Being a Better Writer: Taking Writing Classes

A few weeks ago, I had the occasion to go out to a meal with a group of people. Sort of as a “get to know you” thing. I’m still not sure how I got an invite, but hey, free lunch.

In any case, during the course of the meal, with its introductions and discussion between everyone present, the topic of what I did all day was brought up. At which point someone else at the lunch, a student from a nearby college, quickly piped up that he was a writer too. Or at least, he wanted to be one.

Most authors can probably guess what happened from then on out. I was peppered with questions, everything from “How do you do X?” to the more common (and disparaging) “Could you read my work for me and give me all kinds of feedback?” This work that they were referring to was a work of some time, and they were quite proud of it.

To which I had to give the polite answer of “I’m sorry, but no.” Along with a subsequent explanation (not that I’m sure they believed it) that I’m a writer, which means I spend my day writing, and I simply can’t just offer help to everyone who asks (believe me, if I did, I’d never have time to write anything anymore). I explained this as politely and nicely as I could, while pointing him towards my website since many of the questions he’d asked could have been answered by my guides, but then I went a step further.

“Well,” I said, looking at him. “You’re attending a college, and you seem really interested in writing. I happen to know that college has a pretty good block of creative writing classes, and many of them would answer the basic questions you’re asking me. Why not take a creative writing class or two?”

The student’s reaction was immediate. His head snapped back, his eyes opening wide with shock as he spoke. “Oh no,” he said. “I could never do that. They’d compromise my creative vision.”

The conversation continued from there, but at this point, I think most of you have the gist of his response. And it’s a response that I’ve heard many times before. There’s a crowd of people out there who want to become writers, but have somehow convinced themselves that taking a class on how to do so is not to their interest.

So today, I’m going to talk about that. And I will speak bluntly: it is a misconception. Those of you who wanted the short and sweet explanation, well, you can stop right there and start signing up for writing classes. Those of you who are still shaking your heads and thinking Well yeah, but that only applies to these other guys, keep reading. First, I’m going to sum it up, and then I’m going to go into a breakdown of the most common fears/rebuttals that young writers throw out by way of misunderstanding.

I’ll be straight. Expecting to be a good writer, let alone one good enough to make a living at it without taking any writing education is like waking up one morning, deciding that you can be an electrical engineer, and then setting out to rewire your house. Odds are, unless you’re either A) extremely lucky or B) a natural savant with wiring, you’re probably going to electrocute yourself and end up with a total mess by the end. And even if you do succeed somehow, odds are that an actual electrician could walk in and make a dozen fixes to tidy things up.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you absolutely need writing classes. There are blogs you can follow online that offer experience and writing advice (like this one). There are conventions with panels you can go to in order to ask questions. And yes, nothing will make up for you yourself sitting down at a keyboard and clicking away. I’m not trying to say that writing classes are an absolute, end-all must. Every so often, there will be some up-and-coming writer who has never taken a writing class in their life, yet still manages to become a New York Times bestseller.

But that person has educated themselves in many other ways, sort of like the electrician who never was certified, but has been plugging away with wiring all their life, has read every book on the subject, and learned painfully via trial-and-error. Often when you meet someone like that and ask them why they haven’t taken classes on their subject of interest, most often the answer is that they weren’t able to, and would have if the opportunity presented itself. People end up self-taught often because there aren’t any other available options for them.

If you have the option, you should take it.

So, how about some hard details about what a class will do in the form of responses to some of the concerns that young writers have about them? Sound good? Good. Here we go. And these are in no particular order; they’re just paraphrases of questions/concerns I’ve heard directed towards or about writing classes in the past.

Won’t a writing class change how I write?

Of course it will. That’s kind of the point. But if you’re worried about them taking away your unique “style,” don’t be. The goal of a good writing class isn’t to gather everybody up and turn them into a bunch of identically producing drones. The goal is to help each writer in the class improve and grow. Writing classes are like a garden. The gardener cannot force one plant to be another. They cannot make a tulip produce peaches, and they cannot make a peach tree blossom in a manner similar to a tulip. What the gardenercan do, however, is nurture every plant and make sure that they have the right conditions—soil, light, water, etc—in order to grow past their limits. Believe me, in every writing class I had, there were always assignments for the students to write the same thing, but our stories and the way in which we wrote them came out completely different from one another.

But you just said that your writing classes made you all write the same thing. I don’t want to be forced to write in a style I don’t like.

Tough cookies.

No seriously. Every time I hear this I cringe a little inside. It’s like this: Would you trust an artist who’d only ever created one kind of picture, in a set variation of colors, to do anything else? No, you wouldn’t.

