A Writer’s Education

A writer’s education 


A trip though the online discussion groups which have threads involving advice to aspiring writers is revealing: a great many haven’t a clue how to go about writing a story or a novel. Mostly a novel — it’s the prestige form. Writers want to see their book on the bookstore shelves, or in Amazon. Never mind that the novel is the most difficult form of fiction to do. It’s long, it’s complicated, it’s an exercise in memory, it’s like building a skyscraper out of toothpicks. It’s like setting out to build a mansion before you learn to build a doghouse.

Setting aside those minor issues, let me ask what preparation a writer needs in order to begin work with a reasonable chance of success.



■ Has read at least one dictionary.

■ Knows what a thesaurus is.

■ Is conversant with the major works in the Western tradition: English, French, German, Russian. Knowledge of other traditions and of minor works and authors desirable. Non-Western authors modify this requirement as appropriate.

■ Has read at least five novels a week in at least one time of life

■ Reads routinely in all genres: fiction, poetry, travel, detective, history, criticism, etc.

■ Has critical reading skills sufficient for an undergraduate senior thesis


Notice first that two of these sources of knowledge have to do with words: semantics. The majority have to do with how to read.

Obviously, a writer cannot write without words to write with. But what words? How is a complex idea to be expressed? What is the right name for an object or an action? How is a feeling or behavior best described so that the reader will know it from her own experience?

Now where are such  words to be found among the welter of choices? Once found, how is it to be used?

The words of a language are found in a dictionary. Dictionaries range from simple lists with minimal definitions and a few other facts such as how to pronounce it. At the other end of the scale are Webster’s 3rd and the even more comprehensive Oxford English Dictionary, which includes a history of the word from its first known usage. My shorter version defines the word “term” in two columns, 20 inches of small type, without the historical information and examples of usage.

As for reading it, how else are you going to learn new words (other than by reading  great many books with unfamiliar words in them.) Are you going to write a novel with a vocabulary of 2000 words, the minimum needed by a non-native speaker? The average person’s vocabulary is about 5000 words. A college-educated person may have a vocabulary of 80,000.

Now the thesaurus. These days a person needing a word will probably Google it. To pick a word at random, an on-“line search will yield at best four senses of the word “devotion” (one of which is obsolete) and five or six sub-definitions. Roget’s thesaurus offers thirteen. Let’s look one up: “fidelity” class 974.7 — in this class, “probity” we find 25 analogous words, each with about 30 near synonyms, for a total of 750 words to choose from, or less than 1% of those offered on-line.

As for the other way of acquiring new words, at a guess I would say that 500 novels might give a good sense of the language. How long would it take to read that many? Do the math. At a rate of one novel a day, about a year and four months.

As for how to put all those words to work…


Craft resources

■ Is familiar with the major writing manuals of the last century: Henry James, Percy Lubbock, Wayne Booth on the rhetoric of fiction and on irony, and others.

■ Possesses copies of the major style guides, Follett, Fowler, Strunk and White, and others

■ Possesses copies of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, The Reader’s Encyclopedia, and other such reference works.

■ Owns at least one unabridged dictionary in paper form. Is familiar with and has access to the full OED with all historical usage information.


Craft skills

■ Able to explicate the difference between story and narrative.Employs this understanding in all work as demonstrated by the ability to vary or manipulate each independently.

■ Knows what a subtext is

■ Is alert to chthonic and numinous themes and is able to deploy them where appropriate

■ Understands the priority of semiosis over grammar and other formal rules of language

■ Is comfortable with ambiguity. Seeks opportunities for the use of multiple and sometimes contradictory meanings

■ Is fluent in all narrative modes, particularly the varieties of free indirect and third person interior narrative. Knows and can demonstrate the use of author persona and proxy author voices.

■ Can give a full account of irony

■ Can give a full account of the nature and use of the unreliable narrator

■ Can distinguish point of view from narrative mode

■ Is able to make it clear who is speaking without speech markers (‘he said’ etc)

■ Is able to construct a dialog which is able to effect change in one of the conversants

■ Is able to write a scene in which more than three people are active participants

■ …


Do you find this a daunting list? It is. Perhaps you thought that writing a novel was easy, that you could start right out. Let me ask: would you consent to surgery by a doctor after the first week of study? A thorough medical education takes years. I suppose you thought that novels aren’t as important as surgery. There are now about three million books self-published annually. How many of those authors command the basic skill set I outlined above? Which is to say, how many of those authors are competent to write a novel? Judging by the number of commercially published novels a year, probably 0.2% — and many fewer if you limited the number to those books you wanted to read and were willing to pay $10 for.

Personally, I’m insulted to have it thought that a skill for which I have studied for eight years of college, two graduate degrees, accumulating a personal library of around 5000 books, and forty years of practice is simple, and that you can do it by asking such questions as “How do you create a character” of an indiscriminate group of people, most of whom know as much (or less) as you do. Do you really expect to impress an agent with work of that sort? Do you really want to spend a year or more of your valuable time to create a doghouse with a roof that leaks and a door too small for the dog? So you say it’s a hobby. Would you invest your retirement savings with someone who pursues investment as a hobby?

Get real. Go get a job in medicine. Or politics. Or philosophy. Or something else you really want to do. But you say what you really want to do is write. Well, have at it. You can do this thing.

Charles Brownson

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