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Formal Education?

6546 Views 65 Replies 40 Participants Last post by  Terrence OBrien
There was a comment on another thread about an author/editor who'd finished an 18 month copyrighting certification. Immediately, I thought...I need that - it will make things less painful during edits... question to the vast Kindlesphere is...

Does formal education really make you a better writer? If so, how much is enough? If not, how do you fine tune your writing?
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I don't think it made me a better writer. However, writing a dissertation let me know that I could start and complete a lengthy project (a book). That has helped me immensely.
I wrote a couple of novels fifteen years ago, because I always wanted to be a writer. I sent them out, got lots of rejection letters. I pinned them all to my wall, triumphantly defiant, bold, willing to endure the odds, knowing that my stories would prevail in the end.

I had about half my den wallpapered with rejection slips when I finally got a hit. "This sounds fantastic," said the letter from the major publisher. "Send us the manuscript and the synopsis of the entire trilogy."

Of course I did. My whole family was giddy with anticipation. I finally had someone interested and actually reading.

The response:

"Dear Mr. Daulton. We love your story idea. Unfortunately, the writing is not quite what we are looking for." That's literally what I got.

I was so disappointed. So close. They actually loved my story outline and synopsis. Asked for it all. Then, bleh. Nope.

So, rather than give up, I decided to go get an English degree. Took me 9 years at night. I rewrote that story and sent it out to publishers. Takes six months to get a rejection these days. Meanwhile, I went for an M.A. because some of the professors were really encouraging.

I fixed up the manuscript a little a few years into that, and self-published it.

I now write full time.

I'm not saying my education made the story. I believe I had a good idea, and the reviews I get confirm that it is original and cool. But then again, thirteen years ago, a major publisher said the same thing. So what happened was, I needed to learn execution.

I'm not saying everyone needs an M.A. or even a B.A. in English or whatever, but I am saying that a formal education, at least for me, seems to have made a huge, huge, huge difference, given that the only difference between the first time I wrote it and the second time I wrote it was what I learned formally.

I know this is long, but I hope it helps. Frankly, your question comes on the heels of a conversation I just had with a long time friend who published a novel that isn't doing well, despite being a brilliant idea. And I know why it's not doing well. It's a great idea, and the proofreading is even pretty solid, but it's just not really solid writing. Taking classes will help him find the obvious problems so much faster than if he keeps plugging along bombing and  hoping with each new one he will figure out what he's doing wrong. Learning seldom works against us.

The whole "standing on the shoulders of giants" thing makes a lot of sense.
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I wrote sixteen books from fourteen years of age to twenty-four, more than 50 short storie , more than 100 poems, more than 1,000 essays... all for fun.  I've just learned how to write and it had nothing to do with education. I  bought books on writing and grammar and then broke down my writing sentence by sentence, until finally I saw where descriptions fell flat,. where I over complicated a sentence, and where the writing made for bland experience.  The books I got, It Was The Best of Sentences, It was The Worst Of Sentences by June Casagrande and Sin And Syntax: How To Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale.  They've changed the way I write and read my writing.

I believe that it just takes a willingness to work on your writing.  Let us remember Wonder Boys and the character of Gary Tripp--played wonderfully by Michael Douglas in the movie--and what he tells Robert Downey Jr.'s character, "No one can teach a writer to write!"  Grammar and English are important, but, don't tell that to Hubert Selby Jr. or to Jonathan Safran Foer who made very effective books while avoiding good grammar.  Sometimes a little work is necessary, but, nothing a bit of honesty, and a bit of self-study won't teach.
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It sounds like you're comparing apples and pears.

A formal degree in something writing-related may improve your style and your grammar. It may teach you story structure. It will not teach you to get the ideas needed to write a riveting story.

Copy-editing is handy, but has little to do with the creating process itself.
My degree is in cybersecurity, so I've got technical writing down pat. But, I've never used dialogue tags to explain malware infection stages (although it might be entertaining for me to try it) my experience there doesn't always translate to fiction.

I feel like I'm a decent storyteller, but sometimes I feel grammatically immature when compared to more 'accomplished' writers.

All my experience is based on what I've picked up from writing books/blogs (KB has been a phenom help), or studying the writing styles of my favorite authors.

I think it might be worth the time to pursue writing-related classes, but it would take time away from writing. Do you invest your time in formal education, or do you write to the best of your ability and hire a good editor?

@Patty It's snowing outside and I'm now craving pears :)
A formal education has advantages and disadvantages.

For example, a good teacher and a class of motivated fellow students can help you "fast forward", gain a lot of skills that might take you years of trial and error in a less structured environment.

