I know, I know.  It’s not what you want to hear.  Eager young writers would love to know that there’s somewhere they can go, someone they can pay money, to become a better writer.  Well, the sad truth is that no one but you can make you a better writer.  Actually, hang on.  Back up a step.  Let’s start with the basics: You’re either a good writer or you’re not.  No course, seminar, or meaningful input will change that.

Talent aint learned.  Hell, it aint even earned.  It’s innate and develops from passion and a commitment to the craft.  Sure, there are ways to disguise a lack of talent, tart it up like some average-looking porn star transformed into an object of lofty desire by the magic of too much make-up and good lighting.  That’s why so many movies and t.v. shows are utter shit.  Blame the perfect storm of: a) untalented hacks who have managed to charm their way onto a writing gig, b) the inability of the people hiring them to differentiate between a good script and a bad one, and c) an audience’s willingness to settle for crap.  99% of any production’s problems can be addressed at the script stage.  It’s just a matter of finding a scriptwriter able to do the job – and the people willing to let him/her do it.

Where was I?  Oh, yeah: creative writing classes.  When I call them bullshit, I’m not saying they’re a complete waste of time.  If nothing else, they force you to write and, after all, it’s the act of writing that makes you a better writer.  Of course, one could argue that a writer who can’t motivate him or herself to write has no business being a writer, but I’ll admit that there have been times when I’ve felt unmotivated.  It usually happens when I’m distracted by something I’d much rather be doing like reading a book, napping, or picking the dog crap off my back lawn.  Writing can be hard.  It can be frustrating.  But so are most jobs.  I bet that a lot of office workers would, all things being equal, prefer an extra half hour of lunch to photocopying and collating Herb’s fucking presentation.  So, in that respect, creative writing classes can be worthwhile.  Especially if you’re very lazy.

Now that I think of it, creative writing classes can also help by providing a venue in which to receive  honest feedback on your work – as opposed to the sugarcoated lies your friends or family will feed you. I don’t care if Aunt Mildred loved it, your third act twist is forced and contrived.  And the jaguar attack in the second act is fucking stupid. You need someone to tell you these things.  You need the unvarnished critique that only a disinterested stranger can truly provide.

So, I stand corrected.  They’re not total bullshit.  If you’re lazy and are surrounded by dishonest friends and family members, then you may derive some benefit from a creative writing course.

Seminars, on the other hand – now THEY are total bullshit!

47 thoughts on “May 29, 2012: The Bullshititude of Creative Writing Classes!

  1. LOL Joseph Mallozzi, tell us what you REALLY think about them. 🙂

    I think writers can learn some skills, particularly for certain venues they are unfamiliar with, learn to tighten things up, learn some polishing. But I do agree, either you have a skill or you don’t.

  2. Personally I would say talent is something you’re born with, the journey of discovering that potential is ultimately what benefits you most.

  3. I took a creative writing course in high school. In that class, we wrote in various forms: essay, poem, short story, etc. We also kept a daily journal in order to write something daily. Our teacher has said what you just said in that only writing daily will make a better writer. She also said writing is hard work and you have to keep at it and not give up until you have it down the way you want it to be. We also had to read 1000 pages in a month and write a report of our opinion of the book and how the book could have been better. It really informed me and got me to thinking more critically about what I was writing and how to construct an idea for other people to understand what I was trying to convey. So many kids graduate from high school without those skills I learned and go on to university without knowing how to write a paper. When I was in grad school, I had to read journal articles and write a report about them just like I did a book report in that class in high school. Many in my class had no idea how to do it. I was glad I had that training.

  4. Ahhhh. I do like moments like these Joe. Various “fucks” and “bullshits” thrown around like candy during a parade. It makes me feel like I could actually have a conversation with you if we ever met… 😀

  5. I learned a lot about writing by writing fanfic. It’s so easy to practice with fanfic, without using up story ideas that you’d rather explore when you have the talent to make them good. Plus, you get encouragement, but if you find good places to post and good communities, you can get honest feedback as well. Classes are good for learning the technical things about writing (grammar, punctuation, etc.). But really, I’ve got an English degree, and I feel like I learned far more about writing and honed my ability more by just writing lots and lots of fanfic. And, of course, it helped that I actually wanted to be good. A lot of people just don’t really care about getting better. They think they’re awesome as is and that the first thing they put to paper is worthy of publishing.

