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!
A recent chat with a friend got me thinking: There’s a lot a formal education in writing doesn’t teach you about writing—specifically, about being a novelist. And since the start of many collegiate school years is coming up and aspiring authors will be contemplating majors and minors, I thought it’d be a good time to reflect on my own studies, what they taught me about writing, and what they didn’t.
This will be a two part post, beginning with:
Things my Writing Major Didn’t Teach Me
- What makes a compelling story. We always discussed what we read, why it was great literature, terminology. But did I learn what made me care about characters? What made me feel, what pulled me into a narrative, what kept me turning pages? No. These are things I’ve only found through years of personal, recreational reading and writing—things I’m still realizing today. If you’re a writing major aspiring to authordom, I highly recommend a steady diet of personal for-fun reading alongside any scholarly assignments.
- High concept. True, high concept (a unique premise that can be pitched in about a line—“boy goes to wizarding school,” “safari-style park of DNA-resurrected dinosaurs,” or “100 delinquents sent to test living conditions on post-apocalyptic earth”) doesn’t apply to every work of fiction. But grasping the term is invaluable in storytelling, as is being able to detail your concept—what your story is about—before you even start writing.
- How to write a book. My program offered courses in short stories, plays, poetry, and creative nonfiction—but no “Engw 401: How to Write a Novel.” I actually can’t even remember discussing plot in a story-craft capacity, except once in a Spanish lit class. En Español!
- The significance of revision. Oh, we revised—but not nearly enough. The best lessons are the ones I’ve found in my own pursuits since graduating: (1) Final draft = first draft – 10-15% (Stephen King). In other words—CUT A LOT. (2) “Revisions” =/= line edits, stronger wording, moving punctuation around. Revisions mean extreme, sweeping changes to the entire story, with large portions cut and other large portions rewritten. (3) “The first draft of everything is shit,” (Hemingway), but two drafts doesn’t do it, either. Try five or ten or twenty.
- That distance (time away) is a necessary part of revision. On a semester schedule, there was naturally not enough time to let our work sit between drafts so we could come back to it with fresh eyes after a month or so. But this is essential to seeing your work, especially novels, objectively: to evaluating what needs to change, and how best to change it.
- How to find an agent.
- How to write a query letter (to an agent). We did just barely touch on querying literary magazines, but in the book-writing realm that ended up being irrelevant. Why? Because
- You do not need publication credits to get an agent. As an aspiring author, I heard time and again that pub credits looked good in your query letter and increased your chances of getting an agent. And there’s probably truth to that. But ultimately, you don’t need credits to land an agent. Your novel is what you’re querying, and your novel is what they’re looking at. So if you want to write books, write books—don’t struggle over short works unnecessarily.
- To daydream. To recognize and collect things that interest you, the seeds of ideas; to connect and develop them into larger stories. This is something I’m still figuring out, and while I’m getting better at it, it’s not a skill they can really teach in the classroom.
I imagine this list will grow with time and progress in publishing, but in the interim, what about you? Whether you’ve studied writing formally or not—what lessons have you had to teach or learn for yourself?
Stay tuned for the second half of this post next week: What my writing major DID teach me about being an author!