4 Options for Improving Your Fiction

We writers can be impatient—not only with the process of writing and getting published, but with ourselves for not being perfect from the get-go.

We readily accept the need for intensive training and ongoing skills development for our day jobs, but when it comes to writing, we often expect to just be able to ‘do it’.

I used to be a teacher. I spent four years completing degrees in English and education, then took three more professional development courses to expand my qualifications. Once I received my first full-time classroom position, I attended workshops every few months. I never questioned the need for this type of training.

However, it took me a year or two of writing (and failing at writing) to learn that the path to becoming  seriously skilled was going to be longer and more difficult than I ever imagined. Even now, after having several pieces of short fiction published, I’m acutely aware of how much there is still to learn, and how I will never be done learning.

But that’s okay. Canadian author Daniel Griffin says:

If you’ve ever looked at your writing and seen nothing but problems, I’m here to tell you it’s a good thing: you’re on the right track. To be a writer is to be a dissatisfied reader of your own prose.

So, you recognize the need to improve your craft. What options do you have?

1. Self-Directed Study

I’m putting ‘self-directed study’ first in the list because I believe, in most cases, it’s the best place to start. Options can include:

  • reading widely and critically in your chosen genre
  • reading books and magazines about the craft of writing
  • following blogs and podcasts that deal with writing, publishing, editing and social media
  • practice, such as free writing, journaling, writing to prompts, etc.
Beginning with self-directed study requires little financial investment, and gives you a chance to decide if you truly want to be a writer. It also prepares you to be a lifelong learner of your craft, which is important no matter which stage of the game you’re at.

2. Informal Writing Education

Informal writing education provides opportunities to learn from more experienced writers, but without the commitment of pursuing a formal degree or diploma. You might try:

  • writing workshops
  • conferences
  • non-credit and self-paced courses
  • writing/critique groups
  • retreats
These options can be perfect for writers who are already involved in ongoing, self-directed study, but who want to take the next step toward sharing their work with others, improving their craft, and learning more about the publication process. In terms of time, they can work for those who can’t commit to full-time study, and there are often online options.

3. Mentorship

Is there a writer you really admire who offers mentorship services? If you have the money to invest, mentorship can be one of the best ways to get ongoing, professional feedback on your work.

Look for a mentor who:

  • offers different levels of mentorship, so you can choose the level of support and investment to suit your needs
  • has published in your genre of interest, and whose work you admire
  • preferably, has previous teaching/mentoring experience
  • provides personalized, specific feedback on your writing

A friend of mine is working with a mentor who offers anywhere from one-time consultations to monthly consultations and feedback over the course of a year. Clients can choose what level suits them.

Here’s an example of a college-run program where students submit up to 300 pages of their work-in-progress to a published author-mentor over 30 weeks. See  Humber School of Creative & Performing Arts-Creative Writing by Correspondence.

Depending on the type of writer you are, you may benefit more from investing in a mentorship with an author you admire, than from investing in a handful of workshops, retreats and conferences.

4. Formal Writing Qualifications

Although you’d think professional qualifications are the best option for writers, in most cases they’re either unnecessary or just icing on the cake.

Programs can range from a certificate or diploma, to a BA, MFA, or PhD in creative writing. If you want to teach creative writing at the college or university level, or if you’d also like to get into professional editing, freelance writing, or journalism, a degree, diploma, or certificate can be useful.

The great thing about being a writer today is that many of these programs are available online or as part-time study. If you want to pursue an MFA, you may never have to set foot on campus, or you can choose courses that require only short residencies.

What Are the Best Options for You?

While each of these four options presents its own advantages, a combination of two or three is ideal.

My own compass tells me that self-directed study was a good place to start. As a busy mom of four, an MFA isn’t an option at the moment, but mentorship and online workshops are perfect options to help me improve my craft.

What writerly education have you pursued in the past? What do you hope to do in the future? 