And on the less pleasant side, you can encounter people who seem to be put on this earth to take all the joy out of life. Teachers who are so set on a specific way things must be done, they cant see that any other way exists.

And that can be a good thing too. You have to be strong enough to resist being squashed, as well as honest enough to recognise when you are the one who is being defensive and reluctant to change and try something new.

I've been on both sides - teacher as well as student, and both have their dangers!
I find education is what you make of it. I haven't taken a writing related class since my teens, and although I certainly feel I'd be in a better position if I took an English degree (grammar, structure, editing, etc), I don't think it would have made me a better storyteller.

I find my education these days via my editor, blogs, trial and error, and sitting down and writing.

A degree is good, but it's only a piece of paper at the end of the day. Discover lessons wherever you can, and trust me, there are many all over the place (including this forum)

Matthew Turner
"There was a comment on another thread about an author/editor who'd finished an 18 month copyrighting certification. "
God Bless the free market. Ain't this a great country?
Copywriting is a whole other ball of wax - it's much more about advertising and marketing and has a lot less to do with formal writing. In fact, good copywriting breaks a lot of the rules of formal writing.

But, to answer the question at the center of the original post, it's clear if you look at the difference between Anne Rice's writing and Stephenie Meyer's writing. Both have a creative imagination and can spin a good yarn, but Rice's lack of education is apparent, especially in her first efforts. By contrast, Meyer is formally educated and while I actually prefer Rice's imagination, Meyer is a lot easier to read because she has the mechanics of writing down, which she learned and honed with a B.A. in English Lit. from BYU, which has an excellent program. It's the first program I attended before I resigned from the cult (apostates are not allowed to attend BYU) - they do have a good Eng. Lit. program, though. Further evidence of the quality of Meyer's education is the classical theme that runs throughout Twilight. Meyer is by far the better writer of the two, even if I do prefer Rice's vampires.
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Formal writing education does give you the advantage of having a network of fellow classmates who are all heading into the market, so to speak. This can be very useful as a writer in years to come as your friends find positions in the industry: assorted literary competitions, magazines, and teaching gigs in universities.

Formal writing education teaches you skills that the 'loner' doesn't get - the 'loner' has to essentially reinvent the wheel, learn everything by themselves, learn how to take criticism, rewrite their material, develop perspective and a thick-skin, as well as how to construct tight narratives.

My two cents worth is: if you can afford to go into a writing program and get the education, you'll never regret it. Being trained beats the amateur, almost every time.

Can you do it without formal education? Sure. You can attempt it - but there's no guarantee you'll end up as good as someone who went through the education process of a good creative writing course.  
/2 cents worth

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maritafowler said:
Does formal education really make you a better writer? If so, how much is enough? If not, how do you fine tune your writing?
Formal education should make you a better writer in the grammar/spelling/sentence structure portion of the art. However, like some have said here, it does not bring instant creativity, great plots or any of those things necessary to tell a good story. I thank God every day for people who fall in the middle ground as readers where they are not constantly editing as they read for spelling, grammar and typos. A few of these are always going to be found in even the best author's works.
Speaking for myself, my own education was not directed at making writing a career, though I wish it were so now. In hindsight, I would have done better taking courses in marketing had I known that today's writers not only have to write good books, they have to edit, create cover art, publish and market their work. These things take a lot of time and/or money and have nothing to do with a degree in geology or geography or theoretical physics.
What a formal education does do for an aspiring writer is teach him/her how to research topics, write according to strict grammatical rules and put up with a lot of criticism (in the form of grades).
What I hate to hear is someone saying such things as 'degrees are only pieces of paper'. Anyone with a degree knows how much hard work went into getting that degree. It is like saying 'marriage is only a piece of paper'. We all know that marriage is much more than that. Degrees, like marriages, are contracts. A degree is a contract made by the student with the world that says 'I'm trained (schooled) in such and such and I have the necessary knowledge to do such and such for pay'.
Absolutely anyone can be a writer, but maybe not a good writer or even a so-so writer with the advent of Kindle and other ePublishing platforms. Just writing something down does not mean it will sell and even selling what you wrote down doesn't mean you will be successful as a writer.
It is all a matter of talent in the end as far as success as a writer goes, but without the proper amount of schooling, that talent could very well be wasted if the writer cannot spell or construct a comprehensible plot.
I have accumulated a few reviews stating exact opposite viewpoints and I believe this anomaly is caused by what is known as diversity of opinion. My writing may please one reader and make another go bonkers.
Saying all the above is simply saying it is a combination of talent and education that makes a good writer. So, you may ask, why didn't I just say that to start with? I guess I'm feeling wordy today.
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MPTPGV said:
I believe that it just takes a willingness to work on your writing.
I think this is the best quote to sum it up. If you're passionate about writing, are eager to improve your work, and have an effective means of doing so, you don't necessarily need any formal education. However, it's one thing to want to improve and quite another to put in the time and effort it requires all by yourself.
Education is almost always going to help no matter what, but in the age of the internet there are a lot of other viable alternatives to improve your writing.

