If there’s one tip of all those I will be letting you in on that is the most valuable, it is this one. Take a few writing classes, at least one. If you weren’t an English major in college, you probably only took a composition and literature survey course. If you are serious about becoming a published author, I believe it is an absolute must that you take a few writing classes. As a freelance editor and writer who has worked for private clients and major publishers, I cannot begin to tell you the difference in quality of many of the books I’ve worked on for trade publishers and private writers seeking to get published. And this difference is seen not just in having a number of works already published but also in the fact that many of these authors have taken writing classes and even studied literature.
I also believe that another major difference is found in a writer’s knowledge of their subject and their genre. If you want to write in the sci-fi or romance genres, it’s imperative that you read all the works you possibly can in that genre from their literary origins to the present, and study how those writers developed their stories, their characters, and their plots. These may be flooded and formulaic genres but you can, some way, somehow, always add something new to the mix if you learn how others have worked in and transformed the genre, giving you the courage and know-how to do the same. Originality in literature is fundamental; today, now more than ever, this is true because of the rampant increase in self-published authors and alternative avenues down which writers can go thanks to the Internet, social media, and mobile technology.
But back to taking writing classes: No matter where you live I’m sure you can find a few writing workshops offered at a local college or university, or maybe writing workshop programs that are not affiliated with a university, like Gotham Writers’ Workshop in NYC, which has an excellent reputation. I myself was an English major, have been writing since I was fourteen, and took three workshops (two in poetry, one in fiction) as an undergraduate and graduate student.
What’s great about taking writing classes is that they are offered in a variety of genres: fiction (novels and short stories), nonfiction, playwriting, poetry, personal essay writing, memoir and autobiography, to name the most obvious. Writing classes are not terribly expensive and if you are a returning student you can get a discount on the classes you take in workshop programs like Gotham. They are offered at multiple levels as well, from introduction to intermediate, to advanced and even master classes. They are also taught by authors who are well versed in the genre in which they are instructing because they’ve been published in it. The instructors usually, if not always, have MFAs, so they have taken numerous courses in pursuit of a creative writing degree in a specific genre as well.
A typical writing workshop is about three hours long and is limited to a small group of students, most likely between ten and fifteen individuals, and lasts anywhere from eight to ten weeks. Each week students learn about different devices and techniques writers use to develop their narrative, their characters, plots, and language. The students are given an in-class exercise to begin to develop this skill within the genre that the class is focused on and may even do group work as well. Between sessions each student is tasked with writing a flexible number of pages required to submit for critique two to three times while the workshop is in progress. Students read their peers’ work and offer constructive feedback in the next session so that the student whose work is being reviewed can learn what is strong and what needs improvement for a future submission to the class and, eventually, publishers. Students are also assigned a short text to read for each class that exemplifies the specific style, device, or language that will be discussed as a technique to be used in writing the particular genre.
Writing classes are good because they get your writing out in front of others who are in the same position as you, looking to learn how to write in or enhance their writing in their chosen genre. It is good to be among your fellow writers and to get feedback on your story, your style, your language, and to see how some things may or may not work for potential future readers. It is also a very good thing to have instructors who have been teaching and getting published in the genre. Writing classes are also a great idea because if you are truly interested in developing and mastering skills in a specific genre like poetry or novel writing, then taking classes from the introductory to the master level will be a positive and productive venture for you in the long run. Writing classes will not only begin to teach you how to write in and practice writing in your chosen genre, teaching you the particular techniques for it, but they will also allow you to become a critical reader of not just your peers’ work and the work of other published writers, but also your own, and that is the most important thing you can take from any writing class—how to become a better reader, thereby enabling you to become a better writer.