Why take a writing class? What do people get out of them? Can writing really be taught, anyway? (The writer Flannery O’Connor famously noted, when asked whether she felt the academy stifled writers, that they ‘don’t stifle enough of them’!)
The fact is that lots of people learn how to write without taking writing classes. So, the short answer is no, you don’t need to take a writing class in order to write. It’s not a professional qualification, after all – it’s not like you need to pass an exam or get a certificate to ‘prove’ that you’ve put in the work.
But like so many other things, having that structure there to help you put in the work can really help. Here are some of the ways a writing class can and should benefit you as a writer:
Taking a writing class gives you the opportunity to focus on writing for a set period of time, whether it’s a once-off day or a set of several weeks. It’s a way of taking yourself seriously as a writer and ensuring that there’s space blocked off in your schedule for writing-related things.
Writing is all about commitment – promising to yourself that you will finish a particular piece of writing, that you will revise a particular draft, that you will start sending work out to agents or to magazines. It’s easier to break a promise to yourself than it is to other people, including the others in your class and a workshop facilitator. Because writing is something we do alone, in our own time, it can be difficult to commit ourselves to it unless we are answerable to someone else.
A good writing class will motivate you to actually write. This might come in the form of doing writing exercises in class – particularly at a beginners’ level, where part of the challenge is to respond immediately to a prompt rather than to muse on it, and overcome perfectionism – or by being prompted by discussions in-class to go home and write. A class should function like a good ‘how to write’ book – it’s not enough to have insights about the craft of writing, it should also inspire you to sit down and apply those insights!
One of the main reasons people take a writing workshop is for guidance. There is plenty you can learn from reading books, but a good teacher or facilitator can direct you towards areas that you might need to focus on, or address certain issues you might have. It’s sort of like having a tour guide – even though you can get where you need to be by wandering alone, it helps to have someone to ask for directions.
A writing teacher should write. They may or may not have studied English or Creative Writing, but they should write. They should write work of publishable quality and have some work published or about to be published. They should also be able to teach – this is particularly important for a longer course. Many great writers can give wonderful speeches about their own work and literature as a whole, but if it’s an ongoing course you need a little more than this. A writing teacher should not talk about their own work all the time. They should be able to offer advice and guidance beyond what works for them in their own practice as writers. They won’t know everything. No one does.
A writing class should help you develop skills – whether it’s learning to read ‘as a writer’ (analysing why something works or why a writer might have chosen to write something in a certain way) or whether it’s improving your skills as a writer of description, dialogue, or whatever you need. It might be about learning a few different ways to approach your work, to outline, to write a first draft – but you should be learning things you can use in your work.
Many people take a writing class because they want to try something new – whether that’s just ‘trying to write something creative’ or writing in a different genre or form. Remember that not everything in a writing class is going to work for you – if there was a ‘quick fix’ or easy way to write a bestseller then our notion of a struggling writer simply wouldn’t exist. The truth is it’s hard, and it’s different for everyone – but being open to suggestions and trying new things makes it a lot easier to find what works for you.
You should be in an environment that respects whatever you’re working on – whether that’s an aspiring Literary Masterpiece or Fun Beach Read or anything in between! If you’re in a class that suggests you shouldn’t be ‘wasting your time’ on a particular genre – get out of there! You need a place that’s going to respect what you’re doing and what you want to write.
One of the big, big reasons people often take a writing class is to get feedback on their work. This is incredibly helpful – it helps you identify your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and aids you in figuring out how to develop your subsequent drafts. And the feedback you’re getting will be, or should be, constructive. Hearing that someone liked what you wrote isn’t always helpful (though this is often what family members and friends will say) – you need to know why they liked it. That goes for things that aren’t working, too.
One of the big differences between a writers’ group and a workshop is that a workshop will have a facilitator to moderate and guide the feedback that’s being given. It can be very easy for a particular group to fall back on the same comments, or to praise someone because they’re a friend rather than because of their work, or to let writers over-explain their work instead of letting it stand alone. The benefit of having a facilitator, apart from getting an expert opinion each time, is that you’re also getting someone who’ll pick up on points made and draw them out if necessary, someone whose role it is to help everyone else articulate what they really mean about a particular piece while still ensuring that the writer and their work is being respected.
Finally, a writing class puts you in touch with other people who are doing the same thing you’re doing – writing, or trying to! Like going to a class on a regular basis, being in contact with other writers keeps you focused and reminds you that it is something that people do fit into their daily lives. It’s another way of taking your writing seriously and reminding yourself that it does take work – another way of providing a bit of structure to something that can seem so arbitrary and in the hands of your muse!