Image courtesy of Flickr’s koalazymonkey


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About Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Suzannah Windsor Freeman is a Canadian freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Writer, Sou'wester, Grist, Saw Palm, Anderbo, The Best of the Sand Hill Review, and others. She is the managing editor of Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing and Writeitsideways.com. She lives in Ontario with her husband and four children.

Comments

  1. says

    Right now, I’m taking an online college class on research for writers. It appealed to me because in the description it said it included fiction writers (if anyone is interested in this class, run a search for “Research Methods for Writers”). I’m right-brained and can’t outline, so my writing is chaos. One of the things I’m trying to do is impose structure from the outside, with things like research. I’m finding that my past problems with research have been that it’s been at war with my writing process.

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    • says

      Linda, a course on researching for writers—sounds very useful! The right research can make a big difference to improving your fiction.

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  2. says

    This is a great list of the options. I’ve taken a correspondence class in the past and I’m deeply involved with an online critique group. Now I need to get the self study clicking more and read all the craft books I own.

    Thanks for the reminder

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  3. says

    I have formal education envy. I’d love an MFA but its not in the financial cards. Thank goodness for all the amazing craft books and occasional free workshops. And thank goodness for all the really smart writers willing to share their hard-earned knowledge.

    Some of it boils down to luck, timing and good old-fashioned tenacity too.

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    • Nate says

      I am fortunate enough to be in an informal writer’s group with people who have attended the conferences and have the education that they often share with the rest of us. If you are not in a group like that start looking around. It’s a huge benifit.

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      • says

        Nate, great idea. If you can get a few writers together, and each one takes a different course or attends a conference, you can then come together and teach one another what you’ve learned.

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    • says

      I wish there were more free workshop options where I live, Julie! I’m in a very small town, so online courses are a better bet for me.

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  4. says

    I love the quote about always being dissatisfied with your own writing. I don’t take it as a negative — I see it as evidence of the ability to spot problems and understanding something needs to be fixed.

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  5. says

    Suzannah,
    Thanks for sharing this well-thought out path to professional development for writers. Lifelong learning is crucial to success in any field and especially in writing. I have a dgree in journalism (which is no real help when it comes to fiction writing) and, like Julie, I would love to get my MFA, but it’s not in the cards for me, either. So I am doing as much on your list as I can afford to do, while balancing this against my full-time job and career. Thanks again for this terrific post.

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    • says

      Thank you so much! We can’t all have professional qualifications, but it’s great that there are so many less expensive and flexible options out there.

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  6. Linda Pennell says

    Nice list of attainable options! Most professions have professional development requirements to maintain credentials and keep skills up to date. Writing is really no different, but there is good news for us not often applicable in other professions. We get to choose the pro gro that works best for us and there are so many great ways to access the training.

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    • says

      You’re right, Linda. We have the pleasure of choosing our own professional development options, which means we’re free to choose those that interest us most!

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  7. says

    Suzannah,

    I myself am in the self-directed track. After years of being pushed (by more pragmatic people) to pursue an MFA, getting rejected from multiple programs, I found this to be the best option. A former professor and friend looked into the sats after my rejections and discovered that it is actually easier to get into the medical program at Johns Hopkins than it is to get into an MFA program. These programs only accept a handful of people each year out of thousands.

    I am finding that reading as much as I can and immersing myself in language is the best thing because there is no pressure, and with as many times as I visit the library, Twitter and blogs like Writer Unboxed, it’s very cheap. I’ve also been fortunate to participate in a few workshops at the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference, which was amazing.

    I feel I’m on the right track, never completely satisfied with my writing, wondering why I’m not awesome from page one/word one, but getting there!

    Thanks!

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  8. says

    The idea of following your own self-taught path for me is the best option. Mentors and formal education can be folded into the mix but relying on them is dangerous. At best, you learn to write Their Way, not yours. At worst, Authorities can kill your spirit by responding to what you love with disdain. Writers evolve over time, and finding your own path simply adds to the uniqueness of your style.

