Ask the​ Author: Should I Study Writing at University or be Self-Taught?

This blog has been a long time coming. It’s a topic close to me, and I’m sure to many many other writers since the dawn of literature. It’s a question that probably all authors have asked themselves and have been asked by new voices seeking to understand the craft:

Should I study writing in an educational setting or should I learn through self-taught methods?

Is there a wrong answer to this question? Of course, there is. There’s two, actually.

The first wrong answer is, “Of course, you should go to school to study writing.” The second is, “Of course, you should study on your own.”

The right answer? “You have to weigh both options and decide that for yourself.”

Hint: Never ever listen to any advice that declares “THIS IS THE ONLY WAY.” This is art you are asking about, not how to build a rocket. There’s a little more room for going off the rulebook.

Let’s start at the beginning.

So, you want to be a published author. Do you need a degree for that?

NO ONE in publishing is going to care if you have an MFA or BA in Creative Writing. No one will care about your degrees or certificates or how many months you spent outside the Globe discussing satire with Shakespeare’s ghost. (Well, maybe those guys from Buzzfeed Unsolved would.)

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If you send your novel to publishers or an article to magazines, no one digging through the slush pile is going to stop and take notice of your work because they see the byline about your degree. What would capture their attention? The quality of your work itself.

Studying in a Traditional Educational Setting

When I say traditional education setting, I mean a university, college, or course where you listen to a teacher, turn in work for a grade, and are expected to critique other students work. 

Spoiler: I went this route. It says so right in the bio on my published novels. (Why? I really don’t have a lot to say about my boring life and the line made for a nice uneven sentence number in the bio. I don’t think any readers really care about where you studied.)

I didn’t go to college originally to become a CW major. But I transferred to a university that offered it as a degree, I was accepted into their program, and I learned… what?

Well, I learned about a lot of books, books written by male writers, the history of literature, the classification of literature, and other stuff that was more about the way the world views literature than the actual writing of it. 

But in those few actual writing classes?

I learned a lot about myself as a writer.

See, I had been writing for about ten years before I was ever accepted into college. I had amassed a lot of work but I never let anyone read it. I was embarrassed. I also didn’t HAVE anyone outside of my parents to give my stories to for a critique. (And we all know mom isn’t going to tell you to work on character development.) 

For the first time in my life, I was getting feedback. Real feedback from teachers and teachers’ assistants and other students.  Now, I don’t know about other programs but you couldn’t be outright mean in my classes nor could you be all fluff. You had to give and receive constructive criticism. 

I learned how a lot of different perspectives liked or disliked my work.

I learned how I didn’t care how some of those perspectives felt about my work (looking at you, guy who said my character’s existential crisis could be solved by picking up litter).

More than anything during my time at the university, I learned I was confident about my writing. This might not help you, reader, in making your decision because this probably won’t be the case for everyone who goes to study at a university, but my confidence grew not just out of the grades I got back on my stories but also out of my time with other students.

My fondest memories are of the times other students would come up to me before or after class (Note: I was invisible in every other class except for the writing ones) and ask me how to do something for their story, why I did something in mine, how did I come up with this, etc. 

Word got around and people I never met asked me to take a look at their applications to be accepted into the program. In a couple of years, I went from afraid to show another people my stories to “Here, read this story I wrote and pay attention to the foreshadowing then I’ll show you how to incorporate that into your own.”

I didn’t presume I was the best writer in these classes. I could point to several others, people I was certain would have their amazing unique stories published. Then, in one of my final classes before graduation, one of those people followed me out of the building and said, “You know you’re the best writer in every class I’ve been in?” A few other people filed out and called out in agreement. That moment, right before graduation, stuck in my head. I told him how much that meant to me because I thought he was the best in the classes. “Nah. Plus, you’re actually going to do something after we’re done.”

I’m not writing all this to blow my own horn. I’m telling you this because my greatest learning experience came from interacting with other writers, in seeing how my work was received. In gaining confidence. Can you get all this from going to somewhere that doesn’t require tuition? Meet-up groups? Peer groups? Online groups? Hell, yes, you can. And without taking out a student loan as well.