My first degree (and my current second one) helped me a heck of a lot as a writer. I went from just writing "neat stories" to writing things with intent and purpose, and understanding which techniques I'd need to employ to achieve specific results. And even now I still have a heck of a lot to learn. :)

I'd say formal education definitely helps, but the amount it helps can vary vastly from person to person. If you have the time, money, and inclination to study, then it's rarely ever a bad thing. If not, it might be a better use of your time to stick to reading respected writing blogs and searching for helpful online articles/communities.
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Formal education definitely made me a better writer. I spent my whole four years in college sneaking into the computer lab and writing a historical romance novel, when I should have been studying and writing papers instead. I barely squeaked through college, but I wouldn't be the writer I am today if I hadn't spent those four years industriously writing and rewriting my first novel. It never got published, but it definitely helped me learn how to write fiction.

I still can't turn out a decent term paper, though.;D
Brendan Carroll said:
Formal education should make you a better writer in the grammar/spelling/sentence structure portion of the art. However, like some have said here, it does not bring instant creativity, great plots or any of those things necessary to tell a good story.
Interestingly I actually found the opposite was true in my education (but then again, it was a "creative arts" degree rather than anything, you know, practical).
I've learned next to nothing about grammar and sentence structure in the classroom since highschool, but I've picked up countless tidbits about story structure, characterisation, pacing, cheesy emotional manipulation, even tips on how to "find your muse" as a writer.
I think that kind of degree is very much the outlier though - it's the sort of thing you only want to do if you're completely dedicated to becoming a writer. Because goodness knows it's not going to help you out much in many other career paths. ::)
That is true, Claudia. Taking creative courses would be an exception, of course. Those courses actually challenge the student to be creative in some medium and then gives them a number of methods for conjuring up the creative juices. Taking creative writing will help anyone with a bent to become a writer surely. But creative cartography, on the other hand, not so much.  :D
maritafowler said:
There was a comment on another thread about an author/editor who'd finished an 18 month copyrighting certification. Immediately, I thought...I need that - it will make things less painful during edits... question to the vast Kindlesphere is...

Does formal education really make you a better writer? If so, how much is enough? If not, how do you fine tune your writing?
I have five degrees completed and one deferred. My first degree was an engineering degree gained while I was serving in the Navy. That offers no advantage in fiction writing, although it does in technical writing. I subsequently gained several more degrees, something that caused my mother to claim that it was because I couldn't make up my mind about what I wanted from life. She was probably correct. For the past two and a half decades my English and Journalism degrees have been core to my career success. I had a good sub-tertiary education with strong emphasis on English, but it was the tertiary training that enabled me to both publish several books (technical and lifestyle oriented - not fiction) and work successfully in media and the publishing industry.

The other aspect is that learning to plan, research, and organise a subject is a very big part of writing success. Yes, a formal education will make you a better writer although it might not make you a better author - a story-teller.
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I took a few college writing classes in high school, and got very little out of them. I found that I learned a lot more by reading, writing, and listening to other writers. It's one of the reasons I didn't end up going to college - I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I didn't think college could give me what I needed for that.

A friend of mine went through a creative writing program in college, and she got a lot out of it. But I don't think I would have gotten nearly as much out of the program she was in. It was very much intended for people who want to write literary fiction.

It depends so much on your personality and your goals. I'm not interested in literary fiction, which is what most college programs focus on. I was also homeschooled for junior high and high school, so I already had the skills for learning outside a classroom environment, which not everyone has. But a formal education is definitely not necessary for becoming a better writer.
Does formal writing education help? From my perspective as an editor. Yes and no.

Formal education can either enhance the skills you already have, or kill any creativity you might be nurturing. It can teach you the basic rules, but it can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. I have seen people with advanced degrees who had a highly inflated opinion of their own abilities, and yet some of my best customers are Ph.D.s who know their own limitations (and they know the value of a good editor).

That said I would rather edit a book for a professor of international politics than the third novel of a graduate of most MFA programs.
A class is copyediting is a lot different than getting a degree or taking classes in fiction writing. You don't need a degree to be able to tell a good story. It can help with basics, but good storytellers will reach their audience regardless. A copyediting certification is important if you plan on offering a credible business to writers. There are rules involved a lot of us don't think about while we're writing that they're trained to catch.
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