School’s Out… Time To Study Writing


Last April Diana Greenwood, posted a great interview of literary agent Jennifer Rofe here at From The Mixed-Up Files. In the course of the interview Diana asked Jen a fairly common question-

What’s the best piece of advice you could give to a beginning writer?

Jen’s response sang to me.

Don’t just read, study. Study how successful authors craft their books. I tell writers that Picasso didn’t become Picasso overnight. He first copied and studied the masters before him in order to learn his craft, and then he found his artistic voice and became the Picasso we know. Aspiring authors should do the same.


Instinct and the unconscious certainly have their place in writing. Who can truly pinpoint inspiration? But the art of writing, like the art of painting, or music, or even medicine is a practice. A practice built on study.

I can vouch that kids are fascinated to hear that grownups can (and, in fact, must) study to develop a craft. When I visit schools middle grade readers love to hear that I learn as I write each new book the same way they learn as they solve math problems or research history.

It’s other adults who sometimes have a problem with the idea of practicing, honing, and yes, studying writing. How many times have I heard “Writing a kids’ book is easy”? In general, I don’t think the cynics mean to be disrespectful. Perhaps it’s because these adults have forgotten what it means to be a student. Or maybe it’s because in our day-to-day lives we all write- whether it’s an email, or a grocery list, or a business letter. How much harder can it be to write a 150 page novel? Many people, some writers even, don’t completely understand what’s involved in the “study” of writing.

So how do you study writing? Do you have to go back to school? Are there exams and textbooks?  And eek what about grades?

I don’t know Jen Rofe personally, and I certainly can’t vouch for what she’d prescribe, but I’ve invited three accomplished writers who also teach writing to drop in and discuss the study of writing.

Uma Krishnaswami is the author of well over a dozen books for middle grade and younger children. Her latest novel, THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING is a fun, fantastic story for adventurous middle graders. Uma has taught writing for many years and is now on the faculty of the Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Helen Hemphill writes both YA and middle-grade novels. Her lyrical novel Runaround, now out in paperback, explores the difficult relationship between two sisters with humor and heartbreak. Helen has taught writing for many years in her hometown of Nashville.

Sarah Aronson is one of the tribe here at the Mixed-Up Files. Her new middle grade novel Beyond Lucky will hit bookstores later this month. Sarah’s online writing classes at always sell out – often months ahead of their start date. (So if you’re interested in learning with Sarah sign up early!)

Welcome all! Let’s get right down to business. What does the study of writing mean to you? Is it more than reading books you enjoy? How do you go deeper?

U. K. – I think it’s important to sharpen your instincts while reading. As far as I can tell that comes from reading generously. What do I mean by that? I mean reading widely and deeply, reading books you might not instinctively pick up, and definitely reading books outside your field. So if you write YA it is not enough just to read contemporary YA novels. You need to have a broader vision about what literature is. It means learning to hold conversations with the books you read, whether you agree with them or argue with them. It means making sure that you’re stretching yourself mentally by the act of reading. You need to learn to spot a writer’s intent in a work, and gauge the extent to which it was realized, and how the writer went about realizing it on the page. You need to glean craft from the books you read. A lot of students are afraid of reading work that they imagine may be like their own. They’re afraid of undue influence. When you’re learning the craft you need to seek out the best possible sources of influence, then you need to set them all aside and see what your own writing mind has distilled.

S.A.-  I agree. Read.

Remember: When you look at a meaningful painting, you see more than one layer of paint. When you are willing to fail–when you accept failure as part of the process–you will ultimately succeed.

Studying craft is three fold: it means reading books like a writer–with the purpose of understanding how a writer creates the dream. It means reading my own work with that same critical eye. When a scene is not working, it means asking myself what the purpose of the scene was supposed to be…and going back to the blank page. It means looking at craft books and discussing the tools of writing with other writers. More than anything else, that conversation opens my mind to the possibilities.

The best piece of advice I ever got: Try everything. When I don’t limit myself to the words on the page…when I reimagine scenes, then I create scenes that I am proud of.

H. H.- There is a part of writing that rests squarely on talent, but any artist must learn his or her craft.  For a beginning writer, I think studying craft is being in the conversation.  An artist should know the canon, should understand the context, and be actively engaged in reading and writing.  Learning the tools to create meaning, then to create a particular meaning, and then to manipulate that meaning again, are the journeyman’s trade. It’s all done through a heightened sense of observation, a command of language, and a willingness to take bets on ideas.

Last week I read an excerpt from a book called Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries (Small, 2011). The whole premise of the book is that artists and others take “concrete actions to discover, test, and develop ideas.” Writers must be willing to do that–write to a dead end, kill off a beloved character, create a fictional world, and then ditch the whole manuscript if it isn’t working.  This is why writers’ workshops are ever present in the process.  Workshops give writers forums to develop and test ideas. Studying the craft of writing is an active engagement, which in my mind is why many writers also teach.  It’s lifelong learning.

Thanks Uma, Sarah and Helen!

Does all this study sound easy? Nope, I didn’t think so.

But the practice of writing isn’t drudgery, either. Reading, comparing, experimenting and imagining should be exhilarating. Engaging in a rigorous conversation with the books you read and the words on your own page will carry your writing to new heights.

Maybe best of all a writer who seriously hones her craft won’t just give her readers words on a page. She will create worlds and open minds.

Tami Lewis Brown sometimes believes she’s a perpetual writing student. She holds an MFA from Vermont College but she learned lots of new lessons while writing THE MAP OF ME, a middle-grade novel which will be released this August.

Tami Lewis Brown