Writing classes will force you to write outside your bubble and learn about what goes into different styles. You will have to write first-person, third-person, and second-person, in limited and omniscient styles. You will write poetry. You will write *shudder* memoirs(you can guess what I’m not a fan of). You will write everything from purple-prose essays to super concise observations of a cup. You will write things that you can’t stand writing, and you will write things that you love.

And you know what? You’ll learn something new every step of the way. You might suffer, you might want to pull your hair out, but at the end of the day, you’ll still be able to write what you like, but you’ll be able to do it with entirely new perspectives, skills, and experience pulled from everything else you’ve written. Trust me. I’m speaking from experience here. With every new style that a writing class exposes you to, with every new challenge that lands on your keyboard, you’ll be forced out of your comfort zone … which means learning new things that you can then take back to whatever it is you write. And you might even discover some new types of writing that you enjoy, or happen to be very talented at.

Yes, you will have to write in styles you’re unfamiliar with. I still remember being pushed hard for a purple prose essay, which I rewrote … three times? Four? Or the poetry project, which had us filling a notebook with one poem a day for a month (I believe one of those weeks had a challenge to write a different poem each day about the same object). Neither of those things was my style.

But you know what? Both helped my writing immeasurably. From the purple prose essay I learned quite a bit about flowery prose as well as how and when to use it, which later came in quite handy in my higher-level fiction classes. From poetry, I learned to look at the same object in a variety of different ways, to come at things from different angles and viewpoints.

Crud, I can even say I wouldn’t be where I am now with my published stuff if not for my writing classes forcing me out of my comfort zone. Jacob Rocke, star of One Drink, was initially conceived as part of a writing assignment for writing a first-person short story set in a Hawaiian graveyard (and that story will probably end up Patreon bonus material one of these days, there’s a fun twist to it). Only because of that assignment did the character of Rocke ever come to be, which I would later revisit, flesh out, and turn into a decent enough book. Which would later be followed (and surpassed by) an even better standalone sequel.

Left to my own, I never would have written either of them. I liked (and up until I began taking writing classes, had only written) third-person stories. But both of my current published works are first-person (Colony will change this), and that’s only because I learned its strengths, weaknesses, and narrative tools in my writing classes.

So yes, you’ll write outside your comfort zone. It’s good for you. You’ll learn all kinds of new things.

It’ll take me away from what I’m already working on.

Okay, so? That’s not a bad thing. Especially as this kind of comment usually comes from the writer who’s been working on one story for the last four or five years. And look, if you’ve been working on one story for four to five years … another few months delay isn’t going to hurt it. In fact, it’s going to help it. Most who are stuck on a single story for that long usually know deep down that they have problems with their work, but they don’t know how to fix them. So they go through every tool in their toolbox, one by one, until they find the one that works. And, like a kid in an auto shop, it’s usually not the right tool for the job, it’s just the first one they find that works. Which usually means hammer. And then they move to the next problem.

Look, a writing class will take you away from what you’re currently working on, yes. But that project will still be there when you get back, and you’ll be able to look at it not just with fresh eyes, but with new knowledge of what some of the flaws may be … as well as what tools can fix it.

But I don’t want to lose my enthusiasm for that story!

If the only thing keeping you at all interested in working on it was momentum, you’re probably better off. Look, if you come back from a writing course, look at something you’ve written and think “No, I really don’t want to work on that anymore,” then it probably had some issues that were keeping it from being entertaining. You should be excited about what you’re writing. If you’re not excited, if the drive isn’t there and you can’t get it back, then there’s something missing, and you need to find out what it is.

I don’t have time/I’m not a student anymore.

Okay, this one’s a pretty valid concern. There are after all a lot of adults looking to get into writing, but they already have jobs, hobbies, families, etc. Plus, a good number of them don’t want to set foot on a college campus.

Well … you don’t have to, actually. Thanks to the internet, a lot of colleges offer creative writing classes online, and you can sign up for them from the comfort of your own home. All you need is the cash and the time. Which brings me back to the first part of this concern.

You’ll have to make time. You may even have to sacrifice a hobby or two. Writing is not something that you do for only ten or twenty minutes of your day, unless you just want to write occasional little vignettes for your close friends and family. Writing is something that takes time, money, and devotion to build a base in. If you want to just dabble in writing that’s one thing. But if you’re determined to put effort into it, that means time, for a writing class or not. You’ll have to find it.

But I already write really well.

At least you didn’t say “really good.”

