There are some industries that require a certain amount of education in order to enter them. I would never see a doctor who had not been to medical school and passed all his boards, and lawyers must pass the bar before they can practice law. True, some doctors and lawyers are better than others, but we expect a certain quality and amount of intelligence based on their degrees.
There are some industries, however, where no one cares a rat’s rear end* how you got your skills, they just want you to deliver. This largely includes the performing and visual arts, i.e. actors, musicians, dancers. You may have gone to some expensive music school, but if you sing off key Simon will still tear you apart. You may have studied ballet with Mikhail Baryshnikov but if you have sickle feet you ain’t gracing the stage.
But let’s talk writing books. What qualifies a person to write one? Does anyone care how much education an author has and what type of education will give the greatest advantage to the writer?
I know both from word of mouth and experience that this is an industry where no one cares much what your educational background is (at least when it comes to writing fiction. Non-fiction is another story.) A certain degree or amount of experience might have a sway with agents, editors, and maybe readers, but in the end it is the writing that sells your book.
Still I ask myself the question, would a graduate degree such as an MFA make me a better writer? Would it make me grow in ways that I otherwise would not? Do they share secrets you can’t get anywhere else?
I listen to the podcast “Writers on Writing” which can be found here if you’re interested. They interview authors, editors, and literary agents on the art and business of writing. If you have any desire to learn about the industry as well as get sound writing advice I highly recommend you listen.
Anyway, back to topic. One of the questions Writer’s on Writing usually always ask their guests is “What do you think about an MFA? Is it necessary? Is it worth it?” The answer always vary. Some say it’s a waste. Some say it’s nice if you can afford it. Some say only do it if you can do it for free, but I have never heard anyone ever say that it is necessary.
I always like to learn about favorite authors and find out what their success story was, how they “made it” and I have learned that there are many roads. There are plenty of successful authors who have received an MFA and there are many who have not. We even have teenagers on the bestseller list.
There are online writing course, conferences and workshops, critique groups, agent and editor blogs. All these have given me inspiration, advice, and tools in the belt. But if there is one piece of advice I have heard over and over again from many different kinds of writers, editors, agents, and everything in between, it is this:
Read, read, read. Write, write, write.
You will not know what great writing is if you do not read it. You will not grow as a writer if you do not write.
The novels on my shelves have been my textbooks for writing. If I want to learn about pacing, I study a book that I thought flowed seamlessly. If I want to learn about character development I study a book where the characters became real to me, friends that I think about long after I finish the book. If I want to learn about suspense, I study a book I could not put down so I could find out what happened next. If I want to avoid really bad writing I pick up a book I think is lame and figure out why I think that so I can avoid those pitfalls.
Even though writing is a creative process and is often subjective, it is still a craft. There are rules to be learned**, pitfalls to avoid, and techniques to make your writing more effective. You will also learn these things as you write and especially rewrite. (I’ve never heard of a brilliant first draft.)
Formal education can be helpful and can offer networking and a community for an endeavor that is otherwise solitary, but perhaps a writer does not need a formal education to become a great writer. Still I will not assume that because I can form a complete sentence and use big words that I deserve the title author. I will do all I can to continue to learn.
What about you? What has been a most effective teacher?
*I know it doesn’t have the same effect, but I just can’t bring myself to write rat’s a**! Sorry! That’s one of the reasons I write for kids!
**The rules are actually made to be broken, but you have to know them and have a good reason for breaking them.