Which courses should I take to become a writer?

4063109507_ab9b84c033_zI’ve had this question from Ellie Jackson, who blogs at aquamarinedreams.wordpress.com

I have just graduated from high school and dearly wish to become a writer/author. I am asking different authors what their recommended education would be – pursue a degree, take courses, or read books and blogs and get as much experience possible?

You want more than just to use writing in your job, right? You want to write books that will be your signature in the world.

A degree?

I’m guessing that careers advisers would pick the obvious – take a qualification in English, perhaps literature. That’s the way I was advised, but studying English didn’t help me write. It was the subject I was good at and a way of keeping me parked in education while I figured out a profession to aim for. (I went into publishing.) Casting around my real-life friends who’ve ended up as published writers, they have degrees in archaeology, history, theology, PPE. Husband Dave has a degree in physics. Some of my writer friends don’t even have degrees.

Writing courses

None of my writer cronies have a formal education in writing. They – we – wrote as a natural pastime and this became such a habit that we always had a book in the works. We read craft books when we found them, but mostly went with our instincts and learned by reading with awareness. Then we gathered our courage, queried an agent or an editor and had a period of rude awakening when we discovered our blind spots (and also strengths).

Not everyone gets that kind of feedback or opportunity, of course, especially as publishing deals are now more scarce than ever. But we now have far more ways to find mentors – hiring an editor, joining online or real-life writer groups. I had my baptism of fire in an evening class at Morley College in London, where we read excerpts of WIPs and discussed them critically, guided by an agent. All genres, all types of writer. Eyes were widely opened.

Good as that was, I’ve done miles more learning since. Each novel gives me new craft challenges, and Ever Rest is no exception. To be a writer you have to relish that work as much as the days when the muse is obliging. It also means you don’t have to get all your learning in one hit.

Last word on courses

Creative writing qualifications might prime you with the basics, but I don’t think they’ll equip you any better than learning by practice, training your sensitivity, reading observantly and experimenting on your own soul. Creative writing degrees probably exist because there’s a demand for them, not because they’re necessary.

What’s my evidence for this? In more than 20 years as an editor, I have not noticed that clients with MFAs or creative writing qualifications are any more adept than those without.

Again – which course?

Here’s what I’d do. Get a fallback skill you can ultimately use for freelance work. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to make a living just by writing, so train in a skill that will pay the bills and scale up or down as needed. Even if you aim to write a high-selling, lucrative genre such as romance, you still need to earn while you build a reputation, a network and a body of work.

It’s more likely, though, that you won’t give up the day job. Sorry. Many acclaimed writers I know are also immigration officials, teachers, night watchmen (good for story material), doctors, lawyers, PR consultants, tailors, journalists, farmers, electricians. I don’t subsist solely on writing. I freelance as a fiction editor and also as a magazine editor. And occasionally a film and TV extra.

whatremains44This doesn’t demote your writing to ‘just a hobby’. If you are arranging your life around your writing, it is not a hobby.

Should you try to work in book publishing?

Here’s an upside – you meet useful people and learn handy skills (for me it was how to make books – dead useful with the invention of CreateSpace).

Here’s a downside – little reading time of your own. You must read to develop your art. Although you learn a lot from rough or unsuitable manuscripts, or the latest upcoming bestsellers, you need to read for your own education and for your current WIP. See my previous remark about prioritising.

Experience

We’ve talked about ‘experience in writing’ – but experience in another sense counts too. The best education for writing isn’t craft books or courses. It’s life. If we only mix with writers, that’s all we know – like those authors whose main characters are always authors, or pop stars who only write songs about the agony of fame. That’s a rarefied life that doesn’t resonate well with the people who might be your readers. This fantastic post by Randy Susan Meyers at Beyond The Margins talks about the things she learned from frustrating jobs where people treat you impolitely, reveal their true natures or regard you as invisible. We write more truthful, relatable, enduring books when we get out.

Becoming a writer isn’t necessarily about getting qualifications. The learning process is too long for that. You can’t bank on making a living through it – although you might, the business is too precarious and fickle for such guarantees. So what is your best plan for success? To build a life that enables and enriches your writing. Good luck. And let me know what the other authors say.

Thanks for the writer pic Alan Weir

What would you say to Ellie? Share in the comments (especially if you’re a careers adviser)!

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  1. #1 by authorleannedyck on June 29, 2014 - 7:51 pm

    Very helpful advice, Roz. Becoming a writer is a life long journey.

