How Do You Learn To Be a Writer?

I’m often approached by parents or grandparents of children who’ve shown a talent for writing. They ask how a child can learn to be a writer. Or sometimes a person going through a mid-life job change will ask my advice about going back to college to pursue a long-deferred writing dream.

I have to tell them the truth: learning to write is hard--and earning money from writing is way harder.

I’m not saying certain types of writing can’t be lucrative—“content providers” can find careers in advertising and various tech fields—but that’s usually not what the doting grand/parents or career-changers are thinking. They might be imagining plays or screenplays, or even journalism—fast-fading professions too—but mostly they’re thinking memoir and novels.  

But writing book-length narrative is one of the toughest ways to earn a living—and it’s getting tougher all the time. The average book advance is less than half of what it was ten years ago. Almost all writers need day jobs.

So the question arises: how much money should people put into educating themselves to be writers? 

Anybody who visits a lot of writing sites has probably been followed around the ’Webz by ads for college creative writing degrees. Do those give students a jumpstart or prepare them for a writing career? 

Unfortunately, they usually don’t. They’re often based on very old ideas of what the publishing industry is like. 

If you have the privilege of attending college, by all means take courses in creative writing. Also take courses in business management, advanced string theory or Athenian red-figure vase painting—whatever interests you. None of your time learning will be wasted, and a college education is massively helpful to any career.

But don’t go to college expecting to be taught how to be a professional writer who can enter the workforce and earn back the cost of college like somebody studying accounting or medicine. It won’t happen.

I’m not saying degrees in creative writing will hurt, but they’re not necessary for a writing career. And they’re usually expensive.

Thing is: the number one thing that’s NOT necessary to any creative career is…DEBT. Debt is a prison that can keep you locked into a job you hate, living in noisy, crowded circumstances, and plagued with anxieties that are the enemy of creativity

“But, wait!” says Aspiring Young Writer, “What about an MFA? That gives you a leg up into the publishing business doesn’t it?”

Um, not really.

Not with most agents and publishers (although a prestigious school can provide valuable contacts.) What an MFA will do is steer you in the direction of literary writing, which tends to be less lucrative for a publisher (and you.)

An MFA DOES qualify you to teach creative writing at the college level, and as a day job, college teaching is a pretty good one. But be aware of the implied trade-off.

Think of getting an MFA like studying ballet or learning to play classical music—you’re entering a fiercely competitive field with a niche audience and not much remuneration…but a lot of prestige. For those who love it, there’s also a fulfillment that can come no other way. If writing and teaching literary fiction is your bliss—follow it! The world needs you to carry on that tradition.

But if your goal is writing popular fiction, treat your education more like preparing for musical theater, playing roots music, or ballroom dancing—and take a more eclectic route in your training. (And prepare to work a day job.)

Of course you first need to learn the basics just like a literary writer: grammar, sentence structure, spelling, and word usage. If you didn’t get that in high school or college, you need to take some brush-up classes. Language is your instrument, and you need to learn to play before you can get in a band.

NOTE: Don’t count on some hired editor to clean up your stuff after you write it. Editors cost a bundle and they can’t do it all. Good language skills are essential. You wouldn’t try to be a carpenter if you couldn’t pound a nail.

But once you have that down, what do you do?

There’s still a whole lot to learn. Straight-A grammar skills don’t help you with learning how to tell a story. You need to educate yourself on story structure, how to create compelling characters, pacing and all the rest.

For that, the best approach is to study widely. Get as much education as you can from many sources as you can find. There is no one right way. You can enroll in inexpensive classes at your local adult ed. or community college extension programs. Short online courses can be really helpful, too, especially ones that concentrate on structure and story-telling techniques. Read the classic books on writing. Go to writers’ conferences, especially local ones where you don’t have to pay for room and board.

Sometimes professional writers will offer workshops in person or online. A short course from a well-known author is usually worth the price, because their name will hold weight in a query and you may be lucky enough to have them mentor you.

If you live in a place where there’s a local writer’s club or chapter of organizations like RWA, SCBWI, or Sisters in Crime, join. Clubs like those can be amazingly valuable resources. And a good critique group can sometimes teach you as much as a college class about how to write. (But beware group-think. Critique groups are only as good as their members, and ignorant people can spread bad habits. See my post on Bad Advice to Ignore from your Critique Group

And these days, a whole lot of what you need to learn is available on the Internet for free. I know people who have learned a huge amount by working with other writers in various writers’ forums.

To become a professional, you need to learn the business side of publishing as well as grammar and story structure. They are equally important these days. Agent blogs are a valuable resource here. Agents like Rachelle Gardner , Kristen Nelson and Janet Reid offer mini-courses in publishing in their archives.

And you’ll need to learn to use social media. It’s as important to a writer today as it is to know how to use an apostrophe. I recommend Kristen Lamb’s valuable blog and her book We Are Not Alone: The Author’s Guide to Social Media

If you ask most professional writers what’s the best way to learn to write, they’re going to tell you two things:

1) Read
2) Write

And some will add:
3) Live

Malcolm Gladwell’s dictum that you need to do something 10,000 hours in order to learn to do it well is a valuable one to keep in mind. The corny old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall applies: practice, practice, practice.

Writing may not be a lucrative profession, but creating worlds out of words is still one of the most exciting ways to spend your time, so I tell those parents and grandparents and mid-life career-changers that nobody should be discouraged from following their dreams.

But I also warn them not get talked into expensive college courses they can’t afford. (And people should especially beware writing degrees from for-profit colleges. Recruiters can tell a lot of half- and un-truths and provide a slick, easy path to a lifetime of debt.)

The electronic age may bring more responsibilities to writers—social media and online marketing can seem like a huge time-suck—but it also opens up hundreds of new paths to our goals, many of them inexpensive or free. So I say embrace the journey and accept the abundance of information at your fingertips.

Now I could use your help, scriveners. Tell me how you learned/are learning your craft--and how you’re educating yourself in the business of writing for a living. I’d love for you to give some tips and suggestions for things that worked (or didn’t work) for you.

NEWS: On Wednesday, March 7th, I'll be talking to Roz Morris at her blog Memories of a Future Life for her Undercover Soundtrack series. I'm talking about the "soundtrack" for my Fitzgerald-themed mystery, THE GATSBY GAME. This one is from another Fitzgerald: Ella. 

DECADES CONTEST: Our two winners, selected by, are Steven J. Wangsness and Martha Reynolds. Congrats! Steven and Martha, contact Ruth at rca.harris at gmail dot com for your free books. 

INDIE CHICKS: This week’s amazing installment is from Barbara Silkstone, whose comic mysteries were inspired by some pretty grim real-life villains.

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