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

* Continued from Part I. This post originally appeared on Busybird Publishing’s blog in 2012.

Networking 101. Beginner’s class: ‘Hi, it’s nice to meet you!’

It has never been easier to network with other writers. Presentations from the aforementioned guest speakers are a great opportunity to network. My advice, should you find yourself listening to an industry professional, is to be engaged and make an impression.

Once you’ve physically met a speaker you can follow them online (most professionals have an online presence). Take an interest in their projects and do your best to make it to launches and events. Professional writers are human, too, and they’ll appreciate you making an effort.

(Who knows? They could even repay the favour when the time comes for you to promote your own work.)

This stepping stone is veering from the topic at hand; in the early stages it’s perhaps more important to build relationships with your classmates than it is to worry about industry connections. I merely wished to note that writing courses can open a lot of doors for you, professionally.

However … enrolling will not grant you super-human writing powers!

There’s a common misconception going around that the sheer act of enrolling in a writing course will instantly unlock all the untapped potential within. Well, far be it from me to burst this bubble, but writing just isn’t an exact science. There is no formula, no hidden recipe for greatness. Greatness comes (I hear) from years of dedication. If you’re just starting out – hell, even if you’re at an intermediate or advanced level – a year or two at a writing course will not make you the perfect writer. It can accelerate the process, sure, but again that depends on how much individuals are willing to apply themselves.

Some of my fellow students enrolled expecting the course to verify what they already knew: that they were brilliant and completely beyond the lessons on offer. (As an aside, isn’t it funny that people with these sorts of attitudes almost never have the application to back them up?) The truth is writers never stop learning. There are always new approaches to try, new techniques to discover and boundaries to push. How many can say that about their more traditional careers?

For these students it was their attitudes that prevented them from improving. Some might not have believed they were God’s gift to writing, but they were lazy, or disinterested in what the teachers had to say.

I’m mentioning all this because a lot of students get frustrated with their lack of immediate progress. Many feel disillusioned and drop out, which is a shame. Statistics like these could be avoided if someone would have just levelled with them earlier and said, ‘Hey, if your patience can’t match your ambition then this mightn’t be the right path for you.’

Know your limitations (when studying, bench pressing or eating Christmas dinner).

There will be times when studying feels like a bit of a grind, when you’ll feel overwhelmed or inundated with assessments. The best way to prepare for this is to know your own limitations. Don’t attempt full-time study if you know you won’t be able to prioritise it. Consider enrolling part-time or taking a short course if you feel it’d be more your speed.

Mayfair or Old Kent Road? Where will your qualification lead you?

A qualification in creative writing isn’t quite the same as a qualification in business or hospitality. Chances are it probably won’t land you some fantastical day job. There are exceptions, of course, but generally speaking writing’s a tough gig. It’s important to be somewhat realistic about what you want and where you expect to go with it. It helps if you’re in it for the right reasons. I came to regard my studies as a form of personal development and not something that had a tangible desk job waiting for me at the end of it.

There will be opportunities for further study, often in an area that’s more specialised (i.e. publishing or journalism). If you want to know where a course can lead you, check out student testimonials on the relevant institute websites (but be warned that they can be hyperbolic and tend to show only half the real picture).

Accessibility, Opportunities, and Everything In-Between.

To finish up, I wanted to bring back the point I raised earlier about writing communities. There are a few other ways in which they can benefit you. I’ve found being around other writers a great way to keep abreast of writing competitions and opportunities. You can also turn each other onto some great new reads (let’s face it: it can be tough to find trustworthy opinions). And let’s not forget how inspiring it can be to take part in a class discussion. Involving yourself in a heated exchange of ideas is a great way to stimulate your mind.

One could argue that all of the above could just as easily be found in a community writers’ group, and I suppose that would be true. However, in my experience, writing courses offer a more level playing field, one far more conducive to learning. Established writers’ groups can be cliquey and advanced. Some mightn’t have the patience for new members who are just starting out. At least in a writing course you know – regardless of individual skill level – that you’re all in the same boat. Writing courses are more welcoming because they are, by their very nature, designed to educate.

Besides, are you really going to learn anything at a writers’ group if the other members intimidate the hell out of you?

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4 thoughts on “The Merits of Formal Education for the Aspiring Writer: Part II

  1. Hmmm, this is something I’ve been contemplating. But it always comes down to ‘well I’m not really gunning for a writing job so why bother?’, but as a form of personal development it does open up some new schools of thought. I also think the decision to go online or in-person is huge when considering a school. The creative writing program I want to take at UBC (uni of British Columbia) offers both, but I dunno if I should just take the plunge and move there or do the distance thing. Surely it’ll be a very different experience on the web than in-class. Decisions decisions.

    So what’s next for you after graduation, Tom?

    • I think it depends on what sort of person you are. If you’re self-motivated and lead a flexible lifestyle, online study is great. (Of course, I’m only speculating; I’ve never actually completed any online study.)

      However, as I mentioned in the post, I think there’s a whole other dimension to writing classes that really requires a classroom environment. The sense of community was everything to me, though you may be different.

      As for me, I still have another year to go! I’m hoping to secure another internship over the Christmas break – preferably with an independent publisher. Following all that, the plan is to work as an editor for a commercial publisher. It’s a bit of a who-you-know industry, so we’ll see! Editing’s what I really want to do.

      What are you hoping to get out of a writing course?

      • Yeah, its tough to say. I’ve taken online courses before, but that’s because my profs weren’t as engaging with those subjects in class. So the quick structure of online course work was more efficient. Meanwhile the classes I took in-class were great, but the social aspect didn’t amount to much post-grad. But I guess the writing industry works differently.

        Editing is a great choice! We definitely need more folks with a good handle on writing and grammar. Its something I’ve seen kinda taken for granted in recent years. Which is weird since mechanics pretty much make or break a good book.

      • As for what I wish to get out of it, I suppose just having that professional ethic/confidence would be a good start. I would like a classes that teaches me the up-to-date publishing and screenwriting, industry practices.

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