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.

Spend, Spend, Spend

As you immerse yourself in the world of writing and writerly matters, you realise how many things there are on which to spend your hard-earned cash. I’m not talking notepads and pencils, or even laptops and software. I’m talking learning, skills and knowledge.

pound-414418_1280You have to navigate a landscape of courses lasting from a few hours to several days and even several months, and tutors with varying degrees of experience and personal success. Do you feel you need to gain an MA in Creative Writing? Will your budget permit you to go away for a few days to learn from tutors or authors you respect? Will you sign up for an on-line programme? Do you want a group or a solo learning experience?

There are hundreds of seminars and workshops, forums and discussion sessions too. There are mentoring services, coaching and writer support services offering teaching, guidance and advice. There’s a multitude of editorial services available. You can buy feedback on every aspect of your work – structuring it, drafting it, editing it, proofreading it – then on how to write synopses and query letters to agents. You can even meet real agents and real publishers.

If you’re considering self-publishing there are yet more courses and seminars instructing on design and layout, print versus e-book, marketing and promotion. And don’t forget the literary activities that must complement every writer’s ‘journey’ – retreats in hideaway places and those literary festivals which seem to be springing up in theatres and marquees in every county town across the land. Oh, and the books, the books about everything! From technique to technology, from genre to grammar, from marketing to making your millions.

Some of these things will help you become a better writer. Some will help you develop your creative process, your imagination, your appreciation of character, ear for dialogue, structure or plot. Some could give you a leg-up or a head start in the agenting and publishing stakes (but don’t bank on it). Some will give you vital insight into the business of books and publishing. Some will gain you exposure to successful people within the literary sphere – authors, agents and publishers. Some will simply give you the chance to shake the hand or collect the signature of an author you admire.

I believe this is not in general a cynical industry; but it is one which naturally seeks to capitalise on the novice writer’s desire to become part of it. That’s not surprising, given that the community of would-be authors grows daily and returns from the traditional sources of profit continue to diminish.

Most of the products, activities and services you can purchase will have a value – whether that equates with their cost to you, only you can say. I believe most of the investments I’ve made in developing myself as a writer have been worthwhile, insofar as they’ve helped me learn the skills I needed to write the fiction I’ve always wanted to write. They’ve also, almost universally, been enjoyable experiences – and that’s a not insignificant consideration.

But what of the ultimate commercial payoff? Will these investments have helped me become a successful published author?

I’ll have to get back to you on that.