    What’s annoying is that, like acting, a lot of people think that just because they can string a few words together to form a semi-coherent sentence, they can be a writer. Talent really is something you’ve got or you don’t, though even if you’ve got it, you’ve got to work to hone it.

  6. A rant like that one Joe is something that someone could take offence towards, especially if that someone happened to do an entire University degree based around writing.

  7. @jojo: That sounds a lot like the course I took in high school (1973, New Jersey, USA).

    @Joe M.: I agree about the honest feedback. I read fan fic and am often amazed at the positive feedback given when the writer has little control of basic English mechanics.

  8. LOLOL~~!!!!!! Yea I had to take a creative writing class in the fall last year cause it was my last GE (otherwise i wouldn’t take it at all). What I learned in that class: it can’t be learned. I had to bs my way to get an A in that class -.- honestly, the class never taught me anything… actually, creative writing made my papers worse…. but who knows, could be how the professor taught the class.

    (btw, I enjoy your blog. Whenever I need a break from school, research, etc, I read your blog and I find it really enjoyable!)

  9. Er, I see your blogs as creative writing classes. When I was commenting every day I would try and use that as practice for attempting to write understandable sentences within the parameters of your day’s topic.

  10. My, someone is testy today! 🙂 I totally agree about the average quality of writing today. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched a show/movie where the actors are doing their best but the crappy writing is just too much to compensate for. Maybe it’s as much of a testament to the intelligence of the typical audience as the awful writers that such drivel is so often not just acceptable, but successful.

  11. What I learned in my creative writing course was my peers were boring, unimaginative people. The worst one was the gal who wrote inspirational stories about angel kittens or Jesus’s childhood puppy. ARGH. Spurred me to make sure my subject matter was dark, dreary and uncomfortable. I once wrote an entire research paper on Western vs. Oriental porn themes and memes just to annoy my prudish professor. Oh, I got As, but I also got a reputation for being disturbed. Hehehe. My work is done.

  12. It’s worse than that, Joe! A creative writing class taught by a bad instructor (and really, what great writer would be teaching a creative writing class?) can actually make a person’s writing worse instead of better. A bad instructor can douse the flame, kill the passion of the story, destroy the very parts of a writer’s voice that make him or her unique. They try to impose rules and structure indiscriminately.

  13. @Joe Your education rant brought this to mind, thanks…

    Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them – if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.
    The Catcher in the Rye
    Mr. Antolini in Chapter 24


  14. @baterista9

    That’s because some people don’t believe in being cruel to be nice and just being honest about something as they don’t want to hurt that persons feelings.

  15. A lot of people will fall into the category of not having access to critical feedback from people they know. It’s the friend-pleasing personalities that will be reviewing it. The people who don’t mind telling you “no” would have the best feedback, but they’re more likely to say “no” when you ask them to read it.

    The solution to that is to get to know people who have an interest in giving you useful feedback. You have that part down, Joe. Until you’re at a place where your reviewers have a financial interest in your work, a decent way to make the right connections is to get involved in a group that will review your work in exchange for you reviewing theirs. I can see people using a creative writing class to make such connections.


    I’ve read a lot of books about writing. I figure if it’s that much work to get someone to review the work, I can spend some of that work on avoiding some mistakes from the get go.

    They say it’s best to learn by making mistakes, but some people already did that and they wrote down what they learned. I’ll take the second best of learning from their mistakes and then get on with making other mistakes to learn from.


    Can you tell us how you scored a writing partner?

  16. Hello Joe,

    an other excellent blog comment .

    You have a great sense of humour in your writings and I guess that you can appreciate humour in other artistics ways. May I suggest to you and Akemi to go to see Hélène Labrie’s bronzes sculptures. White Rock Gallery, in White Rock city nereby Vancouver, now represents her and shows her works of art beginning June the 1st. And I challenge you : as you are a good culinary critic, can you transform yourself once in an art critic of her sculptures? Feel free to do it, we take the risk to ask, will you reply to our challenge? Why not?

