Writers are an intelligent lot. The act of thinking, of seeking meaning in ideas, and using language to texture and color these ideas in a written form is an intellectual pastime. Fed by streams of inspiration and the emotional urge for expression writers seek to inform themselves about the world they see, and in the process of writing inform others of their conclusions. The two primary rules of the game, that writers must read and writers must write, are the cornerstones of a writer’s education, and by engaging in these two things any writer can advance in her craft without the addition of a formal classroom setting. This is not to say that there is no benefit to going to school, however, and whether a writer chooses college or self-teaching, there are pros and cons to both options.
The Purposeful Mind
By approaching the craft of writing with single-minded determination, a person intent on mastering the language and mechanics of writing is already equipped with the fundamentals of the craft. Broad and constant reading, of the kind one might do in college, in addition to those works within the writer’s genre, also increases the writer’s knowledge and development. Additionally, by collecting a small circle of beta-readers the independent learner gains some of the aspects that a writing workshop would grant in college. Though absent of many of the formal subjects of a degree program (science, math, history) the self-designed program can benefit this sort of student so long as the individual has massive self-discipline and the confidence to keep going in the face of a void (the void being silence, mostly, and the internal critic who says the writer is slowing falling into the void).
The negatives of independent learning, however, are substantial. To begin with there is no replacing the guidance of peers and experienced instructors with the one-sided lecture of a book. In the classroom there is a dialogue, and one’s peers and mentors offer critical insights that might otherwise be missed by independent study. Furthermore the few peers the writer has are likely to be inexperienced at proper criticism and unable to be of the kind of help a serious writer needs. And even if the independent learner has assembled the most effective library at their disposal, and gathered around them a number of reasonably qualified peers, there is still the question of confidence – the root of a healthy writer. The slightest doubt for a writer, in either the structure of their self-made curriculum or in the end-result of their work, can derail even the most persistent artist. Furthermore, what the classroom offers is a multifaceted competitiveness that cannot be duplicated in private. By sitting with other students and exposing one’s talents to strangers, the young writer immediately gets a sense of where they rank on a relatively accurate scale. This awareness can be used as inspiration to improve and to create work worthy of the praise heaped on other students. The conscientious student of writing is also benefited, whether they are at the top or bottom of the scale, by having access to an instructor who, if worth their salt as a teacher, can give them guidance and criticism that is helpful and encouraging when the internal voices of negativity begin to chant.
The Formal Education
For most of us the days of writing apprenticeship are long gone. Unless you have the good fortune of being adopted by a professional writer willing to put their energy into making you into the next big thing, you’re better off looking into the offerings of an accredited college. The benefits of formal education are indeed many. The structure of a set schedule and assignment deadlines engenders discipline – one of the keys to success of any kind. College also exposes one to new ideas, information from areas outside of the individual’s interests and familiarity, thereby rounding out the intellect and knowledge that all writers use for their creative purposes. College bestows on the active student mentors and peers who help shape the burgeoning writer, and it gives one a place to compose a large portion of their one million words. Furthermore, it is not necessary to attend an expensive school such as Stanford or Iowa, but because of the nature of the writer’s mind any proper college, including junior and community college, is a good place to start. It is the writer’s job to observe and learn – the information in most cases is all the same, and any good instructor will be able to teach the important details regardless of the geographic location and name of the school.
Still, the dangers of the college environment, although different, are just as substantial as those of the independent learner. Academic environments are often stilted, with faculty who are busy trying to publish their own material in order to keep their jobs, or who, having their own favorite heroes of literature, may miss the particular genius of a given student working in a different style. College writing students may also find themselves ensnared in trying to please their professors. The pressure to earn a grade forces many students to write what they believe the instructor wants to read, and in some cases a bad instructor will demand it. In addition, there is often an abundance of time spent reading various published writers, little time dedicated to actual writing, and even less to revision. Without substantial time to revise students fail to learn the key to creating truly successful works.
To the question “does a writer need an education?” the short answer is “yes.” Whether through independent study or formal classroom experience, writers must study their craft. All writers should take courses, even if they choose not to pursue a degree. The environment, if tempered with an understanding of the pitfalls, will save the student writer time through exposure to new writing styles, story ideas, peer review, mentoring, and by providing structure and discipline.