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How do you learn to write?

inspirationIt’s a funny thing with writing, some people think they can just write without doing any learning at all and others feel they’re not going to be able to write successfully without doing an MA in Creative Writing at a top university.

Both approaches have validity. There are successful writers out there who have never attended a single writing course or read a How To book. There are also successful writers out there who have MA’s and PhD’s in English Literature and Creative Writing coming out of their ears.

There are also a lot of writers somewhere in between.

What there aren’t many of, I would suggest, is many successful writers who aren’t also voracious readers.

One of the first things I do when I start teaching my Novel Writing courses is ask the participants what they are currently reading. You might (or might not) be amazed by the number of blank looks I get.

Tip 1. So my first tip for wannabe novelists (or any writers, really) is to read. And not just books in your favourite genre, read widely and eclectically, modern and classic, thrillers and romances, literary and popular. And don’t just read. Analyse. Sometimes this is hard to do if you are swept away by the story, but that it just the moment when you need to stop and think to yourself, ‘Why am I so engaged? How is the author achieving this page turning power?’ (If you can’t stop, just treat yourself to one enjoyable read through, and then read it again to analyse!)

Tip 2. My second tip is to read some How To books, blogs and writing magazines. Some are better than others. Some of what you find will help you, some will make you want to jump off a cliff. But it all adds to your portfolio of tips and techniques.

Tip 3. Have a go. Until you have tried to write a novel you won’t really know what you find difficult and what comes easy. You might find you are a dab hand at story structure but can’t write descriptions for toffee. (Or, slightly more worryingly, in my view, you might be able to pen a beautiful, emotive description but be unable to create engaging characters or a compelling plot.)

Once you have worked your way through tips 1-3, then, if you feel the need, the moment may have come for (Tip 4.) a writing course. There are masses available, varying from practising writing exercises at a monthly local writing group through to full time University postgraduate degrees. Just make sure you choose one to suit your needs, and check that it is taught by someone who knows what they are doing and who has some kind of reputation.

Tip 5. Practise makes perfect. I was talking to a group of published writers recently and we all agreed that we had written about a million words each before writing our breakthrough novels. Don’t give in to the temptation to publish your first novel straight away, just because nowadays you can. Work at it, or preferably write another, and publish only when you have something that’s really going to make your name.

Good luck!

Look out for:
Robert McKee’s courses:
The Arvon foundation writing courses
Julia Cameron’s creative rekindling – The Artist’s Way
Bridget Whelan’s book – Creative Writing School
Writing magazine:

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7 thoughts on “How do you learn to write?

  1. You read my mind. Your post sounds like last night’s journal entry. Thanks for your tips. I read a lot and want to write, but feel real stuck. I need to read more how to’s and take a course.

    • Thanks! I’m glad you found the post useful. If you read a lot your are already half way there – maybe start analysing a bit more how writers manage to involve you in their characters and story – and then use their methods for your own story! Good luck with the writing, let me know how you get on.

  2. Maria McCarthy on said:

    Then you’ve got people with a gung-ho approach who think they can just plunge in without any preparation at all and be good writers. I went to a jive class recently with a couple of guys who’d not danced before. Afterwards they were keen to have a go and what they lacked in skills they certainly made up for in enthusiasm. I remarked to another dancer that they both had confidence and commitment, and so were halfway there – and that if they were willing to put in the time to learn technique, they’d be good – similar to writing really, in that anyone can dance for fun, in the same way that anyone can write for fun. But if you want to be good, you’ve got to put the effort in.

    • Thanks. Yes, indeed, no dancers or singers feel they can just ‘do’ it! A bit of analysis about what works (and what doesn’t work) in other authors’ novels is the very minimum requirement for a writing apprenticeship, I think!

  3. Maria McCarthy on said:

    Brilliant advice! I too know people who think writing skills are something you’re ‘awarded’ after successful completion of a University course – once you’ve got that MA or whatever you can just write novels that will be snapped up by grateful publishers/win literary prizes etc. Sometimes that does happen, but more often not. And so many successful authors haven’t had any formal education past school (and often no creative writing education at all) – but, as you say Helen – I bet they are all voracious readers, and ones who can analyse and perceive story structure as well.

  4. Hi Helen

    I agree, oh, I agree!! Having read all my life, classics to pulp, and written my own million words-plus before that publishing contract came, I can honestly say that absorbing literature made me an author. It was an inside-out process, by which I mean that over many years, I learned the craft of expressing ideas that began inside. As the Americans say, Ideas are a dime-a-dozen. You have to know what to do with them.

    My first finished novel was awful and if self-publishing had been a realistic, available option, it might be out there haunting me now. My own particular beef is grammar, structure and punctuation. Nobody would think of trying to join an orchestra without first learning how to handle and play their instrument, but I have a sneaking feeling there are writers who believe that language and grammar – the writer’s raw material – is for grannies and pedants! The structure of most first drafts is sludgy. Only through re-writing and self-editing can the shape emerge and the novel gain fluency and pace. When I first started writing, I had no idea how to handle dialogue and made notes of how published authors did it. That exercise taught me that good fiction dialogue has nothing to do with chatting, nor indeed with stating the bleedin’ obvious (she said hotly, stamping her foot :)) We’re not born knowing how to write, and reading is the best, free school that I know.

    Great post Helen, and can I add my own favourite how-to book; Building Fiction by Jessie Lee Kercheval.

    Natalie Meg Evans
    Debut novel The Dress Thief, published by Quercus June 5 2014

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