Thursday, 27 August 2009

Can you 'train' a writer?

After adding a comment to my friend Gary Corby’s excellent blog ‘A dead man fell from the sky’ ( he asked whether I had an opinion about a question in one of the other comments. Since it’s central to writing, I thought it would be worth replaying it and my response here.

The question came from someone whose friend had suggested that he needed some form of training (in connection with his writing). This friend said to him ‘why don’t you attend a writing course?’ and he was wondering whether it would be worth doing so. My response was as follows:

The question would need an extended debate really but my quick(ish) response is: first, who is this ‘friend’ and what are his/her qualifications as a literary critic? What exactly does he/she mean by suggesting you’re not ‘trained’? Is it even possible to ‘train’ someone to write? I think if the impulse to write is there, that’s the main qualification to do so. We all learn as we write, we refine and adapt our style and vocabulary to each subject.

If I’m asked for one piece of advice to offer would-be writers, I usually say ‘Trust your own voice’. By that I mean don’t get fooled into thinking there’s a ‘right’ way to write. It’s better if you can spell and if your grammar’s not so feeble that your sentences are incomprehensible but outside those ‘restrictions’, any mode of expression is legitimate. If it’s way out of line with ‘normal’ speaking and writing, you may find it hard to get an audience but the important thing is not to think you need big words, flowery phrases or ‘writing’. Read Elmore Leonard’s 10 ‘rules’ for writing – they’re amusing and to the point (and valuable).

I’m wary of creative writing courses. I’m sure there are some brilliant ones, but there are also plenty which indoctrinate their graduates into parroting stuff about shifting points of view, not starting paragraphs with ‘And…’ and all sorts of other things that have little to do with creativity.

I should also have added something to forestall/disarm/whatever those who always gallop into such debates to champion the sanctity of rules. I'm not suggesting that there are no rules and I agree that, if one knows and respects them, one is capable of producing copy which has greater potential for impact and effectiveness. But there's a difference between 'you must know and understand the rules before you break them' and 'rules must never be broken'.

(And, as a postscript, let me ask how many of you noticed the grammatical mistake I made in the opening sentence. I only spotted it myself on rereading and decided to leave it there as a stimulus for those of you inclined to fulminations.)


  1. Thanks Bill! That's the advantage of having gurus for friends.

  2. Dear Bill,
    I followed your profile and found this posting, which I enjoyed utterly, even though I had of course, read most of it on Gary's blog. Thank you again, and nice to meet you online. Just to say, I am not a HE (a minor detail, but yet...) but a SHE.....

    and since English is not my first language, I am curious to check if my guess about your grammar mistake would be correct...

    You said "after leaving a comment" talking about yourself, or the first person so to speak; and then you went on talking about Garry "he asked whether I had...." - Is that the mistake you meant? :)
    Anyway, I am glad I discovered your blog and look forward to reading more of your stuff. I loved the photo with the collar on your website.

  3. Hi Scary,

    Apologies for the gender error. When I read the name I think I started speculating that you might be French (because of the azer), so my mind was elsewhere and it didn’t occur to me that I was making assumptions.

    And your grammar comment is spot on. I think, technically, it’s called a hanging or unrelated participle and I’m embarrassed that the occasional one still gets through.

    Good to meet you.

  4. :) Azeri is a nationality, believe it or not. I assume you dont watch the Eurovision ( respect!) and so have not heard of Azerbaijan. (they won the 3rd place this year)Also, occasionally we figure in the football news in the UK, normally playing against the Welsh :)
    It is an ex-Soviet republic. A strange and cool place. Do visit if you are looking for strange and cool places to go to one day.

  5. Scary,
    Even more apologies. First I get your gender wrong, then I strip you of your nationality. I did know that Azeri is a nationality and I have of course heard of your country. In fact, I live in Aberdeen and I know that many local companies here (oil-related) have close contacts with Azerbaijani enterprises. Let's hope that's the last of my errors.