  17. Wow, Joe, tell us how you really feel. 🙂 I agree with the pp’s that some people just don’t want to put in the effort to make their writing better, and actually, I don’t watch a whole lot of television anymore because of the crap that passes as television scripts. (Please tell me you’ll be working on something for tv very soon.) I also agree that sometimes people don’t want to be honest in fear of hurting someone’s feelings. In fact, I am about to do my first Amazon review for a writer I knew in my old home town who is about to be published for the first time. While the book is good, there are some things that could be better, and I’m going to do my best to be constructive with the review.

    Now, with all that being said, I have started my own blog about being real with my writing. I don’t know if I will be as prolific as you, LOL, but I’ll do my best. I’m going to include the link, but if you don’t want to include it when you approve the post, that’s fine.

    Here it is: http://writewhatyouknowdotorg.wordpress.com/2012/05/30/hello-world/

    Hope you have a great day!!!!!

  18. Wowzer Mr. M! I hope your day gets better. Sounds like you butted heads with some folks. I agree with you about Talent aint learned. Hell, it aint even earned. It’s innate and develops from passion and a commitment to the craft.. I could never write the lines you do. I just wish I could have a writer follow me around and feed me lines in real life. My days (my life) would go a lot smoother. I suppose your rant ties into the “Yes man, No man” you talked about before? Words of wisdom. AND I think you need a cookie. Not a sugar free cookie but a “real” cookie. Or maybe, a cupcake? Go forth and eat junk food 😉 .

    Das: Thanks for offering the article link. You’ve been sounding busy, so I looked it up on CNN myself. That would have been a fun set to watch filming.

    Maggiemayday: I did something similar in my creative writing class too! You went way further than I did. Does that make you MORE disturbed? 😉

  19. @Joe:

    The closest I have come to a “Creative Writing” class were the “Technical Writing”, “Research Writing” and “Speech” classes I took as part of my degree in Engineering (some would argue that this is the polar opposite of “Creative Writing” 😉 ).

    These classes offered some useful bits for structure, grammar, composition, and presentation, but not much else. Still, I hate reading technical books and articles where the writer put absolutely no effort into making it readable or engaging. Sometimes it is the fault of the editor, where in the interest of space the editor clips it to the barest, dry-bones, list-of-facts that is possible (a couple of my articles have been mangled in this way, even though I met the word count). But usually it is the fault of the writer.

    Joe, I have to wonder what set off this rant though. Was it a coffee-house discussion with a community college “Creative Writing” instructor?

    To the Vancouverites:

    On travel news, I’ll be in Vancouver June 13th to 16th visiting customers. I’ll be staying near Gastown, and I’ll be within walking distance of L’Abattoir and Fat Dragon. Should be fun! I’m thinking of trying L’Abattoir on the Friday night as an “end of trip parting gift to myself”. I’m guessing I’ll need reservations, so I’ll try to book those soon.

    Any other “must try” restaurants in Gastown? Macarons? I figure I will have my evenings and maybe my breakfasts free to explore so I should have some time to investigate some of the “must try”‘s.

  20. Wow. I’d be curious to know what set that off.

    You also happen to be right, which in the days of ‘everyone deserves an award for finishing the race’ can be difficult for people to accept. No, just because you learned how to string words together in school, it doesn’t mean you can use them to paint mental images in a way that you can put your reader in a world that doesn’t even exist. There are so many parts that go into being a good writer that you can’t explain other than, “You just have to be born with it.”

    In college, I had an Imaginative Writing class under William Harrison (the guy who wrote the short story “Rollerball”, which the movie was taken from). I turned in some little piece of trash for our first assignment, which he promptly smashed flat (it was deserved). The second piece I turned in was a story I’d been working on for some time (it was in its sixth draft, I think). It fared much better, though there were still problems with character interaction that wasn’t ringing true. Listening to what he had to say about it made me re-think the characters and write them in a more realistic way.

