Writing courses: A different perspective

Nina MishkinFellow blogger Nina Mishkin had something important to say about my last post.

I love that people comment on my blog posts. I particularly like it when they either disagree with me, or have insights which open up the debate. I’ve received an especially interesting response to my previous post on courses, seminars and other learning opportunities open to novice writers. It’s worth sharing beyond the smaller community that might read comments on posts, so I thought I’d publish it as a post in its own right. It’s from a blogger I greatly admire, Nina Mishkin, who blogs at The Getting Old Blog. Here’s what she said:

In my view, it’s valuable to attend a seminar or two that features agents and publishers describing the process — and hurdles — confronting the would-be published author. It’s also valuable to learn something about self-publishing before setting a foot on that path. But as someone who has taught writing courses — both at the community college and university level — and has written professionally in many commercial genres, I am extremely cynical about the value to the quality of one’s writing of spending time in how-to courses, seminars, workshops and retreats. They may be enjoyable while you’re attending them, but you rarely come away with something you couldn’t find in a how-to book from the library. They consume time and distract you from spending your time actually writing.

The way to write well is to read well… all your life. Read extensively and intensively, with an eye to structure, dialogue, pacing. Note what’s omitted as well as what’s included. If you really enjoy something you’ve read, read it again. More than once. Take it apart in your mind (or in a notebook) to see how it was done. Then try to do it yourself. At first you will be a copy cat. And then you will internalize what you’ve learned; it will become second nature — in the self-editing if not in the first draft. There are many parasitic industries out there, feeding off perceived markets for learning “how.” With writing, the primary “how” is “do.” Sit down every day and do it. And keep reading.

Other people’s blogs are also helpful, principally for the encouragement they offer that you’re not slogging away alone. Blogs by would-be writers who are clearly bad writers are also instructive, in another way. (“That’s awful. Have I been doing something like that? I’d better stop it, right now!”)

Sorry if I’ve stirred up a nest of worms here. I do understand that it may be extremely gratifying to spend, spend, spend on the “products” Julie has so well described. But the spenders should be entirely clear that they are only toeing the sand, not writing.

And, in case you’re interested, here’s my reply:

Nina, this is such an interesting – and well informed – perspective, thank you! I’ve enjoyed the writing courses I’ve participated in – three one-week courses in total. But the value for me has come in many different ways. I have learned, or reinforced, certain technical skills, but that’s perhaps the least of the experience. I’ve also been made to think differently about character and structure. Thence to the wider benefits: I’ve met authors and learned from their insights and experience; I’ve met other people with ambitions to write – and made very special friendships; I’ve built the confidence to try writing in the first place, and keep going when I thought I was losing my way, and I’ve tapped into an imagination I never realised I had. Those are the real benefits. Technique, as you rightly observe, can come from books – both ‘how to’ books, and the simple act of devouring and analysing as much good fiction as you can.

I wasn’t encouraging people to spend, spend, spend on writerly learning – only throwing light on the many available ‘products’. They do help you to think like a writer, but quality is variable and one must tread carefully to obtain good value. It’s easy to take refuge in the excuse that one still has more to learn, rather than to just get on and write, and learn by experience.

I hope you don’t mind, but I think so much of your comment, that I’d like to copy it into a full post – it deserves not to be missed.

14 thoughts on “Writing courses: A different perspective

  1. I think you both raise excellent points. Whatever helps a writer achieve his/her goals is a sensible approach to take. One can do that spending little money, or one can invest in a professional seminar or workshop now and then, too, especially if that helps get the wheels in motion. 🙂

    1. One problem with writing is that it’s essentially a solitary pursuit. Courses, seminars and workshop offer opportunities to connect, network and make friends within the writing community. Whilst that might not be their primary objective, it’s an important consideration. Writing can be isolating unless we make an effort to connect and share our experiences. Blogging helps of course (and I’m so enjoying my experience of the writerly blogging community), but there’s no substitute for actually getting together with real-live people! And you’re right, it does help with getting those wheels in motion too. 🙂

      1. I agree. Writing is so solitary. My introverted nature is to not venture out unless I have to, but I recognize that isn’t always healthy. While I don’t go to any writing groups or seminars, I am in a book club and that’s a good way for me to socialize as well as discuss my favorite topic: books! Writers won’t have much to write about if we become hermits. 😉

        1. I’m an introvert too, so I know what you mean! Sometimes I have to force myself to join in. I work from home and when I popped out to grab some lunch today, I realised I hadn’t been out of the door since Saturday! I don’t want to be a hermit, but I can’t help being comfortable in my own company 🙂

  2. I agree with a lot of what Nina has to say, particularly the best way to be a better writer is to read a lot and write a lot. There is no substitute for just doing it. There are also a lot of leach-like industries out there (beware the vanity press) asking a lot of money for things that reputable editors and agents provide for free, or one can learn to do for themselves with some much less expensive legwork and research. There are free how-to’s for self publishing including how to create/format/upload an e-book and the library is full of writing texts if you want to improve your grammar, etc.

