This question comes from Aniko Madi, who is embarking on writing a novel of speculative fiction: —
What is the best way to learn how to write? Should I do a course? Do I need to go to university? Is it possible to teach myself?
This is a great question, Aniko, and the short answer is this: The only way to learn how to write is by writing, and whatever facilitates this is the right path for you.
Of course, life is way more complicated than that, so here’s a more comprehensive answer…
Starting Point: It might help to do some kind of life assessment to see what route is likely to suit the way you’re living. When are you able to make time for your writing? How regular and consistent is this time likely to be? Are you someone who is self-motivated, or do you flourish best with a deadline? Do you have friends/relatives who are experienced readers (or even writers themselves) who can read your work and give you feedback?
All these questions are likely to nudge you somewhere along the sliding scale between the thrill of self-discovery at one end, and structured learning with deadlines and qualifications at the other, with a blend of the two in between.
If you find yourself at the self-discovery end:—
- You get to set your own pace and choose your own topics, reading lists, etc. And you can study while drinking a glass of wine, yeay!
- There is something really thrilling about discovering things for yourself. Self-realisation is a powerful force that can be life-affirming, a huge confidence boost, and encourage you to take yourself seriously as a writer (a crucial element in every writer’s journey).
- You might feel like you’re scrabbling around in the dark not knowing what you’re doing or what direction you want to go in. This is an uncomfortable feeling, but much of writing is actually like this — we don’t know what the story is, how to get there, etc — the thrill is in the journey itself. So… this is good training for a writer, and therefore also an advantage.
- It’s possible it will take you longer to hone craft and technique unless you’re particularly good at analysing the stories you love (or hate, there’s a lot to be learned there too), and therefore good at stepping back and analysing your own writing. This is a skill that takes a while to develop, so learning some study skills can also be helpful.
And at the formal writing course end:
- You’ll be given structure to your study, with set texts, deadlines and writing assignments. You’ll have clear goals, and you’ll know how you’re getting there.
- Telling people you’re doing a writing course can be much easier than saying I am a writer (you have plenty of time to build up to that surprisingly daunting statement), which all lead to you taking yourself seriously as a writer.
- There are many courses that provide the learning materials but you get to set your own pace, which can be helpful if you have an inconsistent schedule.
- There are also courses that facilitate students getting in touch with each other, so you can develop a network of writers that you trust, giving feedback on each other’s work.
- There is a cost involved, and sometimes you’ll be studying a subject or reading texts that don’t light your fire.
- Technique, genre tropes and text analysis can all be taught on structured courses. But there are many essential elements in becoming a writer that (arguably) can’t be taught. These include intuitive instinct, originality of thought and expression, grit and dedication, etc. Be realistic in what a course can provide for you, and be prepared to explore the rest for yourself.
A quick note on university level study, including undergraduate level and MA:
- These have all the advantages/disadvantages listed above, but with some additions. The main disadvantage is the cost, they are pretty expensive and may even leave you in debt.
- But the main advantage is you’ll find yourself in a community of like-minded creative people, with writing friendships and support that can last the rest of your life.
- Important note on doing an MA: You do not need an undergraduate degree to do an MA. You are judged on the quality of your writing and your dedication to the craft. I did my MA (at Bath Spa University) when I was 37 years old, and I left school when I was 16, so I had no other qualifications except O-Levels.
So, as you can see there is no right or wrong answer to this, and the different routes to writers learning their craft are as varied as the stories and poems they write. If you feel you’d like more guidance in your development, I would recommend trying a short course to see how it feels, and then commit to something longer if it works for you.
I also offer one-hour telephone consultations that provide guidance appropriate to your needs, as well as guidance on specific writing projects. Get in touch by email if you’re interested in booking a slot: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you decide to go the self-taught route, read as much as possible, and read like a writer, noticing how the writer is achieving success in the various elements of story. Read How-to-write books too, and find yourself an alpha reader, someone you trust to give you honest and constructive feedback.
Whichever route you choose (or whichever blend), carve out time to write. And write. And then write some more.
That is how you know you are a writer, and you can legitimately tell people you are a writer.
Below are a few organisations that offer courses that have a good reputation, so have a browse to see if there’s anything of interest. (Note: I have no affiliation with these organisations except for the Open University, who I currently work for as a Creative Writing Tutor):—
National Centre for Writing (they have a small selection of short courses you can do for free)
Arvon Foundation (also offer writing retreats)
And a few How-to-write books that have helped me along the way:
Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury
The Creative Writing Coursebook, Ed. Julia Bell & Paul Magrs
Creative Writing: A Workbook with Readings, Ed. Linda Anderson
I hope that helps answer your question, Aniko, and good luck with the novel, an exciting new adventure!
If you have any writing questions or problems that you’d like me to discuss on this blog, email me at email@example.com