I’m sure there are a lot of advantages of having formal education in writing. In truth, if I had college to do all over again, I’d probably do things very differently. I might even have that MFA. But that ship sailed 20 years ago, and I’m just fine with where I am.
When I realized and admitted to myself that I truly am a writer, I signed up for classes in college and set my minor to English (Creative Writing). Those 24 credit hours make up the sum total of formal writing education under my belt. But that’s far from the only writing education I’ve received.
Over the last 25 years, I’ve learned that writing education is a multifaceted and diverse landscape of possibilities. I’ve also found that writers love to help each other hone their craft. To that end, there are many avenues of “training” that are ongoing and some are even freely available!
Writer’s Workshops, Retreats and Conferences
These…. are not free. In fact, some of them require dipping into the vacation fund, or possibly selling off a small child or two. (Note: do not sell your children… it’s illegal) I’ve been to exactly two writer’s conferences: The Antioch Writer’s Workshop (1997) and The San Francisco Writer’s Conferences (2015). Antioch focused more on the craft of writing, and included sessions on plot and character development, genre, style, etc. San Francisco was more “business” focused. There were ample classes on publishing, editing, marketing, and the making of the money from the writing… which is really the goal, isn’t it?
- Writer’s workshops and conferences are really wonderful things. You typically get inundated with quality information from seasoned veterans and industry professionals.
- The information teeters quickly into “overload”, but that’s just fine, because they tend to allow recording and ample note-taking.
- The ability to network at these events is paramount. You find yourself having dinner with editors, lunch with publishers and hallway conversations with published authors.
- You will make lasting friendships with other aspiring authors; you form your cheering squad, and you keep each other going.
- Writer’s conferences are expensive and sometimes difficult to fit into life. Many of them run over the course of a week… which can mean taking vacation time from work, buying airline tickets, booking hotel rooms, etc. Considering the vast span of time between my two conferences, you can see that they aren’t something one can just dash off to on a whim. Unless you win the lottery. Then dash all you want. There are conferences just about every week of the year somewhere!
- Not all conferences are created equal. Make sure you do your homework before investing your funds. Some are geared toward the craft of writing. Others focus on the business aspects. Some are retreats, where you are writing and critiquing. Make sure you know exactly what you are getting before you go, and that the conference you choose fits with your needs!
Writer’s Critique Groups
The best method — and possibly the only real method — for improving your writing is to get feedback from people other than your mother or spouse. Writer’s critique groups are wonderful for honing your skills. I belong to one that meets every two weeks. Every time I attend, I learn something. I improve my current works in progress. And I watch my friends’ writing skills grow and improve, too!
You teach best what you most need to learn. — Richard Bach
- Writer’s critique groups are typically free-to-cheap. Sometimes they ask for a small donation if the space they meet is paid, or if they supply coffee and cookies. My group meets at a Barnes & Noble, so it’s free. If we want cookies, there is a Starbucks to our immediate right.
- These groups typically form a tight-knit group where information and idea exchange flows freely. Once you find your people, you’ll receive amazing and consistent feedback.
- You will also learn just as much from giving critique as you do from receiving it — if not more. When you’re thinking critically about what does and does not work in a piece that you’re not emotionally invested in, you start examining your own work more closely. You’ll find that your own writing becomes tighter and improves with each critique you give!
- In any writer’s group worth its salt, you will receive critique — which means these groups are not meant to stroke your ego, but to give you honest feedback. “Negative” feedback is meant to hone your craft, not bust your ego. Your writing is always yours, and feedback can be taken or left… but one of the biggest benefits of a writer’s critique group is that it helps you thicken your own skin.
- You might have to try out several groups before finding your people. The “tight-knit group” factor can be as much a con as it is a pro. If you find you’re not meshing with the particular group you’re in, the best idea is to move on.
- Sometimes these groups can become flaky. If you have a group that meets infrequently, or has poor turnout, you might find yourself searching for something more solid and consistent. Don’t ever be afraid to pull out and move to a new group (or form one of your own) if it’s just not working out.
- If you write genre fiction, and you’re not in a genre critique group, you might find that some of the feedback you get is based off a misunderstanding of your genre. Sometimes, this is a good thing — if what you’ve done is completely confusing to a non-genre-reader, it might just be that the particular part of your work needs some rework. It could also be that your non-genre-reader just doesn’t “get it.”
Online Forums and Training
The advent of the Internet has been both a blessing and a curse for authors. The industry has changed, and continues to reinvent itself, with new methods of publication, marketing avenues, and ample, online training. I’m in several social media groups and a few forums that deal with writing. Some are online challenge groups (write a flash piece every week!), and others are places to go to share the wins and losses of our writing game. It’s hard not to learn from these online groups! The ideas are diverse and constant. And there is always someone online when you have a question or need to vent.
- Online forums and training exist in abundance. Pick one (or more) and run with it! Some of them focus on critique. Others veer toward the business aspects. Some exist solely for networking. All have something to offer.
- They are there whenever you need them. The Internet never closes.
- They are typically free. Beware of groups that charge you money, unless it’s a professional organization like The Editorial Freelancers Association.
- Be careful when posting original work to online groups. Piracy is real, and accountability is low online. If you don’t know all the people in the group, it’s best not to post your original work if you ever intend to sell it.
- If your work is public-facing, it can and will be considered as “previously published” by magazines, contests and other publishing venues. Post your work with extreme prejudice.
- You never know who is lurking on a public forum; private forums are better, but unless you have 100% participation, you still may have lurkers whose intentions may or may not be nefarious.
- The Internet is faceless; sometimes you’ll receive very harsh and unwarranted critique online. People are more apt to self control when you’re sitting face-to-face at a table. On the internet, not so much. Just be prepared to let the trolls do their thing, and don’t take it personally.
The Best Training of All: You
When it comes down to it, your best trainer — is you. When you sit down and put fingers to keys, or pen to paper, you are honing your craft. If you approach your writing with a constant mindset of continual improvement, you cannot help but grow as a writer.
Attend conferences. Go to your critique groups. Join those online forums. But at the end of it all, take your feedback and newfound knowledge, give yourself challenges, and watch your writing blossom.
I realized a while back that I have certain phrases, words and gestures that dominate my writing. Some of these were called out by my writer’s group. Some I noticed during my own self-editing process. I now actively avoid those particular problem areas while I write my drafts.
The best way to learn is by doing. The best way to improve is by learning from past mistakes. So keep writing with the goal of improvement. As long as you’re writing, editing, critiquing and networking with improvement in mind, you will continually hone your craft.