Can you learn to be a writer?

I have always thought this to be an interesting question, being a published author myself but with no formal training in creative writing. It has been several years since my novel was published, but with changing technology and publishing trends, at the moment there are several authors who fall into this category who are making a big name for themselves. There are so many more opportunities out there, and authors work can be promoted and get noticed via the internet and sharing though social media. Some authors have had professional training, some have not. But is this what distinguishes a good writer from a bad one? Is it what distinguishes publication success from a struggling existence at the bottom of the slush pile?

A simple internet search for “creative writing courses” returns quite a yield of results. Everything from night classes to university degrees to weekend retreats. A summary of what these activities include usually reads something like this:

  • Thinking critically and evaluating
  • Story structure, genre, character development
  • Editing and rewriting
  • Learning from experienced publishers and writers

This all sounds good and beneficial. But to who? Would it be beneficial to someone who has never written anything, who doesn’t have that idea for a novel burning a whole in their brain but who needs some formal training to help them get started and fully develop their ideas? I’m not sure. Can teaching these techniques to anyone, regardless of whether or not they have a passion for writing, suddenly mean they will be able to produce a jaw dropping work of literary genius? Or is something more required?

One of my writing technique books

This might sound like I am against formal creative writing courses, but I’m not. I have never taken such a course, but I would quite like to – just because I have had a novel published does not mean I know everything there is to know about writing. Far from it. I have bought my fair share of writing aids, and believe there is always something new to be learned, especially in a field that is by its nature free flowing and creative, in an industry that is changing all the time. But it can be deceptive when someone who has had no training or previous experience suddenly pops up on the radar as a best selling writer. First of all, it doesn’t mean that this person has some kind of magical innate talent for writing; the kind of thing that makes other untrained aspiring writers think, “Well, that’s it. This highly successful author has had no training and so clearly they must have a talent that I don’t have.” Sales do not equal talent.

In many cases, yes, of course they have natural talent. But sometimes, their book has simply captured the interest of the public, and online word of “mouth” has helped their popularity to grow and grow. This doesn’t always mean the book in question is very well written.

There is also a difference, to me, between formal and informal learning. A formal course, with set work plans, a syllabus to follow and a tutor to guide you and critique your work can be useful in helping you to develop your ideas, and develop a real method for writing, editing, character development and everything in between. Not to mention the fact that it really makes you sit down and concentrate. But informal learning can help just as much to nurture and develop a talent for writing. Book club discussions, understanding what you personally like to write about, where your own passions lie, and reading, reading and reading. My personal opinion is that only this will help you to best understand what is good and what is bad, what is really bad, which writing styles fir with which genres, how characters can change and develop (or not, in some cases), how to move a story on (without your plot devices looking too contrived), how to structure sentences, how to begin and how to end.

I think a formal creative writing course can teach a lot, and the benefits to both aspiring writers and more seasoned ones can be equally as vast. But the talent and the passion have to be there as well; something that can be nurtured and developed with encouragement and assistance with technique. I don’t think that just anyone could attend a course and suddenly “learn” to be a writer. Passion, as much as anything else, is key. Those who have a passion will jump in and get started regardless. If what they have written isn’t very good, they will seek help for improvement. They will read a lot and know what makes a good book enjoyable. I think this type of learning experience is invaluable. And the more I read, the more passionate I become to write.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Stephen King


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