This is topic Education vs. Experience in forum Open Discussions About Writing at Hatrack River Writers Workshop.

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Posted by philocinemas (Member # 8108) on :
I am starting this thread primarily out of frustration, which is not usually a good way to start something, or it could be a very good way to start something, depending on one's definition of "starting something".

First, know this: Ninety-nine percent of everything I know about grammar and punctuation I learned in high school, not college. Ninety-five percent of that, I did not learn in class. Due to some familial turmoil, I performed poorly during my eighth and part of my ninth grade years, and as a result had to "clep" into college-bound English. At fifteen, I had to sit in a room by myself for an hour a day and read grammar books and take little mini-tests at the end of each hour. My point is that this is not about formal education.

I'll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you're using here: it didn't require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don't take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could and before you even knew what you had, you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you're selling it.
- Jurassic Park - the movie

I often feel that many people take up writing with the desire of becoming the next J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer. They may be well-read or maybe not; either way they enter this with great aspirations and expectations. I DON'T FEEL THERE IS ANYTHING WRONG WITH THIS! However, what many people don't realize is that these two writers, whether they portray it or not, both have bachelors degrees, one in The Classics and the other in English, respectively. Others may desire to become the next Asimov or Heinlein. However, these two had even more impressive educations.

What bothers me is why, after deciding to become the next great fantasy or science-fiction writer, one does not take the steps to learn the fine details. By this, I mean the rules of grammar, capitalization, punctuation, and figures of speech. I hear of individuals reading books about writing science-fiction, world-building, character development, etc., but I rarely hear about individuals trying to improve their literary skills. Even critiques addressing grammar and punctuation seem to be frowned upon, as though this is the editor's job, not the writer's or critiquer's.

Experience, as I see it, is two-fold. First, one gains great knowledge through reading. It is kind of like learning through osmosis - one almost absorbs the use of grammar, etc. And second, one gains knowledge through writing his or her brains out. These methods of becoming a great writer have some validity. However, I also hear of people writing story after story and never getting published.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
- Albert Einstein

I believe experience is invaluable - I have learned a great deal here at Hatrack that I never got (or at least forgot I got) in college while I was an English major for 2 1/2 years. What's frustrating for me is seeing individuals expecting affirmation or making affirmations that are not accurate, that demonstrate no desire to seek true understanding of what is done or said in writing.

I hope this does not come across as a rant. I am not directing this toward any individual. Most every long term member here at Hatrack displays a strong knowledge of writing - people who have "earned the knowledge" for themselves. However, it is "the lack of humility [of those who have not disciplined themselves that] staggers me".

Writing is an artform, but we must also remember it is a discipline.

Posted by Teraen (Member # 8612) on :
I know I have been guilty of this. I figure I can string words together pretty well, at least that most of my errors are not glaringly obvious. Most often, I'll have diction problems (misuse of words) or punctuation problems (does the comma come after or before the end of a parenthesis??)

I think one of the reasons I have neglected to improve my grammatical skills (and kudos to you for actually doing it! I don't have that kind of discipline!) is that I think "If I ever get picked up by an editor, that stuff will get fixed in the copy edits..."

In other words, I am punting the ball because I don't think my level of grammatical or punctuation mistakes are bad enough to have my manuscripts rejected outright -- though I surely understand how trained editors would be more willing to toss aside works with blatantly obvious mistakes all over them... I suppose I just feel it isn't my most important issue to grapple with right now.

But because this fits into the realm of "I don't know what I don't know," I could be making many mistakes and not even aware of them.

I sure hope not...

Posted by BenM (Member # 8329) on :
It is because of these issues that I think Kathleen deserves every ounce of kudos she gets, and then some. She's been putting up with us newbies and our strange ideas for a very long time
Posted by MartinV (Member # 5512) on :
You don't necessarily need high education to write, but it sure helps.

The main reason why people are uneducated is because they're lazy. Meaning, they lack self discipline. If you have it, you shouldn't have problems learning new things.

Posted by Gan (Member # 8405) on :
You probably hear of less people reading technical books, because while it certainly helps, it's not NEARLY as necessary as the actual storytelling processes (I'm talking beyond basic understanding of grammar, of course).

Furthermore, learning the hardcore technical side first can, in my own opinion, detriment the process. Learning all of the technical rules first can make one write like a robot. Sure, it all sounds great, but where's the heart in it? The soul?

Edit: I'm not saying that everyone who learns the technical side first will experience this. It has just been my own experience

Personally, I'd much rather read an INTERESTING story terribly written, than a wonderfully written piece of trash.

All of that being said, I do believe that everyone should learn the more hardcore rules of grammar at some point. But I don't believe it should be the priority.

[This message has been edited by Gan (edited August 18, 2010).]

Posted by Robert Nowall (Member # 2764) on :
I worry that I'm past the point where I can learn anything (and not just about grammar.) Basically, what I think I did was this: learned it, internalized it...forgot it. The end result is that I can string a sentence together but beyond a point I have no idea whether I'm doing something right or wrong.

Sometimes I'll pick up something, read it, and wonder, "Why did I write something that way?" Recently I've been picking through my Internet Fan Fiction period stuff, all written six to ten years ago, and, all the while, I kept thinking, "I shouldn't have done it this way. I should have done it that way." (Also, "and not just about the grammar.")

Also, it was something I picked up "on the street," and not in the classrooms. I read, I wrote, I read some more and wrote some more. I put it together by practice. I read my copy of Strunk & White, but not my schoolbooks. And I don't think I paid much attention in school. (Again, "and not just about the grammar.") I'm still of two minds as to whether that was a good idea, or a terrible mistake on the part of a bright-but-immature kid.

Posted by BenM (Member # 8329) on :
I'd much rather read an INTERESTING story terribly written, than a wonderfully written piece of trash

I've heard this a lot from various people and while I do understand the sentiment, I've critiqued some abominable writing on another site and I can honestly say that unreadable prose completely masks whatever story lurks behind it.

Posted by tchernabyelo (Member # 2651) on :
I'm with Ben.

I have yet to read "an interesting story terribly written". In my experience, if it's terribly written, neither is it interesting. The idea that there are people out there with fantastically creative imaginations and wonderful story ideas but who lack basic writing skills is not, in my experience, borne out by any evidence whatsoever.