    However, it is a very individual process. Everyone has different skills and experience, and must to figure out what works best for them to fill the gaps where they are lacking, whether it’s in basic writing skills or the business side if things. Sometimes it’s worth paying full price for a how-to book that you may reference again and again (I highly recommend ‘Stephen King On Writing’–he also says read a lot and write a lot–and ‘How Not To Write a Novel’ by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman).

    I also agree with Jools. Sometimes it’s more about connecting with people and any new insights or skills you gain are bonus. As long as you know what you are paying for and have thought it through, go ahead and pay. If you end up paying and feel it wasn’t worth it after the fact, that’s a learning experience too.

    1. I haven’t yet got into self-publishing (I expect to do this early in 2015). But I’m aware there are yet more businesses out there with a range of services which, given time, patience and a little intelligence, most people could carry out for themselves, at little or no cost. I will certainly aim to keep a tight rein on my self-pub costs. These days, the writer is expected to be not only a writer, but editor, designer, publisher, salesperson and promoter. It’s hardly surprising that many people feel ill-equipped for some of those tasks. But this is the modern literary landscape. I think it presents some wonderful opportunities – but not without a challenge or two.

      As for reading, the trouble is, there aren’t enough hours in the day for all the books I want to read! But the advice is wise – read, read, and read some more.

  3. Oh my goodness, Julie! My photo on someone else’s blog!! Thank you so much!!! I’m so excited I’m dropping exclamation points all over the place!!!!

    Actually, I don’t think we’re so very far apart in point of view. I agree actually writing is lonely. (And the work you yourself do professionally for earned income also sounds pretty lonely, for the most part.) I have benefitted a great deal from the three years I spent as a member (for free!) of a small prose writers group that met once a month to read and discuss each other’s work in progress — whether a chapter of an ongoing novel or a short stand-alone piece. Only two or three of us could offer something each time, which meant it never felt like having to produce “homework.” However, we had all come from the same relatively small women’s college, although in different decades, which was some assurance that we were bringing similar educational backgrounds to the discussion, which does matter somewhat, I think. A loved one or good friend, even if not a professional, who’s willing to lend an ear (or eye) to your pages in progress is also helpful, even they only respond to your eager, “Well, what do you think?” with a tactful, “Some of it was really very good, but maybe you could make [identified] part go a little faster? That’s where you lost me.”

    I’d be very interested to hear what you find out about self-publishing, when you get to it. I suspect that for more and more of us, that will be more and more the way to go.

    1. I agree, we’re not far apart in our viewpoints. I too am part of a writers group, that came together organically following an uninspiring one-day writing event. Four of us agreed what a waste of time it had been and, united in our irritation, the group was born! We exchange work, critique and share the ups-and-downs of the writerly experience.

      Writing is a solitary pursuit, but I wouldn’t class myself lonely when I’m writing – nor would I see my freelance work as lonely. I may be alone whilst I write but I never feel lonely. I love the time I spend with my friends, associates, colleagues, clients, family, neighbours and wider social circle, but I’m one of those weird introverted types who’s also quite happy in their own company. I can go days without seeing anyone, but I don’t get lonely. I know it’s weird!

      I’m shortly to embark on the self-publishing ‘journey’ – rest assured, I will chronicle my experience. Already I feel my attitude to it changing. 🙂

  4. Thank you for posting this point/counterpoint view. Your guest blogger by default made some quite interesting points about the effect of reading fiction critically to identify what works and what falls flat. Also, I have shortlisted the book recommend by K. Esta: How Not to Write a Novel. Let’s hope Amazon can get it to me before I step in any more scatological, overused literary devices.

      1. Thank you. I am neck-deep in all the books I keep getting…and reading like a manic squirrel trying to store as many nuts as possible. I’m sure there is a some terrible analogy I could make with my writing being as desolate and cold as hibernation…but it just isn’t coming to me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s