  2. #3 by Nancy Denofio on June 29, 2014 - 8:37 pm

    Roz, excellent advise, bravo! Everything within these pages I would say. follow. If you are a writer there is something inside telling you long before you know it. In my case I researched things before I entered school, perhaps they called it being nosey or curious but every single thing remained as vivid as a photo and it told a story. Stories were everywhere; on playgrounds, at school dances, telephone conversations, walking downtown, my first job, and the list still grows. I have many trees covered with unpicked fruit and each piece of fruit is another story waiting to be told. I believe writing must come from the heart and soul first but it finally bursts open like cut fruit and it is shared in the direction life brings you. For me the art of storytelling took me down many paths; professional dance teacher, professional voice coach, part-time teacher, journalist, artist (oils), public speaking, ghostwriting, bank manager, (wow – and I even enjoyed it!) and several other titles which were surprising but were steps in life but they all began because I loved words. So go where your heart brings you but never stop at the first thought – there is far too much to see in this lifetime! Sincerely, Nancy (Duci) Denofio (Thank you for sharing Roz – your work is top of the shelf – at all times.) (note – just getting back to my blog – should be up and running this week)

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 30, 2014 - 7:41 am

      Hi Nancy! How nice to see you – you’re one of the earliest figures in my blogging history. I knew you’d had an interesting resume but I wasn’t aware of every life path that was on it. Great to see you circulating again.

  3. #5 by karenrsanderson on June 29, 2014 - 9:01 pm

    It is a long journey. I took a few awesome online courses through UCLA and learned a lot with those. I have also read a lot of blogs and books about writing. I also read grammar and punctuation manuals. And then I write…write…write. A critique group would be good advice too, if your teenager friend can find one or start one, perhaps with other like-minded high school pals.

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 30, 2014 - 7:44 am

      Great idea about starting the writers’ group, Karen. I’m imagining the meetings already….

  4. #7 by Electric Bubbles on June 29, 2014 - 10:48 pm

    Thank you so much, Roz! I’ll be keeping this in file for later reference.
    You’re right, I want to write books, mainly fiction.
    I know what you mean, that writing full-time is rare. (Yes, several others have told me so.) I do plan to hold a job while writing, but I want to make writing my priority, and hopefully make money from it. I’ve been encouraged so far to schedule time for writing each day and treat it like a job. I still haven’t decided whether to take writing courses or not, but I feel like I shouldn’t wait to start writing. I’m starting now.
    Thank you again for your time and advice. I can’t thank you enough!

    ~Ellie

  5. #9 by acflory on June 30, 2014 - 12:48 am

    Well said, Roz. Writers do need to know their craft, but even the best craftsman[woman] in the world needs material to work with, and the only way to get that material is to live it.

  6. #11 by Amanda J Spedding on June 30, 2014 - 8:21 am

    You make some great points, Roz. Like you said, writing courses can help with the basics, but storytelling is an art, and something (I believe) can only be achieved with practice (and a lot of reading). Join crit groups and writing groups (that aren’t just a love-in of each others’ writing), and watch the difference that makes to your storytelling. Cheers!

    • #12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 30, 2014 - 8:26 am

      Thanks, Amanda! You make an important point about critique groups. They need to be genuinely constructive. Also, they need to be moderated and guided with wisdom or they can turn destructive, or funnel a writer into a style that isn’t appropriate for them, or all sorts of other horrors. I was lucky that my workshop was moderated by an agent of such experience that he could handle a vast variety of styles and it helped us all.

      • #13 by Amanda J Spedding on June 30, 2014 - 10:30 am

        It comes to shopping around for the right group. I was lucky to find an amazing crit group with the Australian Horror Writers Association. While it was moderated, it really didn’t need to be as the respect for each other (as both writers and individuals) was there. But, pardon the pun, I have heard horror stories.

  7. #14 by Princess of Dragons on June 30, 2014 - 1:29 pm

    Thanks for the advice. It’s making me feel more secure about the fact that I do not have the money to do any classes or courses, so what I’m doing is reading a lot of books, blogs (like this one) and just writing writing writing.🙂

    • #15 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 30, 2014 - 7:29 pm

      Glad to have helped. I was talking to a fellow writer the other day and we were agreeing that we’re very lucky writing is such a cheap thing to learn. Time, practice and reading is all you need!

  8. #16 by Hugh on June 30, 2014 - 2:36 pm

    In the Sixties when Penguin Books were – as far as I was concerned – at the peak of their success, the back covers of British authors’ Penguins tended to have their potted biogs on them, and those biogs always – to me – seemed to include unlikely but interesting jobs, preferably low-paid, manual and short-term. The unspoken implication seemed to be that if you hadn’t worked on the roads or as a gardener or been a truck-driver, you couldn’t write. Whereas in reality, one of the best routes into authorship has always appeared to me to be journalism, which if nothing else at least teaches you to meet deadlines and also to keep writing, even when your muse is at the beach.
    Hugh (former journalist AND truck-driver)

    • #17 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 30, 2014 - 2:54 pm

      Hi Hugh! Good point about journalism. Journalists are completely unfazed by the blank page. However, they often have to realign their writing instincts so that they can allow a story to unfold, make up dialogue, report that dialogue without imposing a theory on it first.
      Your point about the variety of jobs made me laugh. In the biogs I read, all the writers seemed to have done a stint as a hospital porter. I have an artist friend who was a hospital porter for a while. As I have never been a hospital porter, I made sure he told me all about it.