I have, however, read "wonderfully written pieces of trash", but it should be noted that both "wonderfully written" and "piece of trash" are (as with "terribly written" and "interesting") reader value judgements. I am sure that some of the stuff in Clarkesworld that I think is wonderfully written but rubbish (and there are such stories) are pieces that others consider among their favourite stories ever - and vice versa. Which, I remain convinced, is exactly what Clarkesworld wants (and one reasno why I haven't been published there).

Posted by TamesonYip (Member # 9072) on :
I think that the more polished your writing is (like proper grammar and spelling), the more professional you come off. Sure, an editor can fix stuff, but that requires their time and effort. I also imagine a lot of editors wonder, well, if they couldn't take the time to spell things right, what else are they going to do wrong. You generally only have a short time to wow an editor, to make them keep reading and it is better not to squander that on mistakes that are somewhat easily avoidable.

That being said, my husband includes technical editing on his resume and he gets a printed out version of my story before it goes out to mark up. So, I might have a bit of an unfair advantage their since I have someone who is paid to find mistakes reading my work. He is not as good at things like pacing and characterization, but if there is a comma missing, he will catch it.

Interestingly, he says that those kind of errors scream at him now. The missing comma just drives him nuts and once he finds that kind of mistake, all he does is think about that and search even harder for the other mistakes he must be missing. He has a very hard time focusing on the story once he has moved into editor mode. While that may just be him, I can imagine other editors do the same thing. That would be one danger in letting the editor fix it. The editor may become too caught up in the errors (unintentionally) to actually enjoy the story. Its an avoidable distraction.

Posted by Owasm (Member # 8501) on :
There are a number of different levels in writing. Each requires a certain mastery in order to make it past the gatekeepers of publishing.

Grammar is a filter. If it is a misplaced modifier or comma in the wrong place occasionally, it won't matter. But a lot of them will distract editors, agents and slush readers.

However, there are more issues. Point of View, which is a discipline and can be taught. Characterization, which can partially be taught, but is more of an art. Plotting, which is like POV.

Writing smoothly can be taught but it takes a lot of practice. That's where the 'million words' comes in. That's where I, for one, need a lot of experience.

What a good writer needs is experience and education. There is no versus. A lot of experience becomes an education. However I do not believe that education will produce much without practice. And above it all is a certain creative talent for coming up with a fresh take on things and applying the right amount of creativity into a work.

Posted by axeminister (Member # 8991) on :
I think the best thing about a formal education is it forces you to write. Plus it gives you the time and excuse to write.

I believe a lot of proper grammar is tied into the desire to want to use it. In posts or e-mails it's easy to shorten or mispell words and not care. That can become a habit. But if you care about what you write, you'll want to make it proper all the time. Or if you have OCD.

If you wait like twelve years between college and deciding hey, I want to be a writer after all - speaking from experience - a lot of the college stuff fades and you have to start over again.

However, since I've always had a desire to speak and spell properly I've maintained what I've learned because I've consistently put that into practice over the years.

Now the question is, how much did I learn in the classroom, and how much did I learn on my own? Or, did I get assignments in class, want to do well and take the time to study the grammar, learn it above and beyond the class setting, and get better at it that way?

Round and round.


Posted by bemused (Member # 8465) on :
Education is experience. As axe says, it forces you to write. At least as far as the average undergraduate education includes a fair amount of writing. This is going to be more evident in writing heavy majors such as English, History and the like, but is also increasingly true of the Math and Science types. The majority of undergraduate institutions are including a freshman writing class these days. And while they are not intended to teach plot or characterization, they do emphasize mastery of clear and correct prose. Writing in the educational setting serves too purposes. For one you will be getting feedback on issues of grammar, diction and clarity, but you will also be doing the most important thing of all: writing.

While some may argue that academic writing and creative writing stand at odds to one another, I believe that practicing both will help you hone your skill at stringing words together regardless of style or topic. All writing counts toward your tally of hours as you approach mastery.

However, I think it is important to know grammar and to write well. Not only will this help you have a clear lens, so to speak, through which editors and readers can view your story. It will also help you avoid turning a lack of knowledge into bad habits. As Robert aptly points out, after writing for so long habits become internalized and you don't have to actively think about them. I for one have internalized some very bad comma habits. This is why learning grammar and the like well early is extremely important. Otherwise it becomes a recurring problem that will take up your editing time that should be spent refining characters and story.

Philocinemas points out one problem. Today's education system isn't always the best at teaching grammar. In my experience I learned more about English grammar when learning foreign languages than I ever did in English classes. This means that we will often have to look outside of classroom education to get our writing education.

Short of reading through the Chicago Manual of Style (which is a monstrous tome) there are other options. Take a look at some shorter books on writing. The Elements of Style by Strunk & White has been a staple for writing classes since 1918 (it has received its fair share of updates over the years), but it is a good place to start when thinking about the clarity of ones prose style (if not the mechanics of grammar).

Its never too late to learn, it just gets harder. It is still worth it though.

[This message has been edited by bemused (edited August 18, 2010).]

Posted by Osiris (Member # 9196) on :
If you love what you are doing you will never be too old to learn.

I don't know where I fit in this education vs. experience thing, maybe because I don't see them as separate entities. After drifting away from writing as an undergraduate, I got into the sciences, obtained an MS in Neuroscience, and have worked in genetics for the past nine years and have been fortunate to be co-author in pubs such as Science and Nature. Still something was missing in my life.

I decided I needed a change and applied to several PhD programs. Though I was not accepted into these programs, I consistently received praise for my essays and believe they are what got me to the interview stage in two of the three programs I applied to. This re-awakened the writer in me and for the past six months I have been obsessed with writing. For the first time in my life I feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing and it feels great!

So that is my experience and education, little of it is writing related (outside of a writing workshop I attended). Am I concerned? Not at all, because I find myself learning so much from every critique I receive. I love what I'm doing when I write, and therefore the learning comes easily. And most importantly, I think my science background will be an asset as I mature as a writer.

[This message has been edited by Osiris (edited August 18, 2010).]

