Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 19: Do Creative Writing Classes Help

Brandon and Dan met during a creative writing class at Brigham Young University, and Brandon went on to get a Master’s Degree in the field. Howard has no formal training in the field. This begs the question… do creative writing classes help? Are they worth the time?

Short answer: Yes, but maybe not in the way you were expecting.

We discuss not only the formal education aspects of creative writing, but also the value of informal education — attending conventions and sitting in on panel discussions about the craft.  If you are looking to become a professional writer and are pondering your education options, this podcast is a must-hear. A must-listen-carefully, even.

Writing Prompt: Fore! In this case, a golf metaphor. But not a pun. Please.


35 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 19: Do Creative Writing Classes Help”

  1. Sorry this one was late. Jordo posted the draft last night at 10:00pm local time, but Howard was already fast asleep.

    The good news? It’s posted now, and Howard went to bed early AND slept in this morning. Ahhh…

  2. Great podcast, but the timing is ironic for me. I am only taking 3 classes this, my final semester in college, not four like I could have. Though to be fair, I intended on taking a fourth but was shut out of a couple of classes.

    Well, that just means I will have to write as i actually had deadlines.

  3. I’m always learning, always wanting to hear what other authors have learned about story telling. Here’s my experience in three categories.

    THE most useful book I’ve ever come across on writing stories: TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER by Dwight V. Swain.

    THE most useful class I’ve ever taken for writing stories: ORSON SCOTT CARD’S LITERARY BOOT CAMP.

    The most useful class I’ve ever taken that helped me with the story business:

    Of course, I wouldn’t recommend stopping there, but all three of these have had profound influences on me breaking in.

  4. Hi
    this is my first post. I can’t believe I didn’t find this website sooner!

    One thing I have noticed is that some of the most useful books on writing are simply well written books. Often in books I find myself feeling exactly what the main character is feeling. So, I look back and ask myself “Why? What words did the author use to get this reaction? How did they set it up?”

    Any good books on grammar? I could really use some help there.

  5. What many people call talent, boiled down, is just meaningful practice. The key word here being, meaningful. It’s what separates us from chess masters, sports stars, and great musicians. Practice, they have lots of it, but not just any old practice. They started at a young age and practiced in a way that made them better. They struggled, sacrificed, and dedicated themselves to their goals; their practice had meaning.

  6. ‘Never stop improving’ is the way I would sum this podcast up (great podcast, by the way). I never took creative writing, but I have attended the Orson Scott Card workshop and read several books. One thing I try to do, whether in music or writing, is to find an area that needs improvement. With writing, it’s pretty easy, since I need to improve in all areas. I determined one of my weak areas was plot, so I’ve been working on that. (Now, grammar improve I need to.)

    Bottom line is, if we want to be successful in any field of life, we need to set personal goals for improving. It’s worked pretty well for me in my music career and is helping me to get my writing career off the ground.

    I have found, at least in music, that talent can be a major curse. I have had students with tons of talent who went nowhere, mainly because everything came so easily for them. They never developed a work ethic because of that. I’ve had other students who did not have a lot of talent, but they knew what they wanted and worked until they achieved their goals. One student I had who learned this principle is now playing professionally in New York, and another is playing in Los Angeles. They didn’t start out with tremendous talent, they developed it.

  7. Excellent. This is just the sort of podcast I’ve been wondering about. This question has been floating in the back of my head for quite some time now.
    And now to listen to the ‘cast!

  8. Are creative writing classes useful? I certainly hope so. I’d hate to think I’ve wasted the last four years.

    I think Brandon nailed it. Creative writing classes can be terrifically useful, but you have to know what you’re going to come out of it with.

    I did not sign up for a creative writing major because I thought it would secure me a spot on the bestseller’s list. Or the midlist. Or etcetera. I just did it because I wanted to.

    Classes that teach much about the business of writing seem to be few and far between. My upper level classes do spend some time on it, but it’s not a focusby any means.

    Of course, you can also pick your proffs’ brains for their own experiences. They are publishing professionals, so that’s valuable too.

    Networking and deadlines you guys mentioned too. But so far as I’m concerned, the single most valuable thing I’ve gotten out of is the workshops. Not just getting it, but giving it. And the variety of stories you end up with in those classes is instructive too. (The fiction proff has been just fantastic about letting us write whatever we want. And while I turn a very becoming shade of green every time you guys casually talk about your science fiction classes at BYU, I think having a mix of literary and genre writers is a good thing.) These classes can teach you far more than the basics of craft, I think, with the right people and the right mindset. I seriously can’t overstate how helpful they’ve been for me. The unfortunate part is that not all creative writing programs seem to be created equal.