But to be serious, sure, maybe that’s true. Maybe you are pretty good. Maybe you have a lot of experience writing fanfiction or something equally time-consuming. Maybe you’re pretty darn awesome at what you do, and will pick up a contract in the next few years.

Take the classes anyway. They can be the difference between “pretty good” and “really good.” At the worst, you’ll end up with a nice chunk of confirmation that you indeed do know what you’re doing, and a reinforcement of the skills and tools you’ve already known about. At the best, you’ll learn new styles, new names for things you didn’t even know existed, and new ways to apply your talent.

You can be a great writer, but still have a lack of understanding of pacing, proper use of prose, or any number of other writing tools, techniques, and parts. Writing classes are designed to teach their students about those tools, those techniques, and those parts. There are plenty of writers out there who can describe a room well enough, but have no idea when the proper time is to describe said room, and describe each and every room forever in their work, in excruciating detail. It’s not that their prose isn’t without merit, or that their descriptive skills aren’t capable, but that they have no idea when and where to make use of them. And that talent for description goes to waste, because while they have it, they don’t know how to use it.

I don’t want someone to compromise my vision.

This is generally the last thing I hear, a last, desperate attempt to argue that someone doesn’t need writing classes. So, let me just finish it off with equal swiftness.

You’re not compromising anything. The odds of anyone in your class stealing your story are very, very low. Ditto but change to “next-to-impossible” for the teacher trying to.

And you’re not compromising your story by becoming a better writer, either. In fact, this comment really isn’t about the story. It’s about the individual in question not wanting to admit that their story—and therefore their writing—isn’t as good as it could be. To that, I only have one thing to say.

Deal with it.

It’s harsh, but it’s true. As a novice writer, you’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to make slip-ups of one kind or another. Your stories will need fixes and rewrites. They will have plot holes and flaws. And you can do one of two things when this happens: You can knuckle down that you have to be right, that no one else knows what they’re talking about, or you can suck it up, bite the bullet, and look at it with a hard critical eye to see if the critique is right. I’ve known both kinds of authors. The first is the kind that writes rebuttal’s to their one-star reviews and insists that people “just don’t get it.” The second does well.

Your writing is not perfect. And a writing class will point that out. Kindly, most of the time. Take it for what it is and learn from it, rather than cutting yourself off from those who are educated and have the experience to assist you.

But I can just get that kind of feedback on the internet.

Sure. And I can find a documentary that talks about how the moon landings were a hoax orchestrated by aliens. Welcome to the internet, where anyone can say anything.

The internet is a wonderful tool. It allows authors to research all sorts of information, dig up manuscripts and records … really do all sorts of wonderful things. But, it also by virtue of anonymity, let’s anyone be and claim to be anything. Like an editor, maybe. And this is where things get dangerous. I’ve had individuals contact me claiming to be “editors” and then offer completely incorrect advice that flies in the face of the English language. In fact, I’ve seen it go one step further. I’ve seen individuals claiming to be “experts” on literature online make claims completely rebutted not just by a quick Google, but by numerous published books and even professional, career editors I happen to know. Worse, I’ve seen those same “editors” then say that all those other sources and individuals must be wrong in order to try and cover their own butts.

Point being, anyone on the internet can claim anything. Brings to mind the old adage, “by their fruits ye shall know them.” And English teachers at a college? They’ve generally got a pretty solid backing of fruit behind them. Most of them are usually authors of multiple books in their own right, and have spent years working with editors and studying the art of writing. They’re backed, and that makes them pretty trustworthy sources for looking at and dispensing writing advice.

Can you find good writing sources and advice on the internet? Sure! Funnily enough, though, they tend to be from the same types of individual that is running writing classes or pumping out book after book. And just because you can find feedback online doesn’t mean that a condensed, focused class on writing is something you shouldn’t take.

All right, let’s finish this off. I want to get back to work.

A writing class will change how you write. That’s how it works. However, the goal is to change your writing for the better. It’s there to teach you and help you grow. To help you discover new techniques, new talents, and new tools. It will help you try new things, help you take a break from something to discover why you needed to take a break. It will give you educated, experienced feedback.

There’s one other way it will help too, one that I’ve saved for last. Those teachers in front of those classes? Like I mentioned earlier, they’re in the industry. They’re industry veterans in one way or another.

Which means they have war stories. And like those old, grizzled warriors in those fantasy stories we all love so much, they’re willing to give the hero (us) a few tips that may keep our heads from getting chopped off when we go out to our first battles.

So, writing classes. Should you take them if the opportunity arises and you’re looking to get into writing?

Yes. Yes you should. And it’ll be worth every minute.

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