Posted by satate (Member # 8082) on :
This is my take on grammar.

First I'm not talking about obvious, get in the way of your reading, mistakes. I was responsible for a few really bad grammar mistakes when I started, like completely messing up dialog pucntuation. I'm sure it drove Philocenimas crazy. My only defense is that it had been years since I had learned those rules in high school and in college I rarely ever wrote anything with dialog.

I felt like the rest of my grammar was fine. Professors marked my papers high with only an occasional comma fix here and there. But, that is what really got to me. Everyone had different ideas about the rules. I would learn one professors rules on grammar only to have the next one say it was wrong, especially with commas. My sister in high school has to memorize this long list of rules relating to commas and the last rule was if you feel like it needs a comma then it does.

I find the same thing with getting critiques now. I like it when people find my grammar mistakes and point them out. Sometimes they are things that I just looked over and missed. It makes the story stronger which is great.

In the beginning though I always took their word for it and fixed every grammar mistake they pointed out. Then the next person who read it would say the things I fixed were wrong. I'm talking mainly about punctuation here and it seems to me that the finer rules of grammar and punctuation are far from set in stone and I don't think most people understand them all. I also don't think it's necessary to have a detailed and completely thorough knowledge of it. When I critique I will fix grammar mistakes if they are distracting, which means I noticed it.

Sorry for the rant.

Posted by posulliv (Member # 8147) on :
I've always thought about this in terms of money. If my work needs line editing in order to be published then it is at an economic disadvantage to stories of identical quality that do not.

This assumes that my story gets past a first reader who is just looking for any reason to reject it. Multiple typos, grammar errors and punctuation errors are convenient, objective reasons to move on to the next submission. The manuscript never gets judged as story. This seems fair to me, and is a pretty low bar to clear for anyone aspiring to this profession.

Regarding education and experience, my father used to say he had two types of people working for him; those with ten years experience and those with one year of experience ten times. Experience analyzed and acted on is education. Anything less is marking time.


Posted by Gan (Member # 8405) on :
I've heard this a lot from various people and while I do understand the sentiment, I've critiqued some abominable writing on another site and I can honestly say that unreadable prose completely masks whatever story lurks behind it.

When I say terribly written, I mean so by writer standards. I'm not talking UNREADABLE. You definitely need to understand basic grammar. What I mean is the more advanced grammar. Things that don't even hurt the story, beyond making knowledgeable folk cringe. (For example, capitalizing the wrong versions of father, etc). It is CLEARLY written, but not by any means WELL written.

Posted by Pyre Dynasty (Member # 1947) on :
I'll just add a little something to this.

I hate the idea, "I don't have to worry about grammar, that's what editors are for." It is just like, "I can throw my trash on the ground, that's what custodians are for." I have been a custodian and an editor and I can firmly attest we have monumentally more to do than clean up your messes.

Editors are lazy people with a lot to do, when they read a submission they want it to scream, "money," not, "work." And there is only so much you can do before you as an editor are writing the story yourself. (Which, I hope I don't have to tell this group, is a bad thing.)

Coming up against a deadline, and they are always coming up against a deadline, and they have to decide between two stories, one less good but less work and one better but more work they will choose the less work one. (I have made such a decision myself, and I don't regret it at all.)

Posted by philocinemas (Member # 8108) on :
I am better now. I apologize for regurgitating my inner thoughts out onto this forum in the manner I did. Some of this came from a particularly bad day, arguing why clients shouldn't be given arbitrary diagnoses, by people without even a Masters, just to meet service qualifications, but that would be an entirely different rant. Mental health is a science that can often be largely hokum!

My frustrations with regards to education and experience in writing stem more from seeing a general lack of discipline than from ignorance or carelessness. I do not know everything there is to know about grammar. I still make careless spelling errors, especially in situations like this where there is no spell-check. The other day I used the word "lesson", instead of "lessen", when sending an email apologizing for a misunderstanding and felt like an idiot afterwards. But these situations are not what I am talking about.

I have, at times, seen a somewhat cavalier attitude among aspiring writers - a "charge ahead" type mentality. This is what I meant by "Education vs. Experience". I believe learning by experience is fine, albeit more time consuming and often less precise. The experience model seems to teach: "Go out there and write, write, write - when you have a million words, you will have become great!" However, a million poorly chosen words will put one not much further ahead than where he or she started. The learning aspect of the experience model seems to come primarily from critiques and rejection letters.

Now, I have learned a great deal from critiques, but I have also learned that critiques can be biased to personal tastes. I have said this many times, but I firmly believe that many editors have different expectations and preferences from those of speculative fiction writers. In short, while I find layman critiques beneficial, I am not convinced that they are the best means of learning the trade.

By education, I mean the discipline to go to a dictionary, a thesaurus, or a grammar book and look something up. This is educating oneself. Hopefully, if one does this enough times, he or she will have gained knowledge. Surely there must be some uncertainty when a new writer plunges headfirst into a piece of writing. I could not imagine doing so without some sense of trepidation. Words and word usage have meaning; the same goes for punctuation. To carelessly throw words out onto a page or screen without knowing their meaning seems irresponsible to me. It is laziness, and a different laziness to which Pyre referred.

I agree one cannot learn wholly from one method or the other. It takes both. What bothers me is that many appear to try and learn from only one.

Posted by philocinemas (Member # 8108) on :
BTW, satate, your early combined use of commas and quotation marks did drive me crazy, but I did not hold that against you or your writing. I read all the challenges, even though I do not always participate in them, and I can honestly say that your writing has become exceptional.

I am not sure if you have learned by experience or by educating yourself, or by both, but either way you have learned very well.

Posted by rich (Member # 8140) on :
Experience analyzed and acted on is education. Anything less is marking time.

I'm stealing this, Patrick.

Posted by Brendan (Member # 6044) on :
Just a couple of thoughts to add. This discussion makes me want to rephrase an old saying (Youth is wasted on the young).

Education is wasted on the ignorant.

