U is for University

UOr: why writing courses are awesome.

One of the most common writing-related questions I’ve seen online is something to the effect of “Should I take writing courses in college? If I’m going to be a writer, should I major in English?” And so forth and so on.

I find it kind of amusing that we see these questions with creative pursuits, like writing, more than we would with professions like “doctor” or “lawyer” or “engineer.”

Do you need to major in English or writing if your goal is to be a professional writer? Not necessarily.
Do you need an education in the craft? Oh hell yes.

Now, a caveat: Writing is a practical application. All the studying in the world won’t make a damn bit of difference if you don’t actually get out there and practice. Writers write. It really is that simple.

That being said, I do think a university education in writing can help you tremendously in honing your craft.

Why?

You get access to a knowledgeable instructor for anywhere from one semester to multiple years.
Many college-level writing programs are taught by professors who are professional authors. That means they’re published and they’re getting paid on the regular for their work. And they’re there to help you learn what works and what doesn’t.

That means you’re getting someone whose job it is to give you honest assessments on your work. You’ll get insanely valuable feedback on your stories and your strengths and weaknesses, so you’ll know what parts of your craft need more practice. You’re supposed to rewrite, revise, and hand your stories back to them multiple times. And you get access to this kind of help for months or even years, depending on the length of the program (or how many classes you take).

You will also, in some cases, get an instructor who will look at you and say, with all seriousness, “Why aren’t you submitting this?” And that’s a great kick in the pants.

You get a structured environment for dissecting stories and genres.
One of the writing tips you’ll hear regularly is “Study your favorite stories. Study your favorite authors. Break down the stories and figure out what makes them work.”

This is very good advice, but it’s also kind of difficult to do on your own. However, that was one of the things we had to do in just about every writing course I took in college. After a few semesters of discussing different genres and being shown how to break down stories, it became easier to read analytically and identify what worked and what didn’t. Once I’d gotten the hang of it there, it became much easier to do on my own.

You get a built-in critique group.
Looking for someone to read your stuff? Look no further than the people with whom you’re attending classes. You’re all in the same boat, learning the same things, working on the same assignments. Plus, you see each other on a regular basis, so it’s easy to get together for review.

It was in the professional writing program at the University of Oklahoma that I met Jessica (again, but that’s a long story), and she’s remained one of my trusty CPs to this day, nearly 10 years later.

In sum, writing courses rock.

I learned a massive amount about writing professionally while I was at the University of Oklahoma, and I am so, so glad I took those courses. It’s stuff I might have learned eventually through my own study, but condensing it all into two solid years of study meant I learned it that much faster.

If you have the chance, I would encourage you to take writing courses. And if you don’t have the chance, I would encourage you to educate yourself in other ways: writing books, writing podcasts, conferences, and retreats. There’s a lot to learn, but it’s well worth what it does for your skill.

And above all, keep writing! 🙂

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3 thoughts on “U is for University

  1. Completely spot on. I don’t think that I’d be where I’m at if not for college. I learned a lot of valuable lessons about myself and my writing process there–also how to emotionally handle a critique group. (Getting massive revisions back on something I’d written was a lot easier to deal with when there were other people in the group that got just as much red on their papers as me.)

    The only thing I wished college prepared me more for was the business of writing. A lot of the courses I took never said a word about HOW to get published–the ins and outs of contacting a publisher/agent, some of the business courtesies, like asking for 2 weeks to make a decisions so you have time to notify everyone else you sent queries to that you’ve found a publisher/agent. I wish they had offered a business course for freelance artists or something.. but they didn’t. Ah well. The internet gave me all the information I needed, I suppose.

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