Thursday, December 11, 2008

Trained or Self-Taught?

So one who wants to be a writer can seek a formal education. There are, after all, degrees in creative writing, journalism, the whole gamut.

Or, one could be self-taught.

Though I have a couple years of community college under my belt, I never earned a degree. And even if I had, it would have been in Occupational Therapy or psychology - nothing writing-related. So I've gotten where I am (wherever that may be) by teaching myself.

I've always been incredibly detail-oriented. I've had a knack for grammar and spelling. I've paid close attention to how others write, their voices, formats, markets, what works, what trends call for or reject, etc., and, as a result, I've honed my writing over the course of several years. I have to say the self-taught route has worked just fine for me so far.

Was your knowledge gained through higher-education or osmosis? A little of both?

While there are certain benefits to specialized courses (and I'm not against them), are they necessary to be a success?

Tell me what you think.


Joanne said...

Therese Fowler recently addressed this question on her blog. Therese has her MFA in Creative Writing, and she interviewed her agent Wendy Sherman, and her editor Linda Marrow at Ballantine to see if the degree helped her secure her contracts. Lots of interesting insight from the trenches there. Here's the link:

Terri Tiffany said...

My degree is in Psychology and I know that helps my writing with the people part but not necessarily the nuts and bolts. That I've had to study myself like you and read everything I can on the subject, go to conferences and just plain try.
I wish I had a degree in writing but not to be so I have to go with what I have.
You are doing wondefully with the talent and skills God gave you!

Anonymous said...

I've got my degree in Information Systems. It helps with keeping data and records organized I guess. But in high school and college most of my electives went to creative writing courses. I would venture to say that they've helped me with my writing but I don't think they're required by no means to be a good writer. I personally think that if you've got a good head on your shoulders, decent skills at spelling and grammar and have something to say then you're good to go.

Unknown said...

My degree is in Missions, with a minor in history. The history minor is very helpful when it comes to understanding different time periods and what life was like back then. It gave me a better scope for world history. I am currently taking the apprentice level course through Christian Writers Guild to help me build my skills in the craft of writing. I don't know if it is neccessary to have a degree to be a good writer, but I think it is important to be teachable. That is what I am trying to be...a good student of craft, learning from others who have already been there.

Angie Ledbetter said...

I'm a combo plate. Have a Journalism degree (from the early 80s), but a lot of my learning is through observation, reading, continuing ed, and just the "knack." Interesting question, Janna.

I'll let ya know about the tree contest winner asap!

Melanie Hooyenga said...

I was always in advanced English courses as a kid and almost majored in English in college. I chose Mass Communications instead (so I wouldn't have to be an English teacher) and started off with a focus on journalism. Once I realized I hated interviewing people, I switched to graphic design, but I still took several creative writing classes.

So while I don't have the degree, I have had a bit of study directed towards writing. I agree with celestialwolf that if you've got a good head on your shoulders and pay attention to the world around you, you'll be fine.

WendyCinNYC said...

I've actually been thinking of getting my MFA recently. There are so many good programs in my area and I like workshops and delving into literature.

Anyway, my degree is in English (I minored in creative writing.) For me it's been valuable, but it's by no means the only way to become a writer.

Janna Leadbetter said...

Joanne - That's a great link! Thanks for sharing it with us.

Terri - I think you've touched an important part of it; understanding how people work. If we can put ourselves in others' shoes, or imagine their lives, what good are we to write about them? And thanks. I try to use my talent the best I can (and hang on to humility at the same time).

Cel - Well, shoot! You think a good head on one's shoulders is a prerequisite? I may not be cut out after all... ;)

Stina - Your point really resounds with me! I do agree being open to learning and change is a huge part of it.

Angie - I love combos! :D ...They're all beautiful trees! It'll be a close call, I bet.

Melanie - What you studied seems to tie in nicely; it all gets those creative juices flowing.

Wendy - How exciting! You'll have to keep us posted when you make a decision.

Anonymous said...

I have my undergrad degree in English, but trust me, I forgot everything I ever learned. The one grammar rule I do remember has been cast aside like an overchewed piece of gum. I think I need to go back to school...again. I could be one of those lifelong students. I actually like school.

Melanie Hooyenga said...

I gave you an award on my blog. :)

Janna Leadbetter said...

Fringegirl - Great for you! I think I like the idea of school. I don't know, maybe it'd be different now that I'm an adult. But I'd be so skeered to go back!

Melanie - *gasp!* I'll check it out. Thanks!

Jenna said...

I have a degree in Journalism and though I never became a journalist I did become a technical writer later in my career. I learned more on the job than I did in college but I do think those college courses really taught me how to learn and analyze information.

I do think writers can be self-taught with great success but I think that requires taking the craft as serious as a writer studying for her MFA.

Jewel Allen said...

I got a degree in English planning to go into Technical Writing, but wrote for the student paper throughout college. Still write articles to this day, but don't do any technical writing (which I decided wasn't for me).

My first love has always been journalism. And now, fiction writing is a close second.