You could say that education is fast-tracked experience, through distilling the experience of others. However, for best effect, and most effective fast tracking, some experience is necessary. Partly because everyone learns in different ways, or should I say via a different mix of the following:

Learning by seeing
Learning by hearing
Learning by analysis/synopsis
Learning by doing

Writing books help fast-track using the learning by analysis method. Sites like this one are great for that too because it allows us to see how people with greater or different experience to our own go about analyzing. However, more importantly, it allows us to involve learning by doing, as, since the analysis can be about our own work, it closes the loop, and by making us practice analyzing our own work and, encouraged, the work of others.

Posted by satate (Member # 8082) on :
Thanks Philocinemas, you're very kind.

I would have to say that I have learned by both education and experience, a combination of doing, studying, and peer interaction.


Posted by DRaney on :
I am glad you posted your comments and I have come to appreciate your thoughts as much as any here in the treehouse. (See Kathleen... I can be taught )

As usual I tend to relate to music, the parallel being this; Two of my favorite guitarists stand at opposite ends of this ed/exp continuum. Phil Keaggy at one end and Stevie Ray Vaughn at the other. Whereas SRV had a staggering amount of exp and reached an extremely high level of pure skill, Phil took the harder road of discipline/study. Both men achieved true musical greatness and have droves of us geetar pickers who claim they (one or the other) are the greatest in the world. Some say SRV is the greatest because he progessed SOOOOO far with SOOOO little where edu is concerned, relying on his passion and fierce energy to take up the edu-slack.

Phil, on the other end of the spectrum is able to combine that same fiery passion with a staggering degree of technical knowledge and consequently his music is transcendant, completely unique to Phil and all but impossible to duplicate.

Here is the point. Each man grew up within a certain set of circumstances and set foot to path as each saw fit. SRV's lack of 'formal' education did not seem to impede his journey, rather it became one of the primary 'spices' in his craft. He tuned his guitar 'wrong', used the 'wrong' gauge of strings, used 'wrong' hand technique, made stuff up because he didn't like the 'right' way of doing it. I for one would not dream of changing even the slightest aspect of what that man did musically, for that would kill the magic. The same applies to Phil, except that he struggled very hard to learn as much about music as possible. They are the same because each set a path and walked it to the fullest measure and worked countless hours without an audience or pay. Then they both stepped out of the comfort of closed doors and spread their wings and demanded space to fly. Both took falls and hit walls of rejection. At the Montreaux Jazz Festival SRV was booed... a lot! His solution was to turn his back to the crowd, crank the amp up a coupla more clicks and play for all he was worth. It was later recalled by some who were there that SRV's performance was mind-boggling and that several 'opportunity doors' were opening even as the booing echoed around the audience.

Neither of these artists learned in a vacuum, both had some balance of edu and exp. SRV more like Philo's comment;

By education, I mean the discipline to go to a dictionary, a thesaurus, or a grammar book and look something up. This is educating oneself. Hopefully, if one does this enough times, he or she will have gained knowledge.

BTW - My first million words were without the benefit of concentrated (writing) education and while they were not wasted words, they were obviously written in a vacuum.

Thanks for letting me ramble on...


Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
Thanks, BenM. I've enjoyed y'all and your strange ideas for a long time, too.
Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
If I may?

I suspect that while there are those like Stevie Ray Vaughn who are able--or are compelled by their circumstances--to work things out for themselves (thereby risking re-inventing the wheel, but also thereby inventing something that does what the wheel does but in different ways that might actually be even better), most artists need to at least attempt Phil Keaggy's approach and learn as much as they possibly can about how it has been done and what has worked and why.

The ideal, I believe, would be to gain education enough to understand the process along with gaining experience enough to know how to apply that process to the art.

Those who just produce art, but don't know what they are doing or how they are doing it, can find themselves in serious danger of losing their control over their process as soon as they begin to get an idea of what their process is (as in, if you try thinking about what you are doing when you are riding a bike, you may lose your balance and fall over).

Using the music metaphor in a slightly different way: people who can play music "by ear" (say, after having only heard something once) can do amazing things, but so far as I am able to tell, it's all unconscious.

I prefer being able to keep what I do as conscious as possible so that I can make adjustments as needed, and so that I can understand and appreciate it when someone else does something wonderful.

So both education and experience (through education and in other ways) are important. How necessary each is to every individual may be different, but if what you are doing now is not getting you where you want to be, perhaps you should consider obtaining a little more of either or both.

Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
One more thing:

I keep hearing about people with graduate and post-graduate levels of education who are struggling with writing, and about companies that are struggling with employees who have high levels of education but who can't write their ways out of paper bags (as in philocinemas' experience).

Education does not guarantee writing ability (care to guess how many business majors or law students say "I'll just have my secretary do my writing for me"?). An educated individual who can write is considered GOLDEN to more and more employers, from what I have heard.

So there may be overlap, but there is also a lot of exclusion. With all your other education, you students out there, make sure you learn how to write, too.

Posted by bemused (Member # 8465) on :
To perhaps argue against my earlier comment I want to share an anecdote that supports what KDW said, education does not guarantee writing ability. In fact, education can even hurt it.

At an orientation for first year English Lit grad students I had a professor tell us that her time in the PhD program actually made her writing get worse. She started off with a clear uncluttered and well articulated style and by the end of her dissertation she had fallen into the murky muddled writing of academic jargon and unnecessarily complex sentences. (I have since decided not to pursue a PhD, the ivory tower is not all it’s cracked up to be. My writing probably shows the ill effects of my time there.)

I've heard similar things happen to Law students where emotion is stripped from their writing. I guess this is to say, even if your writing is mechanically precise that does not mean it will be good.

I think the most impressive writing is the writing that knows the rules and then manipulates them in new and impressive ways. This is the conscious control versus the unconscious savant style (along the lines of KDW and DRaney's conversation about musicians) As exciting as it is during those moments when a story feels like it is writing itself, having the skill and knowledge to finely hone your sentences to like a master wordsmith is where I personally take the most joy in writing. That takes both education and experience.

Posted by TamesonYip (Member # 9072) on :
When in grad school, I got slammed for my writing a lot. Interestingly, when my advisor was not involved in the process and I knew he wouldn't be part of grading it, it improved tremendously.
Posted by satate (Member # 8082) on :
I think there is too much mystique in the education of writing. Many high school and maybe college english teachers over think writing. They make writing, which is basically communication in written form, into some half understood art form. My husband fell victim too it. He used to use the thesaurus five times in the first sentence because he felt every word should be as large and complicated as possible. That was what he understood to be good writing, and he was in honors and AP English all throughout high school.

