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Words for Writers: Should I Take A Class?

Last night was quite gratified to be included in the Brockton Writers Series reading at Full of Beans.  There were four authors as we all read for about ten minutes (I read from my new anthology HERO Is a Four Letter Word. Natch)After the reading, there was an open Q&A, and some private discussion, and something that came up more than once is if I, as a published author, thought that taking a writing course was a good idea.

Whoa nelly.

How’s that for a can of worms? The thing is, there’s no wrong or right way to answer this question. I, personally, don’t know the asker’s skill level, nor read their work, nor do I know what they’ve already taken or not.

There’s simply no blanket answer for a question like “Should I Take A Writing Course?”

Well, did I take a writing course? I did take some. I took a short story writing, and a playwriting course while in school. My undergrad major was Dramatic Literature, so there was a lot of script writing and analyzing in those classes. I also did a self-directed screenwriting course, and had a TA oversee the creation of a play from concept to public workshop reading to performance.

On top of all that, I was writing scads of fanfic, and engaging in the community there to learn more about storytelling, editing, beta reading, and characterization. I also worked with a writer’s group when I lived in Japan, and I try to be engaged with NaNoWriMo when I can.

So what are some Pros of taking writing courses?

·         Skills and Drills: Each week your teacher/seminar leader/ will probably ask you to read and write something. Just like drilling and learning new skills in a sport, doing so in writing will teach you how you prefer to engage in the physical and creative act of writing. You will learn what kind of spaces you prefer to write in, what kind of time frame you need to carve out, how quickly you can produce something if you hate the story and if you love it, how you need to approach edits for yourself, and of course, you’ll be practicing your punctuation and grammar skills with each piece.

·         Practice: They say that you have to write 10 000 crappy words before you can write any good ones. It may not be an exact science, but I firmly believe that the more you produce, the more you understand how you, personally, prefer to tell stories, and that makes each subsequent work easier to create, to bring into reality.

·         Networking: Creative Lit teachers are usually agents, writers, or publishers. It can’t hurt to know them, learn about their worlds, and get their advice or mentorship. And your classmates might one day be the very people who help guide your career.

·         Learn from others: Every person reads stories and tells stories differently. It’s amazing what you can find in a tale, or produce in your own when you really engage with people of differing genders, sexualities, cultures, ethnicities, nationalities, languages, and hobbies than you. And if they recommend a book or author, it could possibly lead you down the trail to a wonderful world of books you might have otherwise ignored or never even known about.

·         Learn new skills: In working with your classmates, you might learn something you never knew before: a different storytelling technique, a structural idea, a different way to build characters or plot. And of course, if it’s a course for beginners, you ought to also be learning the foundations of punctuation, grammar, and manuscript formatting.

·         Produce some back catalogue: Maybe none of the work you create while in class will ever be published, but you’ll probably have a stack of writing that you can submit to agents, publishers, anthologies, or collections, if it’s quite polished and ready.

·         Gain confidence: There is honestly nothing more thrilling than  a classmate’s response to your writing. A great note, a scrawled smiley face or a checkmark, a gasp, a small sob, a shout or a yelp, a “No, you can’t end there! Then what?!” These are all gold, and they’ll help you feel confident about yourself and your work.

·         Learn about grants, contests, groups: Or maybe form your own writing group out of your peers.

·         Can workshop submission packages: You can learn to write and hone a query letter, log lines, synopsizes, and pitches.

·         Honesty: Hey, this is a group of strangers. If your work is crap, they’ll tell you so. Hopefully in an encouraging, constructive way, but they’ll still say so. You’ll get a lot of practice with editing, taking constructive criticism, parsing a note to see what the real problem is, working with restructuring and overhauls, and maybe even dealing with haters and trolls.

Of course, there are also cons to taking writing courses:

·         General skill level of those around you may be lower than yours: You may be above the basics, or you may find their storytelling ability less advanced.

·         Can’t tell straight off if your prof will be a good teacher. Not all professors have taken teacher’s school, or are natural pedagogues. It can sometimes be infuriating if they’re a crappy teacher, or just a self-important windbag. Worse, it’s a waste of your time and money.

·         Might kill your passion for writing: Either by boring exercises, mean teachers and classmates, or just oversaturation and too much focus on the writing.

·         Storytelling is not entirely a skill that can be taught. It’s something that you have to find within yourself and hone, and develop. You can’t just go into a class and expect to come out a master storyteller in six months. It’s something that never stops evolving, a skill you never stop honing and exploring and learning. (I’ve been writing for 20 years and I don’t think I’m a master storyteller yet. I don’t think anyone thinks they are).

·         Imagination is not entirely a skill that can be taught. You need to learn how to play, to twist, to envision and debate with yourself.

So, in the end, I think taking some courses can be great to help you get a good foundation and a set of tools to teach you how to be a good, solid, technically proficient writer. But I don’t think any piece of paper or GPA will be able to teach you how to be a good storyteller.  That is something that only practice and sharing your stories with others (both to critique and to praise) will teach you.

Do I think that you should do an entire degree in creative writing? Well… no.

I’m sure I’ll be lynched for this, but I’m not certain what merit there is in doing just creative writing for four years. You need to learn other things, experience and live other things. Writers are not just writers. Writers are biologists, like Julie Czerneda, and scientists like Erin Bow. They are mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts, engineers and painters, playwrights and actors, dancers and secretaries, personal assistants and fast food cashiers, janitors and archeologists, activists and bakers.

But maybe that’s just my fear talking. I feared taking a full degree in creative writing because I feared coming out the other side hating it. I feared it would stop being fun and start becoming a chore, like all my other homework. I’ve known plenty of phenominal artists who chose not to get MFAs for the very same reason. But then there are also lots of phenominal artists and writers who did do a full degree, came out loving it and producing amazing work so…

Really, it’s your choice. You know your own opinions and habits better than I do.

So, here’s some actual advice about Writing Courses:

I think they are important. I think they need to be taught and they need to be taken to ensure that you, as a writer, as fully educated in the technical, professional, and skills-oriented foundation of being a storyteller that you can be.

I think the best way to do it is to take courses in the sorts of writing you don’t do normally. Take a class on play or screenwriting if you’re a novelist. Take a class in novels if you normally write poetry or shorts. Take a class in poetry or comics if you write for the screen. The cross pollination of your skill set will teach you many and various ways to tell stories, and perhaps help strengthen your primary story telling set.

Part of the reason The Hunger Games is such a well-received series is the pacing. You start reading the books and you just. Can’t. Stop. Suzanne Collins was a screenwriter as well as a novelist, so you can bet she knew bunches about the three act structure, dialogue, action and narrative pacing, setting up scenes, and things like Chekhov’s Gun. These are all skills that you drill and hone in a screenwriting class. And they are skills that are transferable to novels, poems, short stories, and plays. And fanfiction.

And if you can’t afford a writing course, there are many many books and online tutorials, writing groups (in person or online), communities like NaNoWriMo and AO3, and other resources that are available to you where you can get the same experience and education as you would in your writing course.

I hope this has been helpful!

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For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

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