    I’m wondering if maybe the whole point of creative writing classes isn’t to teach writing, but to find those who can actually write so they can be steered into more productive ways of working? A way of sorting the wheat from the chaff, which only the wheat recognizes for what it is?

    It’s a matter of what you’re born with, and of writing all the time. And reading. You just can’t become a good writer without either.

  21. I read that in a non-ranting voice. I had to go back and see what the rant comments were about.

  22. Hooooo-wee, Joe!

    *raised eyebrow* Great post, but what got your knickers in a twist? What’s the story behind the story??? ‘Cause this sure doesn’t sound like you. 😀

    I’ll agree that:
    * There’s TONS of bad writing out there
    * Friends & family usually aren’t able to give constructive opinions
    * There are bad or ineffectual writing classes, day seminars, or conferences

    But there are also people with the burning desire or need to write who flounder. They lack the training by professionals, whether it’s in a class, seminar, or weekend conference.

    Writing is crucial to functioning in society, at two levels. The first level is literacy, being able to construct a clear, complete sentence without grammatical error, as well as paragraphs that transition well from one to the next. Arranging those paragraphs in a clear, concise theme is the basis for business letters, job cover letters and applications, scholarship or grant proposals, letters of complaint, etc.

    Because of my writing and editing background, I’m horrified daily by the lack of literacy in even the professional media. I don’t, however, worry about comments online. 🙂 Those are spontaneous conversations, not literature meant for publication. I make plenty of my own typos, for sure!

    The second level of Writing is for entertainment, whether fiction or engagingly told non-fiction. If a person wants to write successfully at this second level, certain things have to happen. When I edit or assess a piece of work, there are key things to look for.

    Basics for Good writing:

    * Remember your audience and format — Stay focused. Who will read/view your story? Write for them. Is it a novel, script, or screenplay? Delivering the story in the correct format & length separates the amateurs from the professionals.

    * Planning for a beginning, middle, and end (BME). Outlining major story points from introduction to conclusion.

    * Strong content and organization — What you have to say and how clearly you say it. (Plot and story.) No logic gaps, or sleights of hand that leave meaning opaque. Respect your reader’s/audience’s investment of time.

    * Style and fluency — How well you say it. High level of correctly used vocabulary, beauty of language, varying sentence construction. No dependence on sentence fragments in narrative. It’s a weakness even NY Times reviewers complain about. Limited stylistic fragments okay, including dialogue.

    *Grammar, word usage, spelling — Literacy at a professional level. You can have all of the above, and still lose your reader through mangled mechanics. No run-ons, misspellings, miss-use of their/they’re or your/you’re, or miss-using the possessive form for a plural (apple’s). For a complex sentence, think of a math equation. A subject and verb pair has to balance on either side of a semi-colon. Using a comma instead makes another grammar error, a comma splice. For the love of literature, don’t do it! 🙂

    Whew! Didn’t mean do a class, but hope this inspires writers to discipline their passion and master the basics.


    1. @for the Love of Beckett: Loved the writing tutorial, and I completely agree. I don’t know if you saw my very first comment on this blog entry, but I have started my own blog and would love for you to take a look if you have a minute. Let me know if you don’t see the link, and I will post again.

  23. An exception to the rule about writers conferences:

    The Midwest Writers Workshop is worth way more than they charge. A 3-day weekend in late July, featuring a 1-day intensive in genre writing, and workshops by best-selling authors, social media experts, and New York literary agents. Manuscript critiques by the above available for a fee. Speakers known to socialize with attendees at bars. 🙂



    And a success story and shameless plug for a friend, who found an agent at the Midwest Writers Workshop, and later a publisher for her horror & suspense series:

    No Peace for the Damned
    Megan Powell


    This might be you someday, people! 😀

    1. @for the love of Beckett: I wish I lived closer to there. Sounds cool. Though I did have a ton of fun at our local sci-fi/fantasy/comic book festival this past weekend. I mostly went to the literature track workshops and learned a lot!! It was the first year for our festival so I got to hang out with several of the authors. One of them even said I was a great panel participant because of the questions I asked. I do hope what happened with your friend happens for me some day. 🙂

  24. Some writers don’t have to really learn how to write if they know what sells. Commercialism pays. Big. Love these type of posts. You’re so cool.

