You Don't Need A Writing Teacher
(But They CAN Help)
“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”
~ Flannery O’Connor
For many aspiring writers, the allure of a writing course can be hard to resist. It seems perfect: they not only have someone to constantly validate their work, but they also get a certificate at the end which they can wave around, proclaiming they’re writers now because their teacher told them so. But do these courses actually help?
It depends what your intentions are, and what you hope to gain from the course. If you sign up to a creative writing class or seminar in order to be handed a secret get-rich-quick formula, you’ll be wasting your time. They don’t exist. And if someone tells you they do, they’re lying. There are certainly tricks and tips that you can implement to improve your work and make it more saleable, but that doesn’t mean you can write a bestseller based on a four-point process. That might work with a screenplay, but novels are a different animal. There’s no universally accepted blueprint to writing a bestselling book.
I once read a story about an agent who rejected an author’s work and received a letter back telling the agent he was wrong to disregard it. The writer argued that he’d read and broken down every bestseller on the market and pinpointed the formula — the highs and lows, the fight scenes, the love story, etc. — and constructed his novel to match those moments. His book was practically a carbon copy of those thrillers, so how could his novel possibly fail? But it’s not that simple.
Novels are vast landscapes, and there’s so much that goes on below the surface. Characterisation, theme, prose, subplots, emotion, dialogue, interaction, scene pacing. This can’t be torn down and turned into bullet points. You may build something resembling a bestseller on the surface level, but everything else will be wrong under the hood. That’s where your talent and hard work comes into play.
And teachers can help you with that . . .
Or they can destroy your talent.
“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”
~ William Arthur Ward
There are plenty of amazing writing teachers in the world. But for every great teacher, there are thirteen terrible ones whose advice could derail your ambitions and interrupt your learning process. Not purposely: the majority of people who enter the teaching profession have good intentions, but that doesn’t mean they’re always correct. Depending on who you get as a teacher, he or she may pass their bad habits on to you. They may stamp out your flourishes of talent (marking those sections of prose as excessive or needless) and gear you toward something more mundane.
Each teacher approaches his job with in-built biases: he or she will have certain likes and dislikes that might go against your own preferences. You may love genre fiction, but your teacher thinks genre writing is trash. Or vice versa. She might be a genre fan and find all classics turgid and boring — which is fine, unless you happen to love them and be planning to write a book in a similar vein. In this instance, the teacher will inhibit you by pushing you away from the style you’re naturally inclined to write in.
Having said that, there are teachers out there who are able to shove their likes to the side and not encroach on a writer’s unique style — these are the great teachers, the ones who nurture and suggest but never enforce their opinion on an author. They steer and guide, but also acknowledge they don’t know everything.
A bad teacher, however, will try to mould your work in their own vision and insist on changes they believe will improve your story. But what’s good and interesting to your teacher might not be so interesting to you. Teachers are fallible; they’re human; they’re learning, just like us. Soak in their advice, but don’t take it as gospel. If it feels right, and sounds right, and you can realise or understand its benefit, then take it on board.
But if you’re skeptical, hold back for a while. Remember it, write it down, then check with other authors. Look online. Read some books. If you keep seeing the same advice crop up, it’s probably useful. If not, that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful, but it could simply be an idiosyncrasy of the teacher: an odd like or dislike he’s picked up over the years.
Open your ears and pay attention, but don’t conform for the sake of it.
“Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.”
Do your research before joining a class. If possible, find out who the teacher is and ask a few questions. Does he or she have anything published? If the answer’s yes, ask if you can read it. Then you can make a judgement on their writing. Is it any good? Or do you think the teacher writes with the skill of a fish? Pass it to a few friends to make sure. If everyone thinks he can’t write, maybe he isn’t the best person to teach you. Look beyond the words: does the teacher understand structure? Characterisation? Dialogue? Again, if you’re not sure, ask around and see what the general consensus is.
What if he doesn’t have anything published? That doesn’t automatically make him a hack. Ask him about his favourite books and authors. If they’re writers you hate, you might not get along together. Ask him or her what type of prose they’re inclined to read: lyrical or pared down or fancy or whatever. Again, if their likes don’t jibe with yours, maybe this is the wrong class for you. Express those concerns and see what the teacher says; maybe she’ll allay your fears and explain a little about how she likes to teach. If she’s laid back and prefers to guide you on your own path, to let you make your own mistakes and learn through experience, that’s good. If she’s able to critique your work from a structural point of view without allowing her biases to affect her judgement, that’s good too.
You want a teacher who will say, This scene didn’t have enough tension. Or This scene had no relevance to your plot or This character’s actions contradict his earlier statements. What you don’t want is a teacher who writes This character is unlikable just because he or she doesn’t like the character. Or This dialogue is terrible without explaining why, because he or she isn’t a fan of that type of dialogue. That will only inhibit you.
So pick your teacher or course carefully.
“In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn.”
~ Phil Collins
In my early twenties I joined an amateur writing class. The teacher, an unpublished pensioner, thought he knew everything about writing — he didn’t acknowledge that he was still learning, or that, ultimately, no one can fully know the ins and outs because there are infinite variables. In his world, everything he said or did was right. Admittedly, at the time, I was less likely to listen to advice anyway. I was arrogant and young; a self-proclaimed prodigy who came for the validation, not to be told I was doing it wrong.
Even still, this teacher tried to stamp his own way of doing things onto the students. He tried to shoehorn us all into the same box, so that we’d end up as clones of himself. I suppose that was down to his insecurities: if we wrote like him, and he enjoyed the writing, that would validate his own craft. I don’t know. Either way, I saw a lot of the class taking his ideas to heart — shredding work that I thought was great, just because he’d said otherwise. He clearly had certain preferences. And although he liked my work, I didn’t feel comfortable in his class. I felt like I was being forced to write in a particular style, and I didn’t want to conform to his expectations just to please him.
The one positive aspect, above all else, was that I wrote a lot.
A writing class gives you assignments, and that forces you to get off your lazy rump, stop making excuses, sit down at your computer and actually write some stuff.
And that can only be a good thing. No matter what you’re writing.
“You cannot teach a man anything,
you can only help him find it within himself.”
~ Galileo Galilei
In short, it’s a bit of a crapshoot: you may get a great teacher who transforms your writing from gold to diamond; a lifelong mentor who will steer you down the path of success. Either that, or you’ll be stuck with a bitter, unpublished old hack who hates everything and everyone and just wants to mould an army of clones. It’s a hard choice.
If it gets you writing, though, maybe that’s what you need. Maybe you find it hard to be disciplined without a deadline hanging over your head. In that case, go for it, sign up. Just be aware of what they’re telling you: listen, learn, and adapt — only when necessary. Don’t get defensive or argue, just take it all in. You can always ignore it later.
And most likely, at the beginning, you won’t ignore much.
But as the weeks tick on and your confidence grows, you’ll start to realise what you like and dislike, and what you disagree with. And later still, you’ll begin to master your craft. And that’s great.
But whatever you do: never stop learning. It’s essential.
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