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    • says

      Sam, my friend who is working with a mentor commented that the mentor had nothing nice at all to say about her work-in-progress, and offered only criticism. She did take this a bit to heart, but the mentor program at Humber (the one I linked to) explicitly states that their mentors are looking for ways to help you improve, not looking to help encourage you as a writer. While it sounds harsh, you can get encouragement other places, such as a writer’s group. Still, it’s not for the faint of heart! And as you say, you do have to find your own voice and style of writing, rather than rely on someone else to teach you how and what to write.

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  9. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    I love this post. It is chock full of advice I intend to follow, thank you. I would also add to the self study to read widely and critically in every genre … keeps the mind open to possibilities never found within the fences of a chosen genre.

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  10. says

    Years ago I earned my BA in creative writing at UCSD. It marked my professional turning point from a young writer who flailed to a mature writer who nailed it.

    The skills I learned in hard-scrabble critique sessions were invaluable. These were not friendly writer clubs with tea and cookies. In a serious workshop, no one cuts the writer any slack, ever. Do or die. I toughened up. I figured out how to make my writing work. I gained mentors. I practiced wholesale “darling” massacre. I mastered the mechanics. And I found I could do the same for others (in a nicer way), which gave me a marketable day-job skill that has kept me fed to this day: developmental editing.

    The focused dedication of a writing program made me a “real” writer. Damn, I still wish I had those non-negotiable deadlines!

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    • says

      Mary, I think there’s a place for the ‘tea-and-cookies’ groups you mention, in terms of nurturing and encouraging new writers to get their words down on the page. That said, the other type you mention—the ones where other writers show no mercy and tear apart your work—they are the groups that move you closer to being a publishable writer. As much as I dislike people pointing out the weaknesses in my writing, I’m grateful for the opportunity to improve!

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  11. says

    Great tips! I think #1 is absolutely VITAL for any writer at any stage.

    #2 and #3 are wonderful options, and I think this day and age (i.e., the internet) make them more feasible than ever before.

    RE: #4, I don’t have an MFA, but I studied creative writing as my degree in college, and while that was an incredibly rewarding and valuable experience that I wouldn’t change for anything, I don’t think the *formality* of it was essential to me in any way.

    As Nate said above, finding the right group of writers/crit partners can provide enormous benefits — sometimes so many that it’s as good as having the formal training, but without the fancy letters or piece of paper to go with it.

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    • says

      Kristan, thanks for pointing out that your creative writing degree was great, but the ‘formality of it’ wasn’t essential to you, as a writer. At least the other three options are readily available, less expensive, and involve less time commitment!

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  12. says

    It is sobering to realize the effect it can have on a writer when, because of energy constraints, only the first option is available.

    All the help available in the other 3 options are for reasonably healthy normal people, even though those people have lives that limit how much of which they choose to do.

    In a way, it helps focus the attention on what’s left: self-teaching.

    My version of that is now summed up in a set of fewer than 50 books on the various aspects of writing – characters, plot, playwriting, etc. – of which maybe 10 are heavily underlined and annotated.

    I joke that when the WIP is finished, I will have to buy a new set of the most used books – because the margins are full of notes and the most useful books have no more room. I think I have as many words written into The Fire in Fiction as Donald Maass.

    The tight focus also applies to social media. I can’t. Literally. Not if I expect to get actual writing done each day. It is sobering, but also freeing: I have to choose, so I follow 5-10 writing blogs on which I can comment occasionally, and post to my own. And I work on Pride’s Children.

    That’s it – and that will be it. A little scary.

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    • says

      ABE, I would say mentorship is still an option, even for those with energy/time contraints or health issues. Mentorship doesn’t necessarily mean getting together with another writer, physically. It can mean as little as sending a few chapters of your work to the writer via email, waiting for their reply, then sending them any clarification questions. It can be a good option if you can’t get out to a lot of workshops or conferences, or don’t have time for online programs.

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  13. says

    I have some college experience in creative writing, but very little. I don’t know if I will ever go back to college, even though I’m 40 years old and getting younger. For now, I’m following an idea from a book I read, which is to dissect a favorite book, or in my case, a series (The Night Angel Trilogy). I’m also reading and rereading the Elements of Style, and Who’s, oops, Whose Grammar Book is This. Self- directed study will be a large chunk of my writing education, followed by Informal Writing. My situation may change in five years after my youngest turns 18.

