Do writing classes help? Can you “learn” to write?

Taking writing classes

In India I don’t think we have this concept of taking up writing classes or writing courses to improve one’s writing as an aspiring writer. In the West, they not only have university level writing courses (I think, if I’m not wrong, we have some creative writing courses offered by some schools and universities) they also have “writing retreats” where aspiring writers (who can shell out a hefty fee) go to these exotic, picturesque locations and work on their manuscripts under a famous writer’s guidance.

This Guardian essay talks in favor of taking up writing classes and how they may help a writer. Here is a quote that justifies, rightly, taking up a professional writing class or course.

What lies, or ought to lie, beneath the growth of creative writing as a subject is the conviction that a good deal of the best writing derives from conscious craft, if not all of it. Commentators sometimes say that writing can’t be taught; that beginning writers either have “it”, in which case they don’t need to be taught, or they don’t have “it”, in which case money and time is being wasted by the exercise. But writers can perfectly well have native ability, a feel for language, an inventiveness and a keen eye towards the world and still not quite understand how they can do something well, not once, but repeatedly. A good creative writing course will explore underlying principles of good writing – not to impose invented “rules” on writing, but to introduce ways of thinking about writing that are strong and purposeful. You could teach yourself how to make a chair by taking a lot apart, and experimenting with joists. A furniture-making course might school you in some unsuspected skills, and save you some time.

A lot depends on, as the above-quoted text says, whether you consider writing an inherent talent and skill or a craft that you can develop. It is a mix of many factors. Once you have realized that you have a talent, you want to improve it under the guidance of someone who knows how to channelize that talent. You may say that the greatest writers in the history never attended writing classes. Did Dostoevsky or Leo Tolstoy ever join a writing course? Did Agatha Christie? Charles Dickens? None of them. Still, they can be considered the masters of their craft.

You can also say that there are 16-year-old hackers who can give MIT software engineers a run for their money when it comes to creating the most intricate pieces of code. This is true in every field. Still, we have software engineers who cannot compete with amateur but motivated software programmers. There can be a singer in a remote village situated in a jungle who sings far better than a classical music maestro.

Still, why do people join institutions for learning and acquiring skills?

There are many levels of talent. Having a talent doesn’t mean you can make use of that talent. In its raw form even a diamond has no value – it needs to be cut and polished before it can be used in jewelry.

In the same manner, some writers can simply write and awe their readers and some writers need some guidance, some direction and some peer support before they can really express themselves. When you attend a writing class you are made to do many things that you otherwise won’t do, such as explaining various scenes, expressing thoughts, describing facial features, reading and interpreting literature and writing book and film reviews. You normally don’t do these things on your own. You are also constantly exposed to various writing forms of your classmates. You also get direct feedback and if you can use that feedback positively and constructively, it helps you become a better writer.

But do we actually have a famous writer (writer who has published many books and earned lots of money) who came from these classes? Although there are many highly known writers – both fiction and non-fiction – who never joined a writing class, do we have examples of writers who had joined writing classes or a writing course when they were young?

3 thoughts on “Do writing classes help? Can you “learn” to write?

  1. A. N.

    I think one should start writing on his own and then for polishing it he should take the help of other experienced fellows, learn the use of tools like dictionaries, collocations, web search etc etc. Learning to write–I don’t think will produce great writing. Rather it might damage the naturalness. Honing instructions should be reserved for the second and subsequent draft. Peer group education helps. There are bulletin boards that also helps. Finally: the rule is that there’s no rule.

    1. Amrit Hallan

      Hello A.N. Totally agree. Originally, writing must come from within and then, what I feel, learning a language properly is more important than learning to “write”. Most people don’t write or can’t write because either they aren’t motivated enough or they don’t have the necessary skills that can help them express themselves in an engaging manner.

      1. Deepak Sharma

        Hi Amrit, I liked your last sentence. I guess everyone can write but it is more about you engaging your readers. Writing should help readers immerse in the subjects. This is where average Joe struggles.

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