you have to go to a second kind of evidence, and that is the evidence of the people who actually wrote about pronunciation in Shakespeare's day. And there were several people who wrote books on pronunciation. And that gives you information, and that shows you, that they will actually say to you at one point “‘prove' has a short vowel just like ‘love' has.” And you think, “oh, thank you very much, that's exactly what I was looking out for.”


So you find the David Crystal of that time?


Ha. Well, effectively, yes. Except an awful lot of the people were not linguists, as such. They were, you know, Ben Jonson the dramatist, for instance, wrote an English Grammar in which he talks about pronunciation. So you look at the rhymes, you look at the puns that don't work in modern English that must have worked 400 years ago. You look at the spelling. Spelling is such an important guide to pronunciation in those days. Today it isn't. You know, English spelling is a pain for an awful lot of people, and it doesn't really reflect pronunciation very well. But 400 years ago it did. And so you look at all those sources, pull them together, and you reconstruct the early pronunciation as best you can. It's never going to be 100% authentic, but it's going to be 90% plausible.


Now, when you're doing that kind of research – and obviously, you did a lot of research for Making Sense as well – do you, tell me about your writing process for this particular book. We'll deal with this particular book. You would have had knowledge that was in your head for many years. But you would have had a whole heap of research. And then you would have had stories that you wanted to include to express certain things. How did you actually approach your writing process? Did you just write in a linear fashion? Did you plan it out with index cards? You know? Can you talk us through that actual process?


Sure. Well, anybody who wants to write on language, the first thing you have to do is collect your stories. Get your anecdotes. You have to be a good listener. You have to be a good watcher-out for things. You always have, in my day, you'd have a little notebook in your pocket. These days you have your iPad or your iPhone or something, whatever it is, and you start making notes on there. But you are listening all the time, you're making notes all the time. Interesting things that are happening.

So when I'm thinking about a book on grammar, I spend a certain amount of time in the very early period – some of the stories, of course, I've got already, from previous encounters with grammar, of course – but you just go around making notes and building up a huge pile of anecdotes of one kind and another. And these are the things that are going to enliven the general account that you're actually going to write.

Now that general account, where does that come from? Where does the original idea for a book on grammar come from? The particular insight that says, I'm going to start it in this particular way? That's exactly the same question as you ask any novelist, any short story writer, any poet. Where does the idea come from? They have no idea at all. They're just sitting there and one day, wow, I know what it is. And inspiration comes. And in this particular case, the inspiration came when I was giving a talk on grammar, as I often do, to a group of teachers. And one teacher actually said at the end of the talk, “well, that was very interesting. You've told us a lot about grammar. But why? Why is grammar there at all?” And it was such a fundamental question, and I thought, do you know, I didn't answer that question in the talk. And then I thought, you know, there's a book waiting to be written there, about the ‘why' of grammar.

And then you start to organise your thoughts. And yes, indeed, I start jotting things down. On screen, these days. In the old days it was on a piece of paper. Do you remember paper, Valerie? And pencils and pens and things like that. So I start to jot things down in that kind of way. And then, because language is so multi-faceted, there are so many aspects, I mean there are 3000 or more points about grammar that you deal with when you're learning a language, learning a language like English, and you think “where am I going to start?” Now, you could start in a hundred different places. And my advice to any writer writing on anything, actually, is don't spend too long wondering about where to start. Just start. Just write something down. It may be rubbish. And at the end of the day you may think, I'm not going to start there at all. But get something down on the page as quickly as possible. And then read it, and re-read it, and read it. Every page of that book that we're talking about today, I have read probably three or four hundred times before I decided on the final version that I want to appear in the book.

And that process of re-reading and re-reading, and then leaving it on side, going away and doing something else, and then coming back hours later, maybe even days later, and reading it again and saying to yourself either, “that's rubbish, I'm not going to use that.” Or, more usually, “hey, that was actually quite good. I actually like that bit.” And that's the exciting point.


Now, there are some, I know there are going to be a bunch of listeners who were part of those two generations who missed out. And by virtue of the fact that they're listening to this podcast, they're interested in writing. But they don't have the confidence with their grammar because they were never taught. What's your advice to people who are listening who want to know, okay, I'm an adult now and I don't have that confidence? Where do I start?


Well, you go and find a user-friendly book on grammar. If you're interested in knowing about grammar. Now, there's a very important distinction here. No listener who is understanding what I'm saying at the moment doesn't know grammar. I mean, they must do. If they're understanding me, they have internalised the grammar of the English language, and we are understanding each other. And any of those listeners who wants to write whatever it is, a novel, or a play or a poem or a textbook or whatever it is, they already know the grammar of the language. It's already there.

The uncertainty comes from wondering whether they're going to upset somebody by using a grammatical construction that might or might not be appropriate. Whether they're going to split an infinitive or something. They've heard of these vague rules, and they know that people get very upset about some of them, and they're scared stiff that they're going to cause an upset by using the language in a way that some people are going to criticise.

And that of course is a long tradition in English. People are very ready to criticise other people's use of language. And so that's where the lack of confidence comes. And so at that point, it is useful to pick up a user-friendly book on grammar which will tell you about those areas of the language which are a bit contentious, and where you have to be a bit careful and decide whether you want to use the language in a certain way or a different way. And there are several excellent books out there. Your own Pam Peters in Australia has edited a fantastic book called the Cambridge Style Guide: The Guide on English Usage. It goes through all these contentious points. If you want something a little bit more systematic about grammar, there's my own little book called Rediscover Grammar. And I chose the title Rediscover simply because everybody knows something about grammar, but they may not know the whole story.

But if you pick up a book like that, what you must never do, never, never, never, is try to read it all in one go. Don't do that. Because that will swamp you. If you're not used to grammar, it will swamp you. Just read a little bit. And then take the examples of the chapter and look in your own usage, the way you write yourself for similar examples, and internalise it. Take time to feel comfortable with that particular chapter.

You know, it takes little children the best part of five or six years before they are competent in all aspects of English grammar. You know, if they start at age one, thereabouts, putting sentences together like, “daddy go” and “want car” and “where biccy”, and all of this, well, it's going to take another five years or so before they start using sentences in the way that you and I are using them. And even longer before they use some of the more sophisticated kinds of sentence constructions. Like, you and I can say, ‘notwithstanding'. Well, no seven-year-old does that. So it's even longer before you master every aspect of the grammar. So it takes a long time for kiddies to learn grammar and they're learning it 24/7. Well, except when they're sleeping, of course.

Now, when you pick up a grammar book, don't fall into the trap of trying to learn it all at once. Spread it out. And this is the same for teachers in schools. Don't try and teach all the grammar at once. Spread it out over several years of the curriculum. And then people will find themselves comfortably encountering this subject.


Well, if there's anyone that can make grammar user-friendly and highly entertaining at the same time, I think it's definitely you, David. So Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar is a hoot. It's fantastic. It is informative, it's educational. And as I mentioned, it's highly entertaining as well. So I encourage any listener who wants to find out a little bit more about grammar, or simply who wants a great read, this is the book to get. So thank you so much for your time today, David, really appreciate it.


It's a real pleasure, Valerie. Thank you so much indeed.

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