  25. Pat on the back Joe: reading your blog has helped my writing. The biggest thing that irks me is when the tenses don’t match. Now I get what my instructor in college was saying!

  26. @Lisa R:

    Thank you so much for the positive feedback you left on my short story (linked above).

    It’s barely 1000 words and it seems that hardly anyone is willing to read that much and leave a comment. Reviews and feedback are hard to come by, so I appreciate every one I get.

    Thanks again.

    1. @BoltBait: You’re welcome. I’ve published several pieces on fanfic.net, and while I know they’ve been read (The traffic stats part of that website is awesome.), not many have reviewed so I appreciate every review and comment too. They’ve all helped me become a bettter writer.

  27. To be fair you do have a right to say all this, you did work on the most successful sci-fi series in about a decade and were a vital key to the success of Stargate. And did write the best season ending eps in all 3 Stargate shows. Just saying.

  28. I took one over a weekend once back when I thought I could at least write a Stargate fanfic or two. Sigh. At least it made me write some things quickly. It’s not about laziness for me. It’s about an inner critic so severe that I can’t get a sentence out without hating it and myself and realizing it’s pointless and I’ll never be as good as a real writer and why bother and hey, there’s a new Hawaii 5-0 fanfic up on LiveJournal, let’s go check it out. 🙂 Oh, was that a run-on sentence?

  29. I haven’t been around to read much for a while, but since I was doing some SGA watching, I thought I’d see what you’re up to. This entry really caught my attention. Mainly because I enjoy writing as a hobby. I don’t consider myself a good writer. I mostly write what I like and what I would like to see in writing. I like short story writing the most. I suppose that’s because it’s what I like to read. I love nonfiction, but that’s something I don’t think I could do well at all. I’m a lazy writer, too. I write when I feel like it which is sometimes far and few between episodes. I won’t start writing until I have my characters and story from beginning to end ready for the paper so to speak. I have a few close friends who are beautiful writers that read over my work from time to time. I get wonderful ideas and feedback which helps me. One time I was a little miffed because one friend said my main character was a bit of a stalker. I think that says I’ve got good friends who will tell me the truth. It certainly helps tell better stories, I think. Anyway, I enjoy writing as a hobby. I think if I took it more seriously than that, I’d lose the enjoyment of it and then I’d stop. I don’t want that.

  30. My sister who became friends with a fellow artisan via those Renaissance festivals. The friend asked her to read and offer her opinion of the author’s fantastical semi autobiographical novella. My sister was under the mistaken notion that she would want sincere observations and critic. They are no longer friends, Artists.

  31. @Michelle

    I loved your comment, not only did it make me smile; it also struck a familiar chord!

    I think you and I share the same inner critic! It is sooo annoying because I’ve always written, I do it as a hobby, whether its short stories, fanfic, reviews etc., and yet I find myself reviewing, refining and editing every damn sentence I write to the nth degree!

    Did I mention how much I dislike Microsoft Word! I used to write in OpenOffice – good programme – until I bought a new laptop, which happened to include Word 2010. Doesn’t matter how many times I change the settings, I always receive the same messages!

    Well, I happen to like occasionally using fragments. It’s punchy, it’s fun and it’s my sodding choice. (It’s and its) WORD and I have done battle countless times over this three-letter word. I’m not five years old – I know the difference!

    I like using the semi-colon; it’s neat and tidy and works nicely with Justify. Left alignment is boring and ugly! (Probably should add IMO at this point.) I like including Scottishisms such as, Och and Aye whilst writing SGA/Carson related fanfic, sometimes I’ll deliberately include them just to annoy Word! I tend to initially write in Notepad because I can document, ideas, notes and synopsis, etc., without it bugging me to correct minor errors!

    I do have an aversion to ending sentences with certain words, such as it and her. Eeek, just doing it here doesn’t feel right! No, there isn’t a logical reason – it’s just me!

    I find it hard to start a sentence with (but) or (and). I know it’s accepted, but it used to be considered extremely bad grammar when I attended Comprehensive School during the 70’s/early 80’s. God, I’m old and everyone’s probably rolling their eyes at this point, nevertheless, I can’t shake off all the lectures we received from English teachers about sentence structure.

