Back to School: 11 Tips for Writers in Programs

We can’t believe it here at EWR, but it’s time to go back to school. Universities across the country and world have either already started back, or will be starting in the next couple of weeks. I wanted to do a little story as to the importance of University life to writers. A long while ago we looked at the idea of college for writers in Should I Get an MFA in Writing?  If you are still wondering if a university writing program is for you, read that article.


This article is for all those lovers of literature and writers who have taken the plunge and decided that a writing is the right choice. When I started my writing program years ago (let’s not think about how many) I was very lost. I had no idea what I was doing. I look back now and realize there are some things I over looked, and somethings I got right.

It’s one of those situations where you think if I could only jump back in time… In thinking this, I thought hey there are thousands of your writers out there just heading off to school, why don’t I tell them what would make for a better experiences as a writer and lover of lit.


1. Make sure you have fun with other people!
Many writers tend to be a little introverted. Of course you have those wild writers out there who are the life of the party, but for every Hemingway there is a Dickinson hugging the wall thinking “Get me the hell out of here and back to my writing.”


The truth is college is about much more than just writing. They are about developing voice and getting experience. So make sure you find a community of people who love writing as much as you do. It won’t be very hard. When the guy in your love of lit 101 class says “Hey there is a party Saturday bring your poetry.” Go! Get out of your room and out of your head and go have some fun.


2. Build a community of Writers and Literary lovers
A university is a place where there will be many like you. The pond is much bigger in most cases, and you’ll find people with common interest. Bring them together. Start a writing group. Start a reading group. There is nothing more fun. Begin to build a community of people around you who are like you! Just ask them, they are thinking the same thing you are.


3. Find a place on campus where you like to write (not in your dorm).
Go out among the people and find a really good place. Start at the local coffee houses. When I was in my writing program there was a coffee house right across the street from my dorm! It was open until 1 am. I sat in a both for hours watching endless faces of friends and other writers sit down in front of me, talk, study, laugh and then leave only to be replaced by another face. It was one of my favorite places on the planet at the time (now defunct, sadly).


4. Be part of the Literary Magazine!
I believe all university writing programs have them. If yours doesn’t, grab some friends and start one, but it’s important to read your peers’ work. Be an editor! Read, have ideas, be part of a publications. It’s so important. It will give you a behind the scenes look at what goes on when you submit your work to magazines, or the publishing process in general. Do it!


5.Focus on some techniques you want to learn!
Look at your writing. As much as you love it, you know it’s not perfect. Find the flaws and then find some techniques to use to change it. Your voice is evolving. It’s great, you can write anything you want and get feedback. Sound like your favorite writer or do something completely risky or foolish in your writing. That’s what a university writing program is really all about.


6. Submit your writing!
Make sure that while you are writing so much that you are submitting the same amount. Make the publishing process as much of your experience as the writing process. There are 1000s and 1000s of literary magazines and websites out there, submit your work! Fill your walls with rejections! Pin them up on your dorm room walls!


7. Read, Read, Read
Spend about half your time reading. If you are sitting at one of those coffee houses (or where you find a good place) always bring a book. Read the classics. Read the best contemporaries, and read your peers. It’s the best way to become a better writer.


8. Be a writer
No matter where you end up, right now you are studying the craft of writing for a living. Even if you end up selling pencils at the airport in 10 years, right now you are doing something that you love. Do it. Don’t run from it. Don’t deny it. Have as much fun with it as you can, write while you are eating lunch, while you are at a party, let people know that’s what you are.


9. Listen to your Profs
Writers tend to be skeptics. That’s a great thing! It allows them to see the world a little more critically so that they can create commentary about it. Don’t let your skepticism shut you out from learning. Most university Profs in writing programs are writers. So they will give you advice from experience. Listen to them. Take away what you can. It will mean something different for everyone, but just listen.


10. Let your writing change
Many people say, how can anyone teach your to write? It’s a natural thing. You just write. Horse-Hockey! Of course people can teach your to write. You can teach someone to walk again, that’s a natural think. You can teach someone how to breathe! The reason a physical therapist can get someone to walk again is because the therapist knows the pitfalls. They know the techniques to get the injured body to its goal. Writing isn’t a natural process. Thinking might be, but the filter between your brain and the page is thick! It’s foggy and confusing. It’s also difficult. That why so many retired doctors who say “I’m going to write a novel when I retire” never get 2 words down on the page. It’s hard. Take the help, you’re going to need it.


11. Don’t be arrogant.
This goes along with numbers 8 and 9. Do not be hard-headed. Don’t spend $20,000 on a college when you think you know everything already. In this case getting the piece of paper that says MFA from Awesome University isn’t really going to do you any good. If you think you know everything, then submit your novel or screenplay or short story right now. Make money, and skip the college program. Try doing that for a couple of years, when you realize it’s much harder than you thought, sign back up for the program and ask a lot of questions. Say something like, “I have no idea how to be a writer or to realize my dreams in the real world, can you help me?”


Good luck and have fun…