    And yeah, that education thing. If an MFA can get me a real job that I don’t absolutely hate (or even only hate sometimes – three cheers for tech support solidarity) then at least I have SOME chance of making money when I grow up. ;) Since I have to start applying to grad schools next year, I will now do my darndest to try and forget everything Brandon said about Elantris getting rejected from MFA programs. Especially since there aren’t 12 schools in this country that offer MFAs in creative writing. (There are three.)

    Howard, you majored in music composition? Show us the dirt! We demand mp3s, now!

  9. I enjoy your podcast guys. thanks a bunch! I like it even though I don’t agree that your show should be short, since I think of podcasts like audio books, and don’t mind if they’re long.

    my opinion, you need a whole lotta practice to become good and creative writing classes are one way to practice. I think to become really good you have to practice and get good feedback, so work hard, get a lot of practice and take a class or join a writing group.

    I definitely agree with starting early, if you start early you can get in that practice you need. If you can’t do that, well you can start now… get working hard :)

  10. Fantastic podcast.

    On the point of a writer needing to be willing to learn, I have a question. How does a writer who IS willing to learn (I speak of myself, of course), get the correct feedback and criticism to light a fire under the learning process. Your short answer is writing group, and I totally agree. But, at this point, I don’t have the valuable interaction with other writers that Howard mentioned.

    The local NaNoWriMo group is trying to get something together, but scheduling is jsut a real problem for me. I have a third shift job that has a fair amount of down time that I use for writing. But family and everything else is making it extremely difficult for me to get away for that couple of hours to meet with a writing group. I’m still trying to make it happen, and maybe I can work with the group online so I have SOME participation, at least.

    Putting that aside, how else can someone get the necessary feedback? I have a selection of first readers, and they do the best they can. But none of them are writers, or editors, or work publishing. They probably don’t see the same things that an editor does.

    I feel like I have some idea of what my weaknesses are. But with editors responding with form rejections, how can I even begin to know if I’m fixing my flaws without the help of a writing group or editor input?

    Just to clarify, I do know and understand why they use the form rejection. I’ve seen pictures of some sludh piles. Scary. :)


  11. Just a question that may or may not be on topic: what about timing on when you attended such classes and/or when you read such and such books? Did order matter?

    I find that often I read a book on how-to write and feel like I learned something. But then, I either don’t see the result in my writing or I feel like I am missing something. And then comes some other book and I repeat the process.

    Rather disheartening at times.

  12. I submitted a comment last night, but I don’t see it. Yet I see a comment 12 hours after mine. Did I get rejected by the moderator???

    I can’t think of anything I wrote that would have caused that.

    Can Howard or someone let me know if I did do something wrong?


  13. I’ve had a couple of creative writing classes including the one I’m taking this semester. I can say that their usefulness varies depending on the teachers and how much peer to peer reviews you are allowed to give. My current Prof is only interested in a vary narrow school of poetry that, while interesting, doest teach me how to write better novels. What it does teach me is how to use modern terms and language such as “friend as verb” (thanks a lot facebook you’re helping the destruction of the English language).
    Another question you have to ask yourself is “when do I need to STOP taking the classes?” I don’t mean altogether, but I know several people in my Eng 3800 group that have been in several and have yet to stop going to classes and start writing. All of the classes in the world won’t help you make money from ideas that stay in your head perpetually.

  14. I have found recently that reading nonfiction on how to write fiction has been very educational for me. I really liked OSC’s book on character and viewpoint. I’ve also found that LTUE is a great resource–just a good chance to talk with writers.

    (And I’m also stoked to attend Dave Farland’s worshop in April.)

  15. Unfortunately, my creative writing teacher doesn’t have us do much that can help us become better writers. I’m hoping the classes I’m taking next year will help, and let me have the option of graduating early with an advanced liberal arts diploma. (Being a nerdy high school junior rocks.) Hopefully I’ll be able to find some good bassoon scholarships down at BYU so I can take a decent creative writing class.

  16. All of my music composition was pre-MP3 era. I never did burn a CD, either. I’ve got some tapes, somewhere, but no good way to digitize them.

    There are two of my arrangements on Vocal Point’s “Fatter Than Ever” CD. My favorite was “Call Me Al,” by Paul Simon. My very first was “Lockjaw,” which was more of a transcription of an existing acapella piece by Todd Rundgren. Those you might be able to find somewhere.

    Sorry to disappoint. What I do now is what I do best, and even then I’m just a hack. :-)

  17. @Howard — don’t forget the slash! Hack and slash, hack and slash, go together like Schlock and Ovalkwik, anytime you need it, hack and slash will be the answer. And you probably recognize the jingle, too :-)

  18. Goodness, was this a great episode! I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. I also really appreciated the college tips you offered. I’ve been taking Classics as of late, and I find that it is very stimulating for my creativity, general knowledge, and composition of sentences. (Latin… Oh, you whacked-up language, you.) But, I’ve honestly never thought about taking a shop class, or a pottery class. Now that you’ve brought it up, I can’t help but think of the experience it will lend me! I graciously thank you from the bottom of my soul. This episode was divine! Can’t wait for the next.