People forget that the purpose of writing is to get an idea communicated to someone else and that is it. Sometimes a really awesome metaphore helps in the understanding but often only detracts from the message.

Dang, two rants in the same topic. I'll stop now.

Posted by DRaney on :
bemused ~ excellent point. The University of North Texas in Denton boasts one of the highest ranked music departments in the country (for state run schools). Out in the streets of Denton however, we know that UNT drains the artistic life out of 90% of the students who FINALLY crawl across the graduation platform with a degree of some musical sort. They can play a zillion notes a minute with perfect tone, clarity, etc. but can't move one single molecule of emotion in the listener. Around here we generally avoid the 'post-UNT' bands when looking for evening entertainment and opt for the 'garage' band folks instead, simply because the life has been driven out of the former.

Having said that... there are a few exceptions. A small handful of UNT music students fight with every ounce of energy to keep the fire alive until they escape the educational gauntlet. Those guys and gals generally have a period of healing but emerge with passion, grace and fire and tend to reset the bar of excellence to a higher level. They approach the educational process as a worker-bee like myself approaches tool selections for a particular job. They don't 'become' the tools, they use them as needed.

That is my take on education, equipping oneself with the tools of the trade. If I carried my entire stock of tools to every job I would spend all my time dragging tools around and only a little time doing the work. If I carry only a pocket knife and a screwdriver then no matter how good a worker-dude I am I will not be able to do a good enough job to make a living.

does this qualify as rambling on and on?

added ~ Kathleen made a good point- We tend to think of a writing career as one in which we write books and try to convince somebody out there to publish it and start sending checks... YEAH BABY! However, a great deal of work could be had by someone with great writing skills offering their craft to the corporate world. My first writing efforts earned me 28 bucks an hour for a lot of hours! It was as a technical writer dressing up letters and reports and R&D/process reports for the higher-ups who decided to do their engineering homework in english class. I never once got a rejection, never had to pass the editorial gauntlet, never needed an agent, got paid and I got published about ten times over (although it was under the company name). One of my technical reports is availible through the Navy for $1800.00. I drew in the neigborhood of $1500 extra during those months, writing at home with a cold Shiner at my elbow! (won't this guy ever stop rambling?)

[This message has been edited by DRaney (edited August 20, 2010).]

Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
When my children were in elementary school, I remember one of them had a teacher who must have been trying to teach the students about adjectives, because every sentence that teacher had those kids write was required to have three adjectives for every noun.

I not only cringed, but I struggled to figure out how to encourage the learning experience while explaining that not all sentences in all writing exercises needed three adjectives for every noun.

I still shudder to think about that time.

Posted by satate (Member # 8082) on :
There's a writing poster in many teacher stores (and I've seen it in classrooms too) that says "Put said to bed." It then lists all the alternatives, replied, cried, demanded, yelled, whispered, ect.
Posted by TamesonYip (Member # 9072) on :
For the state writing test, the place I am tutoring at trained us based on how the state said they are grading. They are big fans of replacing said for other words and adding lots of adverbs and adjectives. I cringe at teaching that, but lessons like that do make me see why so many people have gone to the extreme of just avoiding those words all together (I think no adverbs, no saidisms at all is a bad rule- I prefer think about every adverb and saidism and make sure it is actually helpful). They also said that while "voice" is listed as 20% of grade, they actually make it worth like 80%. That part really annoyed me because at the high school level, grading based on voice for a standardized testing is ridiculous.
Posted by satate (Member # 8082) on :
I agree about the voice thing. My mom is a Kindergarten teacher and she has to try and teach voice to little kids just barely stringing words together and grade for voice too. Try figuring out a voice score for:
I like my cat. She is nice.

I understand about teaching adverbs, saidisms and such. The kids need to know what they are and how they are used but the teachers forget to also teach that they are just the sprinkles on the cake and not the flour, or perhaps the teachers don't even know that they are just the sprinkles. I know I was shocked to learn about it after I started writing.

Posted by JSchuler (Member # 8970) on :
It strikes me trying to teach voice before college in anything but a creative writing course is a matter of putting the cart before the horse. If you look at how artists were traditionally trained, would-be sculptures weren't presented with a block of marble and told to "find their voice" while picking up the hammer and chisel for the first time. They worked on a project where the master had done all the creative heavy-lifting. They just had the mindless task of removing the already-delinted rock. They focused on getting technique right. Only when they were skilled at the mechanics of the art were they allowed to get creative with them.

So, the University of North Texas actually has it right. They strip away their student's creativity in order to give them the proper foundation for greatness. It's not UNT's fault that so many students get stuck on those basics and never expand on their own, it's the fact that there are so few truly great artists out there. It sounds like the great ones have their art benefit from UNT, while the average become artisans.

Posted by Robert Nowall (Member # 2764) on :
There's a writing poster in many teacher stores (and I've seen it in classrooms too) that says "Put said to bed." It then lists all the alternatives, replied, cried, demanded, yelled, whispered, ect.

"Geez, that's a horrible lesson to teach kids," he whined. "And it's one of those things the writing experts generally tell people not to do," he added.

Posted by Teraen (Member # 8612) on :
"I hate the idea, "I don't have to worry about grammar, that's what editors are for." It is just like, "I can throw my trash on the ground, that's what custodians are for." I have been a custodian and an editor and I can firmly attest we have monumentally more to do than clean up your messes."

I guess I should clarify - I am not saying that I don't think it worth my time, or that somehow it is beneath me. Of course if I learn new grammar rules, I'll try to use them. If someone points out an error I make, I'll try to fix it. I was just stressing that I don't consciously make an effort to study grammar (like memorizing rules, buying grammar books, etc...) because in my mind, I have larger issues to work with in improving my writing than that.

What I meant by "let the editor fix it" is that I don't believe I make such grievous errors that my works would be rejected simply because of those errors. Rather, I think I write pretty well as far as the technical stuff goes, so I am trying to focus on what I know I need to improve.

