Learning to Write

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?


5 Responses to Learning to Write

  1. Peter Taylor Jun 29 2016 at 5:49 am #

    Back in 1999 I did a 12 unit correspondence course with feedback on homework for a Diploma of Professional Children’s Writing (Australian College of Journalism), and then paid for a three month mentorship with a respected author and teacher for feedback and advice whenever it was requested. I found these highly valuable, but it took some years of extra time ‘doing my apprenticeship by writing, reading and learning from published writers’ before being traditionally published. I’ve now had five non-fiction works published for children and adults and also a children’s picture book.

    Most recently I have changed genres and paid for several stories to be appraised by editors of major publishing houses, complete with a 20 minute face to face discussion of the work. At Conferences organised by SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, these may only cost about $60US. One story submitted this way was subsequently published (the picture book). But I have always benefited greatly by directly discovering how the editors think, and their insights and suggestions to cut, change the focus, remove a character, add description, rearrange, and more. I’m still learning.

    The other benefit of meeting and chatting with editors in this way is that, hopefully, I’ve become recognised as someone who is prepared to listen and consider suggestions, who will not be belligerent, who will most likely make requested changes on time and be easy to work with. Could it be that if I do manage to send a story that fits their list at some time, I may have an honest advantage over someone who is totally unknown who has also sent a promising work, but there’s only space for one? Editors (and agents) can be met at book launches and other events as well, without payment, and I’m sure networking can help, but the writing and story still have to have the required degree of merit, a wide potential readership and not compete with another book recently accepted with a similar theme. If a publishing house has just accepted a pirate story, the chances of them wanting your pirate story are close to zero, no matter how famous you are or how perfectly you have written.

  2. Russ Jun 29 2016 at 10:44 am #

    I think one of the best places I’ve learned and grew in my writing is a writing community. For me, it was Christian Writers (https://christianwriters.com/). I believe that a solid group of writers who are willing to pour into each other is the greatest source of help a writer can find.

  3. NRuhwald Jun 29 2016 at 12:27 pm #

    For me its been getting brutally honest feedback from others. Some of whom who have much more experience than me. I also was fortunate enough to find an engaged online community.

  4. allreb Jul 6 2016 at 10:19 am #

    A few years ago I took what I thought was a pretty decent manuscript to the Big Sur Writing Workshop – it’s a very intensive, one-weekend writing bootcamp for kidlit or all sorts. Over the course of the weekend I ended up pinpointing some major structural issues in my manuscript and entirely rewriting the opening chapter.

    In the long run I used that opening chapter as the basis for entirely rewriting the whole manuscript. The rewritten version a) got me an agent, and b) eventually sold (:D). The workshop was EXTREMELY helpful – plus it’s only a weekend, which I think makes it a bit more doable time-wise.

  5. Kristina Kelly Jul 10 2016 at 9:42 am #

    I did many of what you listed: read a lot, write a lot, Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction, Stephen King’s On Writing, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, and articles and blogs online (like this one!). I felt this really helped my foundation and confidence.

    But what really pushed me further, to finally complete a manuscript with my coauthor, was attending writing workshops and panels at a convention. I go to DragonCon in Atlanta every year (for various geeky fun). There I found Michael Stackpole and Timothy Zahn offering writers’ workshops. Then there are panels where editors, authors, etc. talk about their writing process, offer tips and suggestions for finding an agent, thoughts on how to collaborate with other writers, etc. I was able to ask a question to such a panel and I’ll never forget the answer. It went something like, “No, no, no. You’re thinking too hard about this – just write!” And the group of 6 panelist all nodded in agreement. For me, that’s what I needed to take the books and articles I had read on the craft and the workshops I’d attended and take the next step – the voices of these authors I had read for years telling me just write!

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