Monday, November 7, 2011

Just Do It...Or Take a Class First?

How many of you writers out there have taken one writing course after another in order to learn how to write (or write better)? Or who went to college for a degree in writing?

I'm curious to know who out there has learned through formal courses and who, like me, is mostly self-taught. I've taken one creative writing college course (which focused primarily on writing poems, thanks to an instructor who had a PhD in poetry and no real love of prose), but everything I've learned has been through trial and error.

I ask because, as a self-taught writer, I see what I think is a strange phenomenon in this industry: writers who compartmentalize.

Now, by that I mean that I am often amazed when I hear of other writers asking for information on one very specific and often narrow category in the writing process. These people gather grundles of information from other writers in order to study this very narrow category before they attempt it on their own.

I know there is nothing wrong with this--it's probably a great way to learn--but I taught myself to write. I didn't use textbooks. I didn't study the writing process.

I just did it.

And then I did it again.

And again.

And again.

And again.

Sometimes I wonder if this more organic way of learning actually puts me at a disadvantage. Because I'll admit that sometimes writers talk and I'm at a loss. I have no idea what they are talking about. They talk about things I've never consciously studied or thought about, but some time during my organic self-teaching I must have picked up and perfected without knowing it. And I only know that because others who have read my writing tell me so. It's like carrying on a conversation with someone with a very thick accent. I should understand them but sometimes I have to ask them to slow down and explain themselves.

But other times I think I might be the lucky one. I do think outside the box, mostly because I never learned what the box was to begin with. I also trust myself more, because this whole writing thing really has been intuitive for me.

So, weigh in, folks. I want to hear your thoughts on this. Do you think your schooling (or lack of it) has helped or hurt your own writing process? And give some examples, please!


  1. A great topic, one I'll be watching. I'm an intuitive, organic writer. And like you I took one formal writing class-which was Poetry as well at the New chool in NYC. I began writing in first or second grade, bringing in my diary to read to the class and wrote my first short story at 11. (A fictionalized account of abuse I received as a child--blown to the outer limits-definitely cathartic) I've written poetry for most of my life and hosted Poetry readings.(I had to knowing I was a descendent of Arthur Henry Hallam--Lover of Tennyson. My recent ms is my longest commitment to paper. I'm presently looking for an agent (upper MG supernatural Mystery) And I've been digging into the second of this series. So. Well, I dunno...guess I'll see where this journey leads me. My life took a series of alternate routes in my education and I've lived life. I've always been told that to write--you must first Live and experience. I made sure of that and so did the Fates. :)

  2. Thanks for commenting, Karen. Interesting that you had basically the same writing experience I did. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one out there making things up as I go along. ;)

    BTW, I did get an agent with my first novel (though we've now parted ways and I'm not ready to look for another just yet), so I know it's possible to still "make it" without any formal training. But it still fascinates me to think about "what if."

    Good luck with your agent search!

  3. I've learned to write both ways. I have a degree in writing and what I've learned maybe helps shortcut some of the process, but my experience writing is where most of the learning has occurred. I'm more of a hands-on learner. There's no substitute for practice. I've taken guitar for years, but not practiced regularly until recently, so I haven't progressed very far, on the other hand, without the lessons, I wouldn't have progressed much either because I would have floundered around trying to figure out how to play. I think the fastest way to learn is doing both, but it's possible to teach yourself. Taking classes and not writing much won't do much good though.

  4. Hmmm...I like your opinion on this, Alice. But mostly I like what you say about how there's no substitute for practice. I need to remind myself that when I find that I'm doing more thinking about writing than actual writing!