To use your janitor analogy, I'm not just tossing trash on the floor because "someone will pick it up, that's their job." Instead, I'll always throw my garbage away, but I don't have the tools right now to clean, wax, and polish the floor. And I'm in a situation where the editor is looking for a tidy, but well designed room, not necessarily just how spiffy the floor is. Editors will surely not eat at a restaurant where there is garbage all over the floor, but when choosing where to have lunch, they'll probably want to make sure it is tidy, has a nice atmosphere, and then most importantly they want the food to taste nice. I for one have eaten at some pretty cruddy places because the food is great, and avoided fancy ones who only focus on atmosphere rather than substance.

Now that I've thoroughly mixed my metaphors, I'll say it another way. My list of priorities resembles something like this:

1- plotting
2- characterization
3- voice
4- actually finishing
71- learning obscure, and not so obscure, grammar rules to polish my prose.

In short, I know good grammar is essential, but its not my greatest weakness right now. Of course, if I find out I am wrong, I'd quickly move it up the list...

Posted by babooher (Member # 8617) on :
I once worked for a small company that made menus. I was the lowly employee who did crap work no one else wanted to do (I changed prices or added items but rarely got to design much). Whenever there was a grammar question they asked Br. He was the "artsy" one. I was just a poor kid working through college. I was earning my BS in English. In my car were scores of books about grammar. Br. would be asked a grammar question (such as "Is it right to say 'Here's 21 reasons to smile?'") and Br. would nod sagely. Meanwhile, I'm saying no, I'm explaining the rule that is being broken, I'm offering to go out to my car to bring in a plethora of books that will prove me right and Br. wrong, I'm doing anything I can to get them to listen to me, and I was just wasting my time. Br. was the "artsy" one and my education meant nothing.

I didn't understand that sometimes creative writing isn't grammatical writing. I believe I once saw something where Glenn Frey of the Eagles had to remind Don Henley of that a few times.

You also have to worry about changing conventions. I know the rules for when to add an 's to make something plural. I know that just because a name ends in an "s" (as in Silas) does not mean you just tack on the apostrophe (it should be Silas's). I know this, but I keep seeing that kind of thing in print. So do I go by my education or by what I see coming up in print?

[This message has been edited by babooher (edited August 21, 2010).]

Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
Go by the Chicago Manual of Style. If the publisher wants it done differently, that's fine; at least you've followed the official style format in your submission.
Posted by philocinemas (Member # 8108) on :
My original intent was NOT that becoming a professional writer requires a college degree. I STILL HOLD TO THIS ASSERTION. However, I did a little research, and I was surprised by the results. Here is a list of LIVING WRITERS from my bookshelf and their relative educations:

Orson Scott Card – BA Theatre, MA English
Stephen King – BS English
J.K. Rowling – BA French and Classics
Stephenie Meyer – BA English
Gregory MacGuire – PhD English and American Literature
Greg Bear – BA Journalism
Tess Gerritsen – BA Anthropology, MD
*Cormac McCarthy – 2+ years of college and won Ingram-Merrill Award (military service)
Dean Koontz – BA English
Kevin J. Anderson – BS Physics
Piers Anthony – BA Creative Writing
Terry Brooks – BA English Literature
Susan Cooper – BA English
Elizabeth Hand – BA Drama and Anthropology
*Brian Jacques – secondary only
Ursula K. LeGuin – MA Romance Languages
L.E. Modesitt, Jr. – BA (unknown)
Larry Niven – BA Mathematics (minor - Psychology)
Joan Slonczewski - PhD Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry
Kim Stanley Robinson – PhD English
C.J. Cherryh – BA Latin, MA Classics
Gene Wolfe – BS Mechanical Engineering
Michael Chabon – MFA Creative Writing
Elizabeth Kostova – MFA Creative Writing
Khaled Hosseini – MD
Seth Grahame-Smith – BA Film
Dave Eggers – BA Journalism
Robert Newcomb – BA Economics (minor – Art History)
Anne Rice – BA Political Science
*Jim Butcher – no college degree
Richard Bach – BA (unknown)
John Barnes – PhD Theatre
Stephen Baxter – BA Mathematics and Engineering
*Bruce Bethke – no college degree
Tracy Kidder – AB (BA) English
Bruce Sterling – BA Journalism
Terry Bisson – BA (unknown)
George R.R. Martin – MS Journalism
Michael Cadnum – MA (unknown)
Diana Gabaldon – MS Marine Biology, PhD Ecology
Maureen F. McHugh – MA English Language
Ben Mezrich – BA Social Studies
Martin Cruz Smith – BA Creative Writing
Mike Dash – PhD Naval History
Dan Brown – BA English and Spanish
R.A. Salvatore – BS Communications, BA English
*Neil Gaiman – 4 years of college


Posted by Gan (Member # 8405) on :
Note, though, that Mr. Card says his Masters in English actually hurt his writing initially. Unless I heard wrong, which is entirely possible. Of course, that doesn't mean all of the other writers feel this way.

Education certainly helps, but only if you learn from the right sources. In my opinion, of course. Unfortunately for writers, most college-level English programs are fairly... Lacking. At least, in terms of creative writing.

Posted by philocinemas (Member # 8108) on :
Gan, I would agree with what you are saying to a certain degree (pun initially not intended). I really cannot see how having a college degree, myself, has helped my fiction writing. My college creative writing program was abysmal. Granted, I earned my degree 20 years ago, and ultimately not in English, but I learned most of my technical skills while still in high school.

I will say that I did learn more about structuring sentences and paragraphs and about using specific writing techniques like parallelism and incorporating various literary devices, but I also see these techniques used by writers without degrees. I went to a liberal arts college, and I do feel that the variety of subjects I had to study made me, for a lack of better words, more rounded. I also feel that it helped me with being able to present written and oral arguments (not always a goood thing - tends to irritate and unnerve others).

What I don't understand, and I really am surprised to find, is how many of these authors had either English-related or technical/science degrees. This was everybody on my bookshelf that was still alive! I honestly DO NOT know what to make of it. It might just be the old "chicken or the egg" question. I suppose it is possible that most people who are good writers feel an obligation to go on to college and get a degree. I suppose it is also possible that because it takes most people many years to "break in" that college is simply a likely step in the process, and that aspiring writers often get a degree to have something to fall back on.