I'm glad to have my degree but I have learned most by just WRITING.

Janna Leadbetter said...

Jenna - Absolutely! The same amount of guts and determination are required, don't you think?

Jewel - Journalism, cool! And Nike had it right: Just Do It.

Melissa Amateis said...

I earned my BA and MA in history, so that's probably a major reason why I write historicals. :-)

But to be honest, I've only taken one creative writing class in my life - and that was in undergrad school. The rest of my writing experience has been self-taught. I have been reading magazines on writing, books on writing, attending conferences, and reading, reading, reading! since I was in the 6th grade.

I do think that MFA programs are geared more toward literary writers rather than genre, and since I definitely fall in the latter camp (genre through and through!), that's why I never went to school for the MFA. :-)

Donna M. Kohlstrom said...

I believe that writing is a God given gift, but that you need to learn the skills and techniques to develop that gift. I have a BS in Psychology degree, been reading and writing since I was six. I also think there's a writing gene as my mother was a writer, I am and my eleven year old granddaughter has written two books!

Janna Leadbetter said...

Melissa - I think that's an important clarification you've made, about the MFA and its focus. Maybe the "requirements" are a bit different between literary and genre. And I'm genre, as you are.

Donna - Thanks so much for stopping by! I'm glad to see your thoughts. And you might be right about a genetic sort of predisposition. How cool your granddaughter writes!

Anonymous said...

I nominated you for an award. Come on over to my blogspot and check it out.

Anonymous said...

Well, I have to say (being a student with Long Ridge Writer's Group) both are important. The additional education has helped me with writing techniques such as "wordiness", "showing and not telling", and "help researching the market". But I have to add a person must enjoy the craft, have an ear for details, and a great imagination. I still read everything I can get my hands on to help me out along with the Writing Course.

I'm headed back over to Therese Fowler's site to check out (again) the blog Joanne mentioned.

Jenna said...

Determination sure. But guts? Does it really require a lot of guts to sit behind a computer and type out a story? Sure submitting and possibly facing a rejection might be a little scary but I think the title "gutsy" should be reserved from someone who dares to climb Mount Everest or signs up for the Army during wartime--and I could never put myself in the same category as people like that.

Go ahead, you call all hate me now ;).

Janet said...

My degree was in English, French, and German. This followed four years of taking French and German at high school under very competent teachers, so I definitely have a very developed sense of grammar and sentence structure. You can't translate a sentence if you don't know exactly what every word is doing there and how it relates to the others.

I haven't taken much in the way of writing classes. The internet has proven invaluable for learning the things on a macro level, organizing plot and the like.

But many years of voracious reading, as well as many years of actively playing music and songwriting also contributed in very important ways. Rhythm and flow and pacing are important parts of writing too, and they are perhaps best obtained by osmosis.

Janna Leadbetter said...

Ang - It sounds like it's all worked for you!

No, no, Jenna. When you put it in perspective like that, I agree with you! Well said. I can't stack up to those who put their life on the line all for the sake of duty (among others).

Janet - Wow! I'm impressed. :)

colbymarshall said...

Hm, well, I definitely didn't major in writing. It's been something I have some natural flair for but have learned other things from "streetsmarts" lol

Natasha Fondren said...

Music really helped me feel pacing and rhythm a TON. But other than that, I went to Borders every day, and methodically read each and every writing book and applied what I learned to my writing for the day.

I've read most all the writing books now, so I haven't done it for years. But it's helped me.

Anonymous said...

My degrees are in Political Science and Communications (the latter had more of an emphasis on theory, PR and advertising). I always joke that I "went to school" on the local Chamber of Commerce--our industrial business was a member, and I was the company rep--I volunteered to do their newsletter and used "clips" from that publication to get my first part-time freelance job at a local newspaper.
I didn't know all of the journalism jargon and technical aspects of what went into putting together a newspaper, but I learned pretty quickly by simply doing it. I ended up staying nearly 10 years as a feature writer, business editor and columnist there.
Now, I'm trying to learn blogging on the fly and become the travel writer I always wanted to be. :)

Anonymous said...

I haven't taken a class in writing since I was in college, way back when. But as an English teacher, I can say that you cannot teach someone to be a "writer." You may be able to train a person, you may be able to offer insight and useful critiques, but being an artist of any kind is innate. A course might help you polish your craft, but if you can't create, then you have merely written words. The best advice I got from a writing professor: "Keep writing." I don't know if he meant I am good and to keep working on it, or I am bad and need all the practice I can give myself. Either way, I have taken that as my mantra, keep writing.

Janna Leadbetter said...

Colby - Sometimes "streetsmarts are the best kind!" :)

Spy - What a great thing to have done for yourself! And it sounds like you enjoyed it, too, instead of thinking it boring research.

Dominique - Thanks for stopping by my blog! Sounds like you've got a lot under your belt, and I'm intrigued by your pursuit of travel writing. How exciting!

Laura - Welcome! And I think you're right; the methods can be taught, or the rights and wrongs, but not the creativity of it. Good point!