Was it all sunshine and growth at these classes? Hell, no.

I don’t regret going to university for a CW degree but I didn’t learn anything about publishing, or how to get published, or how to make a living as a writer. I didn’t learn about copyrights. I learned about the timeline of the Romantic period and the “rules of writing.” Rules that (big surprise) kind of ruined writing for me for several years.

No teacher would accept any sort of genre fiction in these classes. I cranked out “serious literature” for years to appease them. The one time I wrote a “funny” story, classmates loved it. The next day, in a meeting in her office, the teacher sighed and said, “You should stick to serious stories.” A few months later I met a favorite children’s author at a book-signing. When I repeated this story he looked up at me with a grin and said, “Genre authors are the only authors who earn money these days.”

What did this mean?

Serious = Respect?

Genre = Money?

What about what I wanted to write? What about passion? I whined. Where was the muse of my teenage years? Did she leave when I went to a structured learning environment? Did I kill her? Smother her with textbooks?

Then Nanowrimo snuck up. “Dare to suck” was their tagline. I’d been meaning to try it for years and with nothing to lose, I did. I wrote a ridiculous book and discovered my muse was just hanging out in the corners, waiting for me to get my shit together.

My final take away from those years in school…

Traditional Setting Pros: Exposure to opinions, people, methods. Confidence. 

Traditional Setting Cons: Cost. May lose sight of your purpose along the way.

 Studying on Your Own

Maybe I was a pretty decent writer upon arriving at university because I had been learning the craft on my own. Like I said, I’d been writing for years before college. During that time, I was studying without realizing it. I read good books and bad books. Serious and genre. Fiction and Non. Biographies. I listened to authors talk about their work. I asked them questions. I picked apart favorite stories to determine why I loved them so I could replicate those emotions in my own stories. I picked apart my own stories.

Was I any less of a writer before the degree? Is anyone who studies on their own less of a writer? 

Hell, no.

Those who study on their own have no stakes (no student loans to validate, no grades to earn). They study for the love of the craft. They have this desire to get better, to make good art.*  Their pursuit on their own terms is as (if not more) honorable in its own right.

Maybe you aren’t exposed to the same things as you would be in a traditional setting, but with the aid of modern technology, you can discover so much, talk to so many people, that you stand a fair fight to do so. 

Are there those who would disagree with me? Hell, yes. But I suggest you don’t listen to them. See, I have my own damn degree, but I have a terrible memory. I can’t recall the correct terms to use when discussing literature. Any critique lesson with me eventually includes me saying something like, “I think you should change that word…. Is that an adjective? Adverb? Proposition? Shit. Hang on let me Google what I’m trying to say here. Also that thing? That metaphor-simile-thing was great.” And those snobs would definitely have something to say about that. Terms are terms. If you know the meaning and how to enact the change, the rest is redundant.

What Turns You into a Good Writer?

Degree or not, there is one vein that runs through every successful author I’ve ever met. You can’t learn this in either setting. The secret?

Don’t give up.

Did they get rejected from the CW program they applied to? Studied on their own.

Book rejected by a publisher? Tried another publisher. Self-published. Wrote another book.

Published a book that wasn’t well received? Wrote another one.

In the end

My muse fled… then I dug her out of hiding.

A few months ago I looked at the application for an MFA from a college in NY. Do I miss the learning environment? Yes. Am I afraid I won’t be taken seriously there? Yes. So what am I doing?

Thinking. And reading. And writing.

In the end, self-taught or traditionally taught, you will never stop studying the craft. Years after you graduate, years after you’ve published a dozen books, you should still be picking up books about the craft. You should still stop in the middle of a new release and study the beauty of that one line that made you pause and take it apart to understand what makes it work.


This has been another irregularly schedule blog from Stefani. Comments? Questions? Send me a message or leave a thought below.

My next few blogs will be about self-publishing, so if you have any questions about that send them to me!

*Yes, Neil Gaiman reference. The same line I put on my cap when I graduated with my degree. 

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