    My procrastination habits …

    I play Solitaire, the one that comes with computers – constantly trying to beat my own record. I’ve also become a television in the background person in recent years, meaning I tend to find excuses to break away from the keyboard to watch Frasier episodes I’ve already seen a million times.

    Internet: It is a BAD habit. Do I really need to Google everything from HIMYM and OUAT reviews to finding out when SKY will be airing all SGA episodes? Well, yes, in a nutshell!

    I recently joined Twitter to (follow) Paul McGillion, which is both a lovely distraction and problematic since I don’t know the meaning of brevity and will undoubtedly find it difficult to post a message with limited characters.

    Still, I can’t imagine going more than a few days without forming a paragraph. I know I’ll always be a rank amateur and it doesn’t matter, I do it because I love to write and will hopefully learn from my mistakes.

    Isn’t it good to rant? Hey, I’m English; finding something to moan about comes naturally. Since I’m not standing at a bus stop today and therefore can’t complain about the weather, loathsome government and expensive Olympics, I’m officially bringing my daily moan to the blog instead! 🙂

    PS: Any punctuation and spelling errors in this reply are entirely intentional. Honest!

    Country Gal

  32. @Duptiang

    One of the dirty little secrets about writers–we have egos. I’m not certain any of us would last long enough to reach the point of getting good at writing if we didn’t have an ego telling us we’re good long before we actually get there.

    One should never offer to do a critique without making it plain that you intend to be brutally honest about it. It will frighten away those who only wanted a pat on the head instead of anything that will help them become a better writer, and if it doesn’t, they can’t say you didn’t warn them.

    This is must reading for anyone who wants an established writer to read their work:
    I keep it listed in the sidebar of my blog, just in case.

    I do teach a course once a year on recognizing what suspense is so you can incorporate it into your writing (that is, as opposed to the ‘gotcha’ in horror that people confuse with suspense, or the creepiness of the paranormal). I warn people going in that I give feedback publicly, and that while I’m not intending to be mean, it can feel like having surgery without an anesthetic. I respond to everything except those who don’t pay attention to the class rules, and the attrition rate is fairly high. Usually by the second or third round, I can tell who wanted to be there to learn. It’s part of a week-long conference online, and looking through the list of workshops afterward, you can tell which workshops are teaching something, and which are there so the instructor can sell something. It’s the only time during the year that I do the workshop, so I’m there to teach.

  33. Okay Joe, you have got to sign up for a creative writing seminar (because it would be short and sweet and probable just a few hours long). Use a ficticious name, of course. I think you will learn something…surley.

    After reading all these comments, I cannot believe all the angst writers, and wanna-bees, go through. I feel for ya.

  34. Thanks for that Joe. You have given us a lot of very useful advice over the years, and this is no exception. I only started writing about two and a half years ago, and I am still learning every day. Over that time I’ve received a lot of useful feedback, but some of it – especially about grammar – has been contradictory, so I’ve often wondered if I should try a class.

    I know there is a lot of snobbery about FF, but it is a good way to hone your skills, and people are very quick to tell you if you’ve done something wrong! But you are so right. It’s only constant practice that improves your skills. I read something once that said to improve your skills you should write. Then write some more. Write when you feel like it. Write when you don’t…I’m sure you know the quote!

    Like most writers, I would love to have the chance to get my own work published, but the most important thing is to take pride in what you’re doing. Love the characters you create, and most of all enjoy yourself.

  35. You are quite right, ‘talent ain’t learned’ but writing is a knack, and it can be learned. We write because we want to express ourselves; it is what we want to express that is the most important thing, and we can all learn how to express ourselves better. It is an incredible act of vanity to say that nobody can teach you something. I have earned my money by writing since I was 18 years old, and after 30 something years I can still learn. Of course, some people are more talented than others, but that applies to any skill. I teach creative writing classes, and my students have taken the stuff I’ve shown them and produced really good work and, more to the point, their confidence has grown exponentially. If something doesnn’t work for you, don’t knock its worth for other people.

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