  9. #18 by David J Delaney on July 1, 2014 - 5:31 pm

    I gave up wanting to complete a formal course in writing after I looked into them a little more. I feel if you have the drive then you can run down the track of write a lot and reading a lot. Great advice, thanks.

  10. #20 by Beks on July 1, 2014 - 9:56 pm

    I wish someone would’ve told me this in high school. I don’t like that I need a day job, but I’ll gladly do it to keep a roof over my head. One thing I wish I’d learned in college (I have a creative writing BFA) was the business of writing. No one told me how to get my work published, how to present your work to publishers, editors, or literary agents. Everything I’ve discovered about publishing, I’ve discovered for myself. It’s been a long, frustrating journey, but I’ve also discovered a lot about myself, so I suppose it’s not the worst thing. But I do wish the teachers and students hadn’t balked at me when I asked about when we learn the business of writing.

    • #21 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 2, 2014 - 2:15 pm

      Hi Martin – thanks for commenting! It’s very interesting to hear your perspective, having taken a BFA. I’ve heard several times that many so-called vocational courses leave out the essentials of how to pursue the subject as a profession – a glaring error when you think why people take these courses at all.

  11. #22 by Jonathan Moore on July 2, 2014 - 5:58 am

    Hi Roz. I went to Sheffield Hallam to do English, specifically because they had creative writing as part of the degree course. Hallam’s writing MA has a good reputation but I didn’t get that far. What I would say is that everything useful I have learned and continue to learn about how to write I have learned since finishing Uni. Plotting, suspense, hooks, pace, active versus passive characters, structure, all of these things were markedly missing from the course I took. The best learning came from a few choice books (yours and Sandra Scofield’s being the best I’ve found). The best advice I’ve heard is to write everyday. I don’t always stick to it, but I believe that you can’t learn to be a good writer, you just have to practice… practise.

    • #23 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 2, 2014 - 2:17 pm

      Hi Jon – I didn’t know you’d dabbled in formal creative writing courses. And I’m intensely flattered that my little book gets your vote.🙂

  12. #24 by Cindy Hollenbeck on July 3, 2014 - 3:55 pm

    Hi, Roz. I attended Lewis-Clark State College, specifically for a creative writing degree. It was a rigorous program, more graduate level than undergraduate. Some of the courses included Shakespeare, Survey of British Literature I and II, American Literature, Memoir Writing, Poetic Form, Intro to Poetry, Development of the Novel, Fiction Writing, Editing and Publishing, Modernism, and more. I was able to serve as an editor on their journal, Talking River Review. The degree was very hands on. In short, we read so many stories that we learned what a good story was and how to write one. In our writing workshop classes, we had to send work out to journals. I feel very fortunate to have had that experience. I hope this helps answer the question.

    • #25 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 4, 2014 - 8:23 am

      Hi Cindy! Now that indeed sounds like a good workout for the writing faculties. How long ago was it, and how have you continued your education? Thanks for hopping over from Twitter and it’s nice to meet you at greater length. I’m checking out your blog.

  13. #26 by The Deep Fried Panda on July 5, 2014 - 10:08 am

    A quote, which I will paraphrase, rhymes perfectly with your article: “The few dollars you get in library fines will make you a better write than the thousands you put in your university degree.”

  14. #28 by Cindy Hollenbeck on July 6, 2014 - 2:03 am

    Hi, Roz. I graduated from Lewis-Clark State College in 1999 and went right on to pursue an MA in English at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. What was great there was a Writers in the Community program where I ran a poetry workshop at a domestic abuse shelter. Their testing program was rigorous as well, a six-hour written exam and thesis. Finally, I sought one more degree, an MFA in Creative Writing at University of Idaho. I completed my studies in 2004. Now, to keep myself educated, I read poetry from new journals and find memoirs, new and classic: Autobiography of a Face, This Boy’s LIfe, Hungry for the World, The Liar’s Club, The Glass Castle, are some of my favorites. I think up and coming writers need to read, read, read. We need to know what’s out there. And I am an avid subscriber to Poets and Writers, and blogs about writing.

  15. #29 by Cindy Hollenbeck on July 6, 2014 - 4:46 pm

    Deep Fried Panda, it’s important not to read or write in isolation. Watch Good Will Hunting. I think that proves it. I come from a blue collar family. I joined the navy in order to pay for my bachelor’s. I worked as a TA to pay for my master’s degree. And I wanted to teach. You can’t teach without the degree. Please don’t disparage people who get degrees. If others don’t want degrees, they can certainly make that choice.

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