Monday, September 19, 2011

Do you need an education to be a writer?

by April Henry

I don’t have an MFA. 

I have a business degree, with a minor in labor law.  (At least I think it was labor law.  I have never used it. I have no idea what I was thinking when I chose it.)
But I have always loved to read.  And reading, reading a LOT, might be the only education you really need to be a writer.  
And don’t just read fiction.  Read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  Read Billy Collins' poetry. Read, read, read.  
And if you don’t like a book (or story or poem), try to figure out why. Where did the author go wrong, in your opinion?  Was the dialog really an information dump? Were the characters identical twins to ones you’ve already seen a million times before?  Did the author cheat the reader in some way?
And here’s the next, and much harder, step.  If the author does something especially well, why does it work?  I’m still try to figure out why Robbie in Scott Turow's Personal Injuries was a character I loved and cared about, when he is a jerk.  
Another cheap way to gain an education is to check out books about writing from the library.  There are hundreds. Choose one or two and dip in.  If one speaks to you, keep reading. If it doesn’t, return it.  Recently, I’ve liked The Art of War for Writers, and Techniques of the Selling Writer.

I used to think that to be a writer, you had to grow up in New York City, go to boarding school and then someplace like Harvard.  And even when you were a kid, you probably also spoke French and owned your own horse. You weren't some girl from Medford, Oregon (at the time, population 18,000).  You weren't from a family that qualified for free school lunches (but never took them), and where if you opened the cupboard, there were only a few cans. You weren't some nerdy girl with glasses who liked nothing more than to read.  

But you know what?  Girls like that grow up to be writers, too!  


  1. Thanks for being living proof that when the dream is big enough, the facts don't matter.

  2. I'm with you on that April--reading is the best education! Terrific post and I loved the picture of you as young writer:).

  3. Such a good post, April. I, too, grew up reading and dreaming of writing. Reading novels and books about writing were my first steps and still help me. Carolyn Wheat's How to Write Killer Fiction is one of my favorites.

  4. I think for be a writter is just education and love read books of course inside your heart love to write

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