Posted by Robert Nowall (Member # 2764) on :
That list is kinda depressing...where are the successors to Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke and de Camp, who all had degrees in things like chemistry and engineering? Where are the self-taught, like Pohl or Williamson or Del Rey? There are only a couple in that group that fit the profile of the Founding Fathers of it purely a literary occupation now?

(My degree says it's a BA---which means, after two years of majoring in "undecided" at a community college, I got a paper that said something. Certainly it was of little or no use in my currenty money-paying-when-they-give-me-a-check occupation.)

Posted by Merlion-Emrys (Member # 7912) on :
It may be related to the fact that the majority of those authors aren't sci fi authors. And the ones that are, like Niven, do have science degrees.

As I understand it, Stephen King's degree was more for the purpose of teaching as a "backup" in his early writing days.

Posted by DRaney on :
So, the University of North Texas actually has it right. They strip away their student's creativity in order to give them the proper foundation for greatness. It's not UNT's fault that so many students get stuck on those basics and never expand on their own, it's the fact that there are so few truly great artists out there. It sounds like the great ones have their art benefit from UNT, while the average become artisans.

JSchuler - if this was only true it would be a wonderful thing. Few if any of the 'great artists' graduating from UNT would agree with the above statement... in my experience here in Denton. I have no doubt the point you make is valid for many other schools.
Posted by walexander (Member # 9151) on :
Well I guess I'll throw my hat into this,

I will agree that education does help--but I strongly believe it mainly helps you sort out where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Though my degree is art--it did not make me an artist. I consider myself very fortunate to have been an artist long before all the technical jargon came into play. I went back to college to get the degree, and I spent endless hours watching 90% of the class trying to even understand basics and about 80% never really could draw something that resembled art even by the end, but they did at least try. They could copy something by following steps, but never found their own voice. To me everything was easy because I was already self disciplined to teach myself and wasn't solely dependent on the teacher. So of course five weeks into it he brought me on staff as a TA to help the others students find a voice along with the technical aspects. It helped them to understand when I explained how I learned it without the text book and lecture notes, but straight from real world experience of studying the actual history of how the artist created their technique. But again, I already knew I was an artist, I just needed all the technical aspects to get a degree so it was far easier for me.

Writing now has become a similar path. Every week since the point that I've started I've learned something new. This last week 'Info dumps' never had a clue before (action over info). There/Their/They're (get them right). It's/its ('It is' not ok to mess these up). When to put a comma before 'and' and when not to.(two independent clauses or dependent clause), when to break a paragraph. Comma or period before the quotation marks. Two spaces after a period. (Darn lazy pinky--Get it right for a change!)

Before I use to only looked up things on the web, but now I have two different types of thesaurus. One a plan one and the other an old 1935 book that divides words by subject matter. I have a nice middle sized dictionary that's easy to grab and flip open to find that word I'm looking for--To make sure it's the right word and spelled correct. I keep a stack of index cards and pens close at hand for quick thoughts, because they fly away quick, so you have to nail them down or they'll disappear for good.

I guess the point is--Sometimes I think we rush education. There's nothing wrong with just wadding into the pond and splashing around some. I know I want to write, and I will inevitable take a class or two, but the great thing I know from straight experience is if I don't rush it, I'll have already found the parts I'm looking for when I get to a class. So instead of being solely dependent on the teacher to give me my knowledge--I will instead be there to drain the teacher of all they can provide me with.

And I'm going to say this having just learned the phrase, 'Info dump,' If you went to a class and all you did was just sit there for one to three hours and just heard lecture after lecture of technique, it would be one huge, eye's glazed over, mind numbing, head pounding on desk, please kill me now, info dump. There would be no way to find out if you truly enjoyed what you're studying. So if this was the case it's a good thing to already know that answer.

One last thing: I actually have access to professional writers I know, but they won't give me the time of day about writing. I have learned far more here at this forum than I ever have or will learn from them because their egos won't let them believe that an artist can learn written language, and they don't want me stepping on their turf. So how stupid is that? Really stupid. So forgive me for saying this but - I plan on draining all you know-it-all's of every once of knowledge possible, before I go take a 'hopefully not mind numbing' class to fine tune my technique.

Till then--I'll just take each week as it comes and try and learn from each mistake, and then tackle the next obstacle.

ZZZZzzzzzz. zzzZZZZZzzzzzzz.

You can wake up now, the lectures over.


Posted by Pyre Dynasty (Member # 1947) on :
Sorry Teraen, my rant wasn't directly directed at you but more of the attitude. I'm sure your grammar skills are fine, judging from your posts. I'm also not saying that you have to make grammar your primary area of study. But I fear that a phrase like "let the editor fix it," creates or illustrates an attitude that leads to not paying attention to grammar at all. (Which I doubt you are doing, this isn't specifically about you, just a phrase you used that I know causes trouble with some people.)

To me the grammar is the underpinning of it all, it is how you clearly share your ideas with other people. In your restaurant analogy, grammar isn't the decoration, it's the recipe. The food tastes good because it was cooked for the prescribed amount of time and it has the right ingredients. Now, it doesn't have to be perfect to be good. A little overcooking doesn't spoil the meal.

Here's another analogy just for fun.
I knew a guy in high school who was building a hot rod and he got a fantastic paint job for it. It turned out that the paint job cost way more than he expected. (He had ignorantly used the phrase, "money is no object," without realizing how much a custom paint job could actually cost.) To pay the bill he had to sell his engine. So his car was pretty but it didn't actually go anywhere.

