Writing Advice #3: Education

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog on MySpace devoted to writing advice for teens. Over time, it evolved into a general blog on writing advice for everyone. I blathered on and on, answered questions, etc. Since then, I’ve pointed people to that blog when they’ve sent me questions on writing, but I know that MySpace isn’t always the most, uh, reliable repository for such things. Plus, if you’re not on MySpace, you can read the blogs, but you can’t comment on them.

So once a week (probably on Wednesdays), I’ll be reprinting my writing advice blogs here on barrylyga.com. I’ll go through and edit them a little bit, too, and I might make some merges/changes, so they won’t be exactly like they were on MySpace, but they’ll hopefully still be helpful to people who are interested.

Here we go!


 

I know that last time I said this blog would be about inspiration, but I realized I had something else I needed to talk about first: education.

(Parents and teachers, you might not want to read any further.)

One question I’m often asked by people who want to write is this: “Where did you go to school?”

Usually followed by something like, “What was your major?”

And stuff like that.

Here’s the deal, people: School doesn’t matter. Your grades don’t matter. Your major? Doesn’t matter.

Now, I say this and then people go look up my bio or something, so, yeah, let me come clean.

Yes, I was a straight-A student in high school

Yes, I went to Yale.

Yes, I majored in English.

But honestly — I didn’t HAVE to do any of those things. Not a one of them was necessary to me becoming a professional writer. I did them because I liked doing them and because — let’s face it — I’m a geek.

Look, in order to be a writer, there is only ONE prerequisite: You have to be able to write REALLY WELL.

That’s it.

If you need a world-class education to get to that point, fine. But if you can manage it with an eighth-grade education, then that’s fine, too. My editor has never once said to me, “So, what was the subject of your senior essay at Yale?” (The American body paradox, BTW.) She just doesn’t care. NO ONE cares about my high school grades or how well I did or didn’t do in college.

All they care about is my writing. And that’s the way it SHOULD be.

Look at it this way — let’s say you read a really crappy book. I mean, this thing was just a piece of garbage, right?

Now imagine that you learn that the author of that crappy book went to Harvard and got straight As in English there.

Do you like the book any better now? Has the book changed at all?

No. It’s still just a crappy book.

So (and this is the part where parents and teachers should cover their ears!) don’t worry about your education. At least, don’t worry about as it pertains to your writing. Just WRITE. Just write WELL. That’s all anyone cares about.

Education matters for one reason — because you learn new things and you become curious about them. And that often leads to inspiration and ideas and great stories. But it doesn’t have to be ABOUT writing. I mean, I was an English major, but sitting in an astronomy class one day I was inspired to write a short story about a woman who cheats on her husband…all spurred (believe it or not) by something the professor said about the life cycle of stars.

So don’t worry too much about the books and the grades. Focus on your writing.

(Oh, and a teacher once pointed out to me that education IS important for writers because you need to learn spelling and grammar. And you know what? That stuff IS important. But guess what? If you can’t spell or put together a sentence by the time you hit high school, odds are you’re not gonna be a writer anyway. Sorry, but it’s true. You either care about that stuff or you don’t and people who don’t usually don’t have what it takes. If you can’t put together a decent sentence and you want to be a writer, then, yeah — you better study your ass off and learn some grammar.)

 


 

When I originally posted the above blog on MySpace, I was hit with a flood of people who violently disagreed. So I responded a couple of weeks later with the following: 

 


 

Some folks didn’t like what I had to say about education last time. They seem to think I was saying that writers don’t NEED an education, that writers should just forget about school and write instead.

I said nothing of the sort.

What I said was this: There is no education that is REQUIRED for one to be a writer. It’s not like being a doctor or a lawyer or an architect or an engineer, where you HAVE to take certain classes and learn certain subjects in order to progress in your chosen field.

In order to be a writer, you only need to know one thing, and that’s how to write damn well.

Here’s the thing, though: For most of us, we learn how to write by going to school. Why? Because school is one of the few places in the world where you are FORCED to read AND write on a regular basis. And reading and writing like a fiend is pretty much the best way to learn how to write. You read other people’s work and you learn what does or doesn’t work. You write your own stuff and you write those million bad words and you learn how to employ those ideas and strategies you learned by reading other people’s work. You keep writing and you develop your own voice and your own style.

Lots of famous and beloved authors never went to college. My favorite example is Alan Moore, considered by most comic book readers to be THE greatest comic book/graphic novel author in the history of the medium. He never went to college, though. He DID, however, read voraciously, educating HIMSELF in the art and science of writing.

Some folks brought up grammar and spelling, pointing out that it’s important to know such things as a writer. Well, of COURSE it is! That’s all part of “writing well.” By its very definition, “writing well” includes proper spelling and grammar.

Writing is all about having an idea and then communicating it with words in a way such that other people can see the idea, too. If you can’t spell or put together a sentence, well, good luck reaching that goal!

I’m not anti-education. As I pointed out in my last post on this topic, I was an A student in high school and an English major at Yale. I LOVE education!

But I think many, MANY young writers think, “I HAVE to take this writing workshop if I want to be a writer.” Or, “I MUST get an MFA if I want to be a writer.” Or, “I’d better major in English, otherwise I’ll never be a writer.”

No, no, and a thousand times, NO.

Study whatever you want. Travel the world. See things. Meet people. Do what works for you. The great thing about writing is this: If you have a terrific idea AND the ability to communicate it, you can succeed.

Studying great literature, going to an Ivy League college, taking writing classes… These things can all help you. There’s no question about it. But they aren’t mandatory.

What is mandatory is this: Write it well. Know how to spell and how to put together sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Quite honestly, if you graduate from high school without those basic abilities, well, there’s something wrong with your high school and you should enroll in a community college program of some sort to LEARN these things.

But don’t let anyone tell you that you need special classes or a special kind of education in order to be a writer. You don’t. You need your own talent, your own experiences, some basic knowledge of the language, and then a nice dose of luck.

And luck will be the topic of a future entry all its own…

Leave a Comment

*