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Formal Training

Posted: June 26th, 2012, 2:14 pm
by Philabuster
I was perusing through some writers blogs over the past couple of days and one topic that stood out to me was, "What type (if any) of formal education do you have as a writer?"

Me personally, I have none. The only experience I have is the creative writing courses I took in high school. I read all the time and write as often as I can, but as far as literary education I am certainly lacking.

Recently I have been researching a creative writing course offered by a local community college starting in the fall. I have no intention of becoming a journalist or free lance writer so the certificate would be relatively useless. But I'm wondering if the knowledge I'll learn from the course will be worth the money I spend on it. Do most serious writers have some formal education? Or is "on the job training" the best kind of education you can get?

Re: Formal Training

Posted: June 26th, 2012, 2:32 pm
by cheekychook
I think the answer to that depends on several factors, including who's running the course and how much you already know.

I had a varied writing background when I started writing fiction full time (creative writing classes in HS and college and a screenwriting class in college) but mostly I was just writing based on what was in my head and going off what I'd learned as an avid reader.

When I finished my first novel I joined a local writer's group and was very lucky that the group leader had recently completed her Masters in Creative writing. Although my writing was sound, for the most part, there were a million little "rules" she taught me about everything from POV use and head hopping to formatting to current standards for punctuation (one space after a period, not two like it used to be). So...if you think this class will teach you things that you don't know, whether they're craft-oriented or practical, I'd say take it. Plus creative writing classes are usually forums for swapping material and getting feedback is usually good. I say usually because that also depends on several variables including the attitude and agenda of the other people taking the course.

Hope that's somewhat helpful. Let us know what you decide, and if you take the class let us know what they cover.

Re: Formal Training

Posted: June 26th, 2012, 2:33 pm
by dios4vida
Yeah - what cheeky said. :)

I think most writers just learn as we go. We read, write, study books on craft, go to workshops, take a class or two that are convenient, but that's probably it.

The few times I've really invested in my writing - the retreat with other Bransforumers, "taking" Brandon Sanderson's creative writing class online, highlighting the crap out of my craft books - have been amazing. They've increased my knowledge tenfold, and I'd like to think that's reflected in the quality of my writing. Would a full degree program make that much difference? I don't know. But when the opportunity to learn more about writing fiction shows up, personally I want to do it.

Re: Formal Training

Posted: June 26th, 2012, 2:40 pm
by trixie
I've worked my way through the ranks of higher academia and don't regret it for a minute.

But I wouldn't necessarily say those years translated into whether or not I was a better fiction writer. It taught me how to think more critically, how to use better/stronger words, edit faster, and work on deadlines, but those are all things one could learn from studying the craft. (And I wonder if the point of most master's programs these days is to teach students how to work and meet deadlines in a group.)

A few years ago I found a local writing center. I started taking Saturday seminars on topics related to the actual craft of writing. I feel these courses really helped propel my writing up a notch or two, if only in my own mind.

Another thing I had to factor in is that my town's schools have English/Creative Writing programs that are heavily directed toward literary fiction or memoir. As a MG writer in a "literary" town, I know better than to try and cross those beams.

Bottom line: in terms of becoming a stronger fiction writer, I've learned more from trusted blogs, books by industry professionals (Maass, Bell), and from forums such as this. I still think about a MFA in children's writing, but I also think about getting my PhD for shits and giggles, so I might not be a rational person to ask. :)

Re: Formal Training

Posted: June 26th, 2012, 2:41 pm
by polymath
Somerset Maugham comparing his writing to Rudyard Kipling's, paraphrasing, said Kipling lived a rich life while he learned to write. Maugham learned the formal way then, regretfully, had to seek life experience to write about he'd missed while he had his nose in the books.

So, yes, both, formal and on-the-job learning. On-the-job learning is as much about research as it is about application. Great writers read, read widely, and read closely, dissecting the methods and craft of those who came before and breaking new trails.

Community college creative writing courses, continuing education I assume, tend to be part lecture, part discussion, part colloquy or question and answer, and emphasize participants workshop critiquing. There are the strengths of workshopping, developing critique muscles for strengthening one's own work and gauging audience appeal and accessibility. What works and what doesn't are the main points of workshopping to an audience, since everything is comparatively subjective.

It's worth as much as participants put into the course. Priceless for me, my first community college writing workshop was. Many, many formal and informal workshops since and more to go. Every one priceless.

Re: Formal Training

Posted: June 26th, 2012, 2:50 pm
by writersink
I've never taken a "formal" writing workshop. However, I've learned so much stuff through writing blogs and through the other writers on these forums and on others. So I would say learning the way I am works best for me. It is tailored to what I need to learn more about, and I can research in depth into stuff I feel weaker on. I'm more of an independent learner.

At my, ahem, age, I don't have the highest possible qualification (although I want to get there someday.) That sort of thing, from what I've experienced so far, would help more with your critical thinking, and your ability to analyze things, and choosing the best word for the best sentence, and the importance of research and stuff.

