The Merits of Formal Education for the Aspiring Writer: Part I

* This post originally appeared on Busybird Publishing’s blog in 2012.

To those who haven’t undertaken them, writing courses can seem strange and alluring. A lot of my friends are curious about them.

            Do they teach anything you can’t find out on your own?

            What sort of assessments do you get?

            How accessible are they for beginners?

            Are your classmates a bunch of insufferable elitists?

Chances are you may’ve asked questions like these. You may have even taken it a step further and looked into some courses near you. Great, if so, I’m here to offer some personal insight.

At the time of writing, I’m four weeks into my second year of study. Prior to enrolling, my writing experience amounted to a couple of sessions with a writers’ group, a year of workshopping on a writing forum, and an obsession with instructional books and articles – the kind that dealt with craft fundamentals.

Some students were more experienced than this, others less so. One important distinction was that before enrolling I’d had little to no face time with other writers. I had a vague idea of what ‘worked’ in a story but, because I’d so seldom found opportunities to share my work, no real way of knowing whether I was on the right track. The thought of reading my work aloud terrified me and I knew next to nothing about how the industry worked.

This, I’m delighted to say, was subject to change. Here are a few things to expect from a writing course.

Being part of a writing community inspires confidence!

Whether you’re a timid earthworm or the Red Lacewing of social butterflies, there’s something gratifying about being in a room full of people who share your passion. Writing is a solitary pursuit and it isn’t easy to find likeminded folk who will care about and understand your process. Writing courses are one of the few places you’re certain to meet other writers.

Having a support network is invaluable. It’s hard to know if your work has merit without outsider opinion (unfortunately, the praise from your little sister just won’t do). It’s also nice to be held accountable – by friends and deadlines – for your work ethic, particularly on those difficult stretches when the words don’t come easily.

Experimenting with sexuality styles.

Life’s too short to be boring, especially when it comes to writing. A lot of new writers get so comfortable with their trademark style or genre that they refuse to give any others a fair go. This is understandable; I mean, there is a certain kind of logic to it, isn’t there? We usually envision ourselves writing in a particular style because that’s the way books today are marketed. If you see yourself as a poet, a conjurer of fantasy, or a non-fiction enthusiast, then chances are this is what you’ll devote yourself to as it’s where you wish to make the most improvement.

However, not many realise that by experimenting with different styles you can actually become a better-rounded writer. The lessons you learn by trying something new will often bleed into your style or genre of choice in ways you mightn’t have expected. That’s not even mentioning how rewarding attempting something out of your comfort zone can be. It can also feel liberating, as the pressure to produce something amazing is lifted. You might even find yourself enjoying it more than you thought you would.

Expect to do a fair amount of experimenting with styles at a writing course. First you’ll study them, then you’ll attempt them yourselves. The key is to embrace this challenge. If you don’t go in with an open mind and a willingness to learn … well, the results will show.

Workshopping (oh, the places you’ll go!).

If lectures are the meat and veg of a writing course, then workshopping is definitely the bread and butter. Expect to do a lot of it, regardless of subject choices. In a workshopping session, class members turn in samples of their own writing for both written and verbal critiques. Don’t worry, it sounds scarier than it actually is.

Over the duration of your studies you’ll build rapport with your teachers and classmates. They’ll come to recognise strengths and weaknesses in your work, things you won’t be able to catch on your own because you’re too close.

Workshopping is invaluable and will become a vital part of your process. While self-editing is of utmost importance, a piece of writing won’t reach its true potential until others have offered their take on it. These people represent a sampling of your intended audience, so it’s important to consider their opinions. Of course, some critiques will be worth more to you than others. The author must use their own discretion when it comes to making changes. But if more than two people have the same issue, then chances are the criticism is valid. In time, you’ll come to view these less as a blow to your ego and more as an opportunity to better your work.

As they say, knowing is half the battle.

Tasty first-hand industry knowledge.

Most writing courses will organise guest speakers from different walks of the industry. Make sure you don’t miss these! They contain highly practical advice that will benefit anyone who wants a future in writing. Not only will you gain a greater understanding of how the industry works (both nationally and internationally), but it can also show you how your own writing goals fit in the scheme of things.

The professionals who spoke to my class were published authors, editors, publishers, journalists, freelancers, literary festival curators, and more. They were all fantastic people with a genuine interest in helping us. They offered knowledge, advice and even a cautionary tale or two. Crucially, these guest speakers didn’t just talk at us; they asked questions and encouraged discussion.

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3 thoughts on “The Merits of Formal Education for the Aspiring Writer: Part I

  1. Pingback: The Merits of Formal Education for the Aspiring Writer: Part II | Art of Almost

  2. I’m going back to school this fall to work on my Masters in Fine Arts for writing fiction. It’s been so long since I’ve been in a workshop and I have to say, I’m really looking forward to experimenting with my style. I think I’ve gotten a bit too comfortable and am looking forward to my classmates and teachers pushing me to experiment. I know it’ll be really helpful to finally get feedback again from new people and not just friends who may or may not be worried about my hurting my feelings. Great post and great advice for writers!

    • That’s awesome. I’m sure you’ll find it a rewarding experience. Good luck! Somehow limitations seem to inspire creativity. I paradoxically feel freer the more I have to adhere to a set of restrictions. I think some of my best ideas developed from prompted exercises, so that’s a perk.

      You should definitely write about your impressions (particularly workshopping). I’d love to find out how it all goes for you 🙂

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