How to Turn Writing Your Book into an Education

June 8, 2011

I was out to dinner recently with two journalists-turned-MFA-students, asking what they’ve learned so far in the classroom. And it occurred to me that even though I didn’t earn a degree, writing my first book has been an education.

It has hit me only in the last couple of years, after realizing just how far I’ve come with blogging, building websites and social media strategy, that I can probably teach myself anything if I put my mind to it. After high school, college and grad school, my default mindset was that I needed to take a class to learn. But I’ve acquired these new skills simply through practice, by taking on a project — occasionally ones that are over my head — and working my way through it. Gaining new skills and knowledge is not only fun, it makes me more valuable, whether I’m working for a company or for myself.

How does all of this apply to writing? Sometimes we focus so much on our manuscript that we forget to better ourselves along the way.

Here’s how to get an education while writing your book:

Read blogs. Blogs are your entry-point into the publishing industry, a free source of information. Look for blogs by agents, editors, publishers and writers. Each offers a different perspective and new insight. I use an RSS feed, Google Reader (explained in this post), to keep up with dozens, even hundreds, of blogs. Newsletters like Hope Clark’s Funds for Writers can be a great resource, too.

Use social media. If you follow the right people, Twitter can serve as an excellent resource for writing tips and publishing news. The key here is to let yourself follow links. Give yourself the time to do that without dismissing it as wasted time on the Internet, and the people you follow will lead you to one learning opportunity after another. Social media is also a fabulous place to connect with other writers, those ahead of you en route to publication. Watch these authors, converse with them, and notice what makes them successful.

Listen to podcasts. While you’re driving, at the gym or cleaning the house, podcasts are an easy way to soak up knowledge. Here’s a list I put together a while back of podcasts for writers. Video interviews, like those on The Creative Penn, are also a great way to learn. My latest kick is watching Mixergy. The interviews are about entrepreneurship, not writing, but they’re brilliant. Oh, actually, here’s a Mixergy interview that is about publishing.

Read books. Find yourself thirsty for knowledge on a particular aspect of writing or the topic you’re writing about? Hit by a bad case of writer’s block? Turn to your library or Look for books about how to write and stories in your genre. Here’s a list of books on how to write memoir, and another on travel memoirs by women. Sometimes, deviating from your reading list simply to enjoy a story unrelated to your project can offer lessons, too.

Keep your eye out for in-person events. Join a critique group or check out for groups of writers or readers in your area. Participating in a book club could help you get out of your writer’s head and see books from the reader’s perspective. A conference might provide the boost you need to get out of a rut. While there’s so much we can learn in solitude or online, connecting face-to-face with others in our industry always presents a learning opportunity.

Consider paying for a course. In retrospect, I wish I’d taken a course on fiction techniques, since I knew little about story arc, dialogue and creating tension when I set out to write my first book. But we don’t know what we don’t know, right? Consider taking a course on writing, whether a weekly offering at a local community college or a one-time hour-long Webinar. Writer’s Digest has some great online offerings, and so does MediaBistro (including several that are specific to travel and memoir).

Take time to reflect. I wasn’t always comfortable with the amount of down time I had while working full time on my book. I was used to covering events as a reporter and meeting deadlines — due-in-an-hour deadlines, not due-in-three-months — and taking the time to ponder how my story would come together did not feel natural. But in retrospect, having time to reflect was part of what made my writing experience worthwhile. My story grew and improved, and so did my writing.

How do you make sure you’re always learning?

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