Once you have a grasp of grammar basics, how sentences are put together, arguably all you need to do to become a writer is 1) read a lot, and 2) write a lot. You don’t need a college degree or an MFA, you don’t need to take writing classes or go to workshops. You can learn writing simply by doing it. Traditional wisdom holds that you will have to write about a million words of crap before you’ll get anything publishable, or write for X number of years, but all that boils down to is if you do it enough, you’ll get good enough to publish.
This is sidestepping the old debate of whether writing can be taught at all, or if talent is a necessary prerequisite. And unfortunately, even though your work is publishable, that doesn’t mean it will be published. Moving on…
Back when I decided to work at becoming a professional writer, I started by reading short story magazines such as Asimov’s, The Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy, Black Static (then called The Third Alternative), and so on. I also read books about writing: Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction, Stephen King’s On Writing, even Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. I read articles and blogs online, but sadly there was no PubCrawl then. I listened to Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing podcast–probably the first podcast I’d ever heard. I wrote and wrote and wrote, revised revised revised, and I submitted my stories to magazines and collected a steady flow of rejections.
After five years of writing but not publishing, not even receiving a “good” rejection with the briefest amount of personal feedback, I almost gave up. The drawback of being a self-taught writer is that you can only bring yourself so far. You maybe know there’s something wrong with your story, but you don’t know how to fix it. At the time, I had joined a couple of writing groups, but few of my fellow writers had the same drive I did to make it more than a hobby, and while everyone’s feedback was useful, we were all on about the same level; again, we could point out problems in each other’s work, but we didn’t know how to fix it. I had plateaued, and I didn’t know if I would ever get any better.
Just about 11 years ago this week, I was fortunate enough to attend the Clarion West Writers Workshop. Many fine writers have emerged from the Clarion workshops and gone on to publish stories and books and win awards, but many others disappear and seemingly never write again. Your mileage varies. The workshop for me was transformative. Some say you cram six years of learning into six weeks, and that was my experience. I immediately “leveled up” as a writer and began selling work within weeks of returning home, more committed to my writing career than ever. If I hadn’t gone to Clarion West, I think I would have given up before I found a way to improve.
So do you need a Clarion workshop after all? Probably not. I think it can help, and some writing classes can help, and reading books and blogs about writing can all help. Having the right critique group or beta readers/critique partners can help a lot.
The fact is, most people can’t afford to take classes or six weeks off from work and life to devote to becoming a better writer, and even if they can, they may not yet be good enough to be accepted into those workshops. So you’re on your own again, only these days, there are ever more resources available out there. You can find critique groups and workshops online, and blogs with professional writers like PubCrawl. (Do yourself a favor and check out Chuck Wendig’s writing posts on his blog and pick up his writing books.) You can get feedback from editors and agents, and listen to podcasts like Writing Excuses. You can hire editors to critique your work for you. And you can even take some writing classes virtually–for free.
Excellent writer Brandon Sanderson has just launched his 2016 Lecture series, taught at BYU. This is a practical, master class about how to write from someone who is doing it professionally, and quite successfully. I highly recommend checking it out, or catching up on his previous lectures from 2013.
So aside from PubCrawl, what has been the most helpful resource in teaching you how to write or improving your writing skills?