This is part of my series on training and education for writers.
Several months ago, I wrote about MFA programs and how to tell if they’re right for you. This week, I’m focusing on self-study options.
An MFA is not for everyone, and some experts believe that it does not guarantee that you’ll be published. What it does do is provide an intensive training opportunity to learn everything about the writing craft. You’ve got a built-in network of fellow writers who are going through the same program and you learn from each other.
Self-study offers its own advantages. Students have more control over the content and direction of their training. You control what you study, when and for how long.
Whatever your preference – MFA or self-study – will depend on your studying style.
If you prefer to immerse yourself in a structured program where you learn everything about the craft of writing in a concentrated period of time, then an MFA is probably best for you.
However, if you don’t have the money or the time to concentrate on an intensive program like an MFA, self-study is the better option. In this route, you can pick up knowledge as you go along by taking workshops and classes on your own time and on your own schedule and reading every blog, magazine article and book about some aspect of writing.
For those who like aspects of both, you might appreciate the hybrid model. The hybrid is a do-it-yourself program that combines the independent learning of self-study with the intensive focus of the MFA. Whereas the typical self-study route can be haphazard in its approach, the hybrid is focused on mastering areas of competence in a given time, usually about a year.
Author James Scott Bell calls these areas of competence “critical success factors” or CSFs. Bell has identified seven CSFs that he recommends writers should master: plot, structure, characters, scene, dialogue, voice and meaning (theme).
(Personally, I would add three more to this list: pacing, setting and revision. However, in a hybrid self-learning model, I suppose you can create as many or as few CSFs as you want. It’s your self-study program.)
Bell’s idea is based on the work and writings of Benjamin Franklin. In his autobiography, Franklin described his desire to master 13 moral virtues. He tracked his progress using a chart with the seven days of the week. He focused on improving one moral virtue each week. Writers, Bell says, can use a similar checklist for each of the CSFs he described.
By concentrating on one CSF over seven weeks, Bell believes you will have covered all seven within one year with three weeks to spare. Of course, if you add others to your list, that time frame will be extended. Count on spending eight weeks – comparable to a college semester – learning about one CSF. By the end of one year or longer, you will have completed your own self-study program.
Bell also offers suggested readings for each CSF. You can find them on his website. Other helpful resources can be found on DIY MFA and Writer’s Digest magazine.
Of course, there are no formal hybrid educational models offered for writers. So you may have to create your own self-study course, says writing coach Ann Kroeker. “In this way, any of us can identify an area to improve in and find instruction pertaining to that exact skill or technique.”
Kroeker adds that this self-study approach isn’t limited to fiction writers, but to poets, essayists and non-fiction writers too.
It’s an interesting concept, and one I wished I had come upon when I embarked on my writing career. No matter how far along you are in your development, you can always test out Bell’s self-study concept.
If you decide to go the self-study route to learn more about the writing craft, here are a few tips to get the most out of the experience, according to the Learning Agency Lab.
- Set goals for yourself. Decide what you want to learn and the measurements for mastering them.
- Schedule your self-study time. Self-study takes time, perhaps not as much as a formal MFA, but time that you could be doing other things. With busy schedules, you’ll need to set aside time each day for self-study, whether that’s reading, taking a class or completing writing exercises.
- Make sure you complete the exercises you learn in workshops or in the texts you read. This gives you valuable practice on technique. You may not use them all after the training ends, but some will likely stick.
- Don’t be shy about marking up articles and books. You’ll likely find key points you want to remember, so grab that marker and highlight it. Better yet, use a post-it note to mark the page so you can refer to it easily later.
- Celebrate milestones. For each CSF you master after seven or eight weeks, do something special to mark the occasion.
- Apply your skills. As you gain experience with each CSF, look for ways to expand your skills. For example, once you’ve mastered character, begin to apply those lessons to your own writing. Look at your own characters to see if they measure up.
- Find a study buddy. (This is my personal suggestion, btw.) Self-study, especially about writing, means you’re working on your own. By finding a study buddy, you can go through the self-study process together.
- Reflect on your learning. When you’ve completed each phase, reflect on what you’ve learned. Is there more you need to learn?
Writers are lifelong learners. No matter where you are in your development as a writer, there are always resources to help you improve your craft.