    I play the bassoon, too, Bitter!

    The Orson Scott Card Boot Camp seems ominous, and strangely befitting…. (._.)

  19. I enjoyed this episode quite a bit, but for someone who probably won’t have a chance to take creative writing classes for the time being, can you suggest more book titles? I know Brandon had three, and Howard had one about comics. Any others you’d recommend, either about the business of writing or the craft itself? I’m focusing on short stories right now but eventually want to write novels. I’m writing fantasy.

    @Mike Barker: Thanks for the transcript.

  20. @ Howard – Ha, you didn’t slide through anything. Music is a hard major, you earned it. (BYU right?) Hmmmmm, let’s see, did you ever have classes by Murray Boren, Dr. Sargent, or Dr. Hicks? They were my favorites.

  21. Sorry about the holding of comments — Jordo installed Akismet to trap our spam, and then we all went to LTUE for the weekend. I just flushed the spam-trap this evening, and made sure to teach Akismet a bit more about what’s good and what isn’t.

  22. Howard, thank you for mentioning Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics”. I’ve found it to be a great resource for making the most of the medium (I also enjoyed his “Making Comics”). Another book that I found extremely helpful and enlightening is “The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics” by Dennis O’Neil. It put into words a lot of concepts of comic-format storytelling that I’d been having trouble grasping on my own.

    As far as learning, I would say that one of the best subjects a writer can study is history – but from a person’s-eye-view as well as a global one.

  23. While I appreciate the podcast and the work you do, I have to, respectfully, disagree with what you said in this episode.

    You talked a lot about being ‘willing’ to do this, and ‘working hard’ on that to be a good writer, and while I agree with you completely on the result, I see the process differently.

    I love the craft. Every aspect of it, and I can’t be the only one.
    This means that I am not only willing, I am *thirsty* for knowledge. I want to learn more.
    There has never been a ‘have to’ when it comes to my writing. You almost make it sound like it should be painful and the aspiring writer should rather be doing something else.
    But if you truly are a writer (this is my personal opinion of course), it comes naturally. You are starving for more knowledge on how to be better, to understand your craft, and it is a joy to hone your skills.
    I am thrilled every time I find out something new that helps me, and I know there’s so much more to learn it would make my head spin if I caught a glimpse of the vastness.

    I can’t honestly think of a writer who wouldn’t want to do these things. The only example I can come up with, is a 15 year old fan-ficcer. He/she might think that reading all those books on writing and pinpointing the weaknesses in their writing is too much work.

    The question on talent and skill has more to do with what naturally interests us, than what we hypothetically CAN learn if we put in the hours.
    I suppose I could learn a bit of maths, but it doesn’t interest me, and my brain just doesn’t work like that. I am number-blind.
    Our brains work differently. Some of us think in spaces and abstracts and numbers, some of us think in colours and emotions etc.
    That’s what I personally think talent is about, synapses firing in different parts of the brain. In this way, some of us really were, more or less, born to be storytellers, and some of us were born to reverse-engineer Ancient devices in Pegasus Galaxy.

    Also, the question ‘can everybody be a writer’ is moot. There are people in this world who don’t want to write.
    I don’t want to fix cars or design buildings, or weave carpets, or act, or sing, so I think it all balances out.

    You know if you truly want to write.

    This said, I honestly enjoy listening to your podcast. Especially your talk on the Three Act Format was great, I hope to hear more about formats. Form is one of many weaknesses in my writing.

    P.S. I would love to hear you discuss writing with a female writer. Maybe have her as a regular in the show?

  24. I didn’t find my creative writing classes helped much in terms of my writing. I took three fiction writing workshops at two different universities before giving up on them. However, they did help me decide it wasn’t an MFA that I needed, but motivation to write. I had fully intended on going to an MFA until I actually took the workshop classes. I further developed several stories from the class, it gave me confidence, and the class gave me deadlines, but that was about it. So if you need deadlines to write and have the money to shell out, I say definitely go for it as it will force you to write. I think one of the issues might have been that I came into the courses with having already read quite a bit of technique books from authors such as Baxter, King, Butler, Zennser, Lerner, Goldberg, Burke, Moore, etc. Most of the content of the class was reading these same excerpts again, reading short stories, and then workshopping.

  25. I’m not sure if writing short stories is going to be something that’s useful to be. Classic short stories I mean. A lot of the short stories I read in school were extremely boring, and one of the things that made me want to be a writer is thinking, “Hey, fiction does not have to be this dry.”

    There is a lot of dated cultural values in classic fiction that just don’t apply in todays world. So I see nothing useful is in reading them. But I love reading cyberpunk and bio punk short stories.

    I think the one exception is Edgar Allen Poe, of which I loved to read even when I was around 16.

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