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    • says

      Having young children to care for can certainly cut in to the time you have for courses and workshops. I have four children—three of whom are 3 years old and under! Time is very tight for me, which is why flexible options are best at the moment. Self-directed study, mentorship, and self-paced courses are great for now. The rest can come later.

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  14. says

    It took me more than 10 years to save up to do an MFA (I’m studying at Hamline – low residency – in Writing for Children and YA). I’m glad it took me so long, in a way. I’ve done lots of 1, 2 and 3, I’ve taught creative writing at community college level for many years, yet the MFA is taking my writing to a much deeper level. It’s also pushing me to take risks, try really difficult things, and the feedback from my advisors has been excellent. I don’t want to graduate!
    I don’t know how other MFAs operate but this one suits me in a dozen different ways, especially the intensive residencies and the opportunities to work one-to-one each semester with a different advisor. But the cost – yes, you have to be really sure it’s what you want and need, at the right time in your writing life.

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    • says

      Sherryl, thank you so much for sharing your experience! The cost and time factors are huge when considering an MFA program. Sounds like you’re loving it, though!

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  15. says

    I always did well in formal education–I went as far as a master’s in a different field–but my coursework never taught me anything useful. The real value of my education was in the time I spent developing applicable skills at part-time jobs, maturing by working (and conflicting) with my classmates, and spending my spare time on personal projects–like my first novel!

    I believe an MFA in and of itself would be just as useless as all my other degrees, and definitely not worth the debt I would have to incur to get one. If what you’re after is a place to find mentors and comrades, or an opportunity to spend two years concentrating completely on writing, there are so many other options that don’t cost $30k a year.

    I’ve also found the attitude of many MFA programs to be lackadaisical and naive. When I explored the MFA offered by my alma mater, I found the website full of statements like, “The most valuable gift a writer can receive is time, and we provide that,” and, “We hope your three years here will prepare you to publish your first book.” Your first book? By the time you’re serious enough to start a degree program like that, shouldn’t you have finished, like, five already?

    So MFA programs are not for me. However, I am currently enrolled in a copyediting certificate program through UCSD. I feel like I’ve learned more about the English language in my Grammar Lab than I had in the 18 years of schooling before it, and the entire program will only put me out $2k. Plus, if I play my cards right, I won’t have to pay other people to edit and proofread my manuscripts again, so it may save me a pretty chunk of change in the long run. :D

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    • says

      Thanks for your insights, T.K. That copyediting certificate might not only save you money on editing your own manuscripts, you can also make some cash by offering to edit other writers’ work!

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    • says

      Some of my favourite writers have MFAs, some not. I don’t know that I’ll ever go for one, but if I did it would be purely for the love of learning!

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  16. Jagoda Perich-Anderson says

    I devour books on writing, and then immediately apply some of the new craft insights I gleaned into my current writing projects. I’ve also participated in writer’s groups, have attended conferences and workshops–each has proven useful in its own way and time. An MFA is not in the cards for me either. It’s all I can do to work at my day job, write, and stay connected–so much to write and read, so little time, aah!

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    • says

      Jagoda, it’s great that we have so many flexible, inexpensive options outside of formal education! And the good thing about books is that you can read them again and again, and often learn new things each time.

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  17. Erika Harlitz Kern says

    It’s interesting to read all these posts and see how different writers approach the issue. For every writer there is an individual journey. I myself was helped in writing fiction by getting a PhD and writing a dissertation. I had struggled for a long time to find a way to express myself in fiction. I tried the Hemingway approach, the Tolstoy approach, God knows all the things that I tried. As it turned out, the journey I needed to take was through the blood, sweat and tears (I’m not kidding) of writing a history dissertation.

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  18. says

    Amen. I’m currently focusing on the first two (self-directed and informal education).

    The great thing is that being a better writer inherently helps me with my day job–freelance editing!

    Thanks for the post.

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