I think it is a personal thing. Where I live, there simply aren't a lot of workshops/ places of learning for writers, so maybe that contributed to the fact that I've learned through the internet. But hey, I think it works for me.

And yeah, Cheeky knows what she's talking about :)

Re: Formal Training

Posted: June 26th, 2012, 2:56 pm
by oldhousejunkie
If you have the money to take the course, then sure, what can it hurt? I willingly admit that one of my regrets from college was not taking the available courses on writing novels (which were led by a well-known, published author).

But as others have said, I think life experience, reading, and revising/editing your own work can get to a pretty good place. I've learned a slew of things from other writers who have been in the trenches far longer than I have and as a result, my writing has improved.

Re: Formal Training

Posted: June 27th, 2012, 8:46 am
by Sommer Leigh
I've got mixed feelings about this.

I have a background in writing - I majored in English in college and concentrated on writing and rhetoric with a minor in communications. I volunteered for the school newspaper for a year to learn the ropes and eventually was a staff writer with an actual pay check. I learned...I don't know. I learned stuff. Mostly I learned how to think differently and approach topics and the world and literature differently. But I don't think any of my writing classes taught me how to write. Or write better. I don't know. Maybe a little bit, but I honestly feel like I learned how to do that on my own. By practice, practice, practice and a lot of reading.

If I could hit the reset button, I would double minor in English and Communications and major in something else. I don't know what else, but something else. Something I didn't already know going in. I would have taken a lot of religion classes and more history classes and more than just psych 101 and intro to political science. I'd have gone deeper into both of these subjects. I would have taken more lit classes and less writing classes. The most impressive, difficult, and useful class I took in college was my Rhetoric class. I would have taken a lot more classes that had nothing to do with writing what so ever.

The writing classes I took were 80% narcissim and 20% BS. The professors were usually alright, but the other students were unbearable. Lots of coffee drinkers waxing on about how no one understands their vision. It was like being in a sitcom. I had one professor who didn't actually read our work, just graded based on visual inspection of completion because, "No one can judge your writing for value, least of all me. If it speaks to you, it's already perfect." This is why I have no tolerance for the no one understands me excuse.

That being said, I think if you feel like you need more foundation learning or craft workshops, then by all means. I think those can be incredibly valuable.

Re: Formal Training

Posted: June 27th, 2012, 12:25 pm
by polymath

I'm saddened your college writing experience was lackluster. Sounds to me like program administrators, facilitators, and moderators short-shrifted their custodial obligations. Not just about keeping role and classroom order and grades, but about facilitating a learning environment.

Not all my writing instructors were top notch but each in some way sparkled and facilitated growth. They weren't burnt out or on the easy-lazy, just-get-by slide, for one. They had to keep pace too. Any who fell behind expectations didn't survive, including minimum publication expectations and generally favorable student evaluations. Each creative writing program I've attended has been nationally accredited by a respected firm. One program is a regional top ten top writing program powerhouse. It wasn't so much that I was taught as I was given tools for learning and development. I'm most grateful for that.

Re: Formal Training

Posted: June 27th, 2012, 12:34 pm
by Mark.W.Carson
I took a few classes in college, and in HS. They were very different, and the instructor made all the difference. I will, however, impart this bit of Mark Twain's wisdom:

Never let formal education get in the way of your learning

I'm not sure what your genre is, but take a look at the posted classes by Sanderson. Even if you are not Sci Fi or Fantasy based, there are bits of wisdom to be picked up there.

Re: Formal Training

Posted: June 27th, 2012, 2:53 pm
by Fenris
Teaching can only go so far. We actually have to do something ourselves--in this case, write--to make it matter. Classes give us a bit of practice, but it's not the experience we gain there that necessarily defines us. Writing is a very intimate task: we take an idea that grew in our heads or our hearts--and only there, nowhere else--and transcribe it to paper by ourselves. That process cannot be taught by any teacher, because it's different for every person. Writing classes simply skip to the next step in the process: refining our work until it is deemed 'acceptable' to an audience of readers. But the thing is, we can do that on our own time too. We observe the 'correct' products by reading, and simple trial and error can help us hone our craft without the need of any mentor besides our books.

While writing classes aren't always a waste of time, I've found them to be largely simple diversions. I don't have access to many of the more highbrow classes or conventions and whatnot, but all of the writing classes I've taken have demanded that I obey the whims of the teacher. We weren't allowed to write whatever we wanted--we had to adhere to certain strict guidelines, and we had to get the ideas approved by the teacher beforehand if they weren't directly assigned. Admittedly, I did enjoy one such class where I was forced to write literary short stories, because it forced me to leave my comfort zone--the realm of fantasy and science fiction. So while these classes may be interesting or enlightening, I don't think they are necessary for someone looking to be a writer. Writers write, so do that. You don't need training. Just practice.