Can you learn how to be a writer?

As most of you know, I studied creative writing at university. A few people have asked me recently whether I think you need to study formally to be a good writer. This question will be even more pertinent when I go to a local high school on Monday to talk to two hundred twelve-year-olds about a career in writing and publishing. I figured I had better give it some thought!

It’s a more complex answer than a simple yes or no. Studying creative writing at that level has certainly made me more aware of everything I do as a writer. Before, I knew a good story when I read one, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what made it so in a way that was meaningful, technically. I could probably write a half decent one too, but I wouldn’t really understand what I was doing and whether it was working or not. My degree taught me about genres, literary tropes and motifs, about narrators and voices and points of view. It has made me understand the mechanics of the craft, how to utilise style and structure, how to choose the best words to elicit emotion. For me, it was a useful process and I think I’m a far better writer for it. You would think that would make the answer to the question of whether you can learn how to write a resounding ‘yes’. But, clearly, there are incredibly talented authors out there who understand all this with no formal training; they do these things instinctively with, perhaps, no clear insight into the process. So, maybe then, that’s a no.

Little old me! The hat kept falling off but after a couple of glasses of Pimms it didn't seem to matter.

Little old me! The hat kept falling off but after a couple of glasses of Pimms it didn’t seem to matter.

The most important thing I took away from my degree, ironically, was self-belief – only a smidgen, but all that was needed to make me actually finish a novel with a view to publication. Though I spent years making up stories, I never showed them to anyone. Doing well in my degree, receiving great feedback and support from students and tutors alike, did more to drive me towards writing to be read than anything else I can think of. The journey I’m on now all started at that crucial point. Perhaps, from that perspective, leaning to be confident is more important than learning to write. The other thing my degree course did was make me some fantastic friends who are as passionate about the written word as I am, and tutors I also consider to be lifelong friends who still support me as a writer now. I know that an online writing community exists and it is a strong and supportive one, but I treasure these first connections.

For me, my time at university was precious and over too quickly; it taught me so much about my craft. It’s not for everyone, I know, but I don’t think I would be where I am now without it. It might not make you a better writer, but it sure is fun!

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One thought on “Can you learn how to be a writer?

  1. Looking forward to seeing you later! Your take on formal study to become a writer is really interesting and not one I’d have thought of. Maybe all teaching is really as much about teaching confidence as it is about the subject of the classes : )

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