Last week I looked back on my university writing major to evaluate the things it didn’t teach me about being an author or trying to write books for a living. This post is the follow-up to highlight the ways my program did prepare me for a career as a novelist.
Author Things my Writing Major Taught Me:
- That you need to read seriously if you want to write seriously. Half my writing program was lit classes, and here’s why: If you want to write well, you need to read well. You need to know what great writing looks like and learn from it. And a rounded diet doesn’t hurt, but somewhere in there you should be reading the kinds of things you want to write.
- A basic canon of literature and theory including everything from Shakespeare and Aristotle to Emily Dickinson, Raymond Carver, and Jonathan Safran Foer (see: plays, essays, poetry, fiction). I consider this an author thing because exposure to a wide variety of work gives you a broader understanding and palette and can translate to richer, more upmarket fiction (that happy place between literary and genre).
- How to critique and be critiqued. Classroom workshops were perfect for learning to give and receive constructive criticism, which is helpful because criticism is vital to revision. My classes helped me see that feedback improved my work, to develop a thicker skin, and also how to filter the useful from the outlier criticisms of a beta-reading team.
- That you need outside perspective. Last week, I said my major didn’t teach me to distance myself from my work so I could evaluate it objectively. But it did teach me the importance of getting other people to read it—because while we, the authors, will always be too close to our work and biased to some degree, foreign eyes will not. They will see things we don’t. And a classroom you share with friends (those who are careful of our feelings) as well as strangers (those who will be more direct) is a great place to realize that you don’t just want compliments from readers; you want the kind of comments that will help you make the story better.
- To read aloud in order to edit yourself. This was the one trick we learned in my program for gaining some objectivity in our own writing. Not the most practical for long-form (novels), but great for testing passages.
- To keep your day job (or at least, not expect to live off your writing anytime soon). Self-explanatory.
- The mechanics of good writing. It may have seemed harsh last week to say that my writing major didn’t teach me how to write a compelling story (or anything about writing a book), but that’s because you have to know the materials before you can build the house: the fundamentals. Craft rules like Show, Don’t Tell, pacing, good dialogue, killing the runway, using active voice, sensory detail, nouns and verbs over adjectives, etc. Rules such as these I think make the bulk of education in writing, because they are the elements that can be taught.
In sum, a formal (undergraduate) education in writing is about laying the foundations for becoming a great writer– introducing you to the craft, the tools, how to collaborate/give and receive artistic criticism, the great works that have come before. Where you take those lessons (fiction, journalism, screenwriting, etc.)– and how– is entirely up to you.
What have I missed, fellow writing (or English) majors? Share in the comments below!