Posted by philocinemas (Member # 8108) on :
All right, I figured up the totals. I have divided the above listed writers by genre and by degree. Here is how it breaks down:

13 Literary writers (including Gaiman) - 5 with literary degrees, 2 with math/science degrees, 4 with other degrees, 2 without.
2 Thriller writers (Brown & Gerritsen) - 1 literary degree, 1 math/science degree
4 Horror writers (including Grahame-Smith) - 2 literary degrees, 2 other degrees
9 Fantasy writers (including Butcher, McGuire & Jacques) - 6 literary degrees, 1 other degree, 2 without
8 Sci-fi/Fantasy writers (including OSC and Martin) - 6 literary degrees, 2 math/science degrees, 1 other degree (1 had both lit and m/s)
11 Sci-Fi writers (including Sterling) - 5 literary degrees, 4 math/science degrees, 2 other degrees, 1 without (one had both m/s and other)

I grouped language and drama to form "literary".
I grouped math, science, and engineering.
Other was all unknowns and social sciences.
McCarthy and Gaiman fell in the "without" category even though they both had a significant amount of college.

Posted by Brendan (Member # 6044) on :
So how do we at Hatrack stack up against this Philo? How many here have a useful education?

Personally, I think that writing is a bit of a leveler. I have learned from the most educated and least educated here. Perhaps that comes from living in a very egalitarian culture. But I am also curious about what backgrounds others here have and how their culture makes them perceive the value of education and educated people.

[This message has been edited by Brendan (edited August 23, 2010).]

Posted by skadder (Member # 6757) on :
Pah, degree shmegree.
Posted by philocinemas (Member # 8108) on :
I actually agree with you, skadder. I do not believe a degree should matter. The whole point of this thread was that people should take the time to educate themselves. However, I did find it strange that there is such a lack of balance in education among the noted authors.
Posted by Robert Nowall (Member # 2764) on :
A rough look-through head count gives me twenty-six that I'd classify as science fiction or fantasy, or known to have done one or the other or both. Looks to me like a degree---and a degree in the arts---is starting to matter.
Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :

I'd like to suggest that it isn't the major OR the degree that matters as much as the experience of the education.

1--Connie Willis has said that if you are a writer, EVERYTHING is your business, and you should try to find out everything you can about anything that interests you, because it can and will play into everything you write.

So, it seems to me that education, formal or informal, other-taught or self-taught, that helps you learn about ANYTHING is crucial, because it gives you informational experience if nothing else. And it does you the most service if it teaches you how to find out what you want to know on your own.

2--Lawrence Block (when he had a column in WRITERS DIGEST--when I used to read it--they repeat themselves after so many issues, so you don't need to have a lifetime subscription) used to talk about the writer's "reservoir" and how writers have to keep filling it up or they will run out of things to write about (or they will just write the same thing over and over and over again). He said that writers have to be fickle in their interests (which I found extremely reassuring because I am very fickle in my interests) so that they can always be adding new and different things to their reservoirs.

If education, of any kind, can help you fill your reservoir, and can teach you how to find out EVERYTHING you want to know about ANYTHING, then it's all to the good.

3--As for degrees, Kris and Dean assert that if you are going to go to college and get a degree that will help you make a living as a writer, the best degree to go after is a BUSINESS degree, because making a living as a writer is, after all, a business. They claim that everything else you need to learn, you can learn informally as easily as you can learn it formally.

4--For whatever it may be worth, I have a BA (where I went to college, a BA means you studied a language, and for me it was German) in math education and an ME (master of engineering) in mechanical engineering. But I have a self-taught humanities education as well.

Posted by DRaney on :
AMEN KDW - Someone wrote a book one time titled; 'Everything I Need to Know in Life I Learned in Kindergarten' or something along those lines. I personally don't remember much before 4th grade and I remember almost nothing of high school - Sometimes I feel like the guy who lost his memory every time he slept... some recent movie I think.
I agree with the Business degree plan for college focus. My plan is to hire some 'tutor-time' to work on specific shortfalls in my writing. I like OSC's advice - which is to read, read, read, read, read, read.........

[This message has been edited by DRaney (edited August 23, 2010).]

Posted by Osiris (Member # 9196) on :
Your mentioning of the "Everything I Need to know..." book reminds me of a similar phrase I came up with...

Everything I need to know about accepting critique I learned as a scientist.

Posted by bemused (Member # 8465) on :
With all of this talk of degrees I fell we may be mixing up reason and cause. As writers I think it is a safe assumption that we all enjoy reading a fair amount as well. In today's culture, most people are encouraged to go to college. I know I chose to study literature and language in college largely because I enjoy reading literature and love words. I think the same is probably true of a fair amount of authors on the list who have a literary degree of some sort.

Having a literary degree does not lead one to become a good writer. Rather, many people who have writerly interests will pursue a literary degree.

For some, getting a degree will also help get perfect the mechanics of their writing (though for others it won't, as we've mentioned a few times in the thread already). Across the board though, a degree will help with writing because it is a way of learning more about the world and actively encourages you to read, read, read. And as far as filling the reservoir goes a literary degree and a math/science degree can accomplish that equally well. They will just provide different information.

Does this mean that a degree is the best way to fill your reservoir? Hardly, it is one of many.

I would also like to say I really liked the Connie Willis and Lawrence Block comments that KDW pointed out, especially the part about being fickle. It gives me encouragement, because I've always seen my self as a bit of a jack-of-all-interests, which I hope will help me become a master or writing.

[This message has been edited by bemused (edited August 23, 2010).]

Posted by walexander (Member # 9151) on :
I believe there's an important point also in living life. A writer can imagine a lot of the things and research a lot of subjects, but there's nothing better than if you get the chance to experience something. examples: The feel of riding horses is far different than how a person who has never ridden before imagines. A person who has never fired a gun will handle the weapon far different than a person who has just because of understanding the feel of the recoil. In stage fighting the swords are made to weigh similar to real weapons, two minutes of continued armed combat with steel blades smashing against each other is a lifetime of effort, and taxes even the most fit.

Learning proper writing technique I do believe has importance, but I also believe learning about life and living it plays a very important role to a writer also. It could become easy to lock yourself away, and only research or imagine things but its far more fun to just get out. When standing in the ruins of a castle, western ghost town, port city, ancient monument, I've always noticed that especially the feel and smells are so unique, far more different than I could imagine, and if I had the chance to travel the world like Agatha Cristie and just write about the places I visited that easily could become a full life.

I'm agreeing with KDW that a writer's reservoir has to constantly be expanding, not just to fill up the writers bag of tricks, but so that writer doesn't forget that writing about life is not the same as living it.




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