Updated: Feb 21, 2020
Every writer gets good at writing in their own way. Some people opt for formal creative writing courses, while others are self-taught. There’s no right or wrong way to go about becoming a writer, and many argue that studying creative writing fast-tracks the process of teaching yourself. This may well be true, but having taught myself I can’t really comment on how creative writing courses compare. One thing I can say is that there is one common feature all writers who get published seem to possess and that’s determination. I don't think it really matters which route you go down as long as writing is what you really want to do and you have the determination not to give up.
When I set out to become a writer, I had an undergraduate degree in English and Sociology, which had helped with my critical thinking when it came to literary texts but hadn't necessarily improved my creative writing skills. I then did an NCTJ (National Certificate for the Training of Journalists) in Newspaper Journalism. Having learned media law, shorthand, and news writing skills, I began working as a local newspaper reporter. I then went on to work in charity PR, freelanced for a while in copywriting, and also worked for a national newspaper.
I’d wanted to be a novelist since I was about 14, but turned to a career in journalism as I thought it would be the next best thing. In my twenties, I began to consider studying for an MA in creative writing, but I wasn’t earning a huge amount and didn’t like the idea of going into debt for a course that felt like a bit of a gamble. I was worried that if I studied creative writing and then couldn’t get published, I’d be under more financial strain and I’d feel even worse about not being published. I’ve also always been quite good at studying independently. I'm naturally studious and genuinely enjoy researching subjects, reading books, making notes and trying to get my head around a topic, so in a way, my own wilfully autodidactic nature made me want to figure out how to write without the guidance of a traditional creative writing course.
Here are five tips based on how I went about it.
1. Join or start a writing group
I realised that group critique sessions were a huge part of most creative writing courses so I began looking for ways I could experience this without enrolling on a course. There were a few writing groups in London that held critique events, but I found their sessions a bit stiff and formal so I decided to start my own. I set up a group on Meetup.com (so easy to do) and within weeks, there were more than one hundred members! Every other week we met at a local pub and analysed each other's work over a few glasses of wine. It was brilliant! For the first time, I was hearing what strangers thought of my work and they didn’t mince their words. Unlike the feedback you get from friends or family, which can be a bit biased, the comments were upfront and honest - sometimes brutally so - and they tended to be from other people who were also avid readers and had a lot of valid points to make.
Some may argue that the quality of feedback you get on a creative writing MA or professional course is better than what you'd get from your local writing group due to the course entry criteria, but I think that's totally wrong. Readers come from all walks of life, just like people in a local writing group, and the quality of feedback is possibly better, since it’ll probably give you a more representative idea of what the general public might make of your work.
2. Read and analyse
To be a good writer, you need to be a committed reader. A few people have told me recently that they'd quite like to write chick lit, and yet when I've asked them if they read it, they've sheepishly admitted that they don't! If you don’t read a genre before you attempt to write it, it’s like wanting to be a chef even though you've only ever eaten ready meals.
I think it’s important not just to be a prolific reader, but to read your favourite books over and over. I found the trick was to read a good book multiple times until I felt like I'd fully absorbed everything about it, from the plotting to the characterisation, from the pacing to the tone. This is a totally tragic confession but I once broke down The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella into an Excel spreadsheet showing what happens chapter by chapter so I could analyse the plot progression! It’s geeky tasks like this that help you really get to grips with an author's craft.
3. Do online courses
There are lots of great, affordable online writing courses that you can get from sites like Udemy. I did a course called ‘Writing with Flair: How To Become An Exceptional Writer’ by ex-Wall Street Journal editor Shani Raja, which cost £10.99 and really helped me sharpen my writing skills. I also did a Udemy course on 'How To Become a Bestselling Author on Amazon' by self-publishing expert Tom Corson-Knowles, which helped me understand how Amazon works and also only cost £10.99.
There are lots of Udemy courses on creative writing, from plotting to character development, often delivered by published authors. They’re all fairly cheap and contain invaluable teachings that are as good as any lecture.
4. Read blogs and books
I read a few books on creative writing, but I did find that reading about the craft of writing could feel quite dry and formulaic, to the point that a lot of the information went over my head. I prefer books about creative writing that approach the subject from a more personal point of view, detailing the author’s experience of writing books and getting published. I liked Will Write For Shoes by Cathy Yardley and See Jane Write: A Girl’s Guide to Writing Chicklit by Sarah Mlynowski and Farrin Jacobs.
It’s also really helpful to follow writers on Twitter and read their blogs and social media updates, which often give tips on writing and publishing.
5. Trial and error
When you’re trying to get good at writing, you need to be prepared to fail. The first novel you write will probably not get published. Possibly not even the second. Try not to be deterred by this. I think it’s important to approach each book as a learning curve and not get too upset when they don't turn out to be bestsellers.
I worked on a few novels that I knew deep down weren’t strong enough to get published but I still took them seriously, workshopping chapters with my writing group. I did feel despondent at times, wondering whether I'd ever write something worthy of publication, but I'd try to remind myself that even without being published, I was still enjoying the time I spent writing and I was having fun evenings with my writing group. I was still passing my time in a decent way, if nothing else. Getting published was of course the end goal, but I found it helpful to try to strike the right balance between focusing on that goal while not obsessing over it. I think it’s important to try to enjoy and accept the journey, even though it's often easier said than done and there will always be times you get frustrated as an aspiring author. If you write a bad novel, don't feel you're a bad writer. You're not, you're someone who's learning how to be good.
I hope this post has been helpful. To check out my books, click here.