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Is it necessary to have studied literature to write really well?

(7 Posts)
squishysquirmy Thu 11-May-17 21:27:34

I love reading, but haven't studied English literature beyond GCSE, and know very little about criticism or anything. I am really struggling to improve my writing (poetry in particular, but prose as well), and wish that I knew more about how the writers I like do what they do. Obviously I don't want to copy anyone else's style or anything, but at the moment I feel like a wannabe amateur magician watching the professionals perform magic tricks, and no matter how closely I watch them I can't guess how they do it!

How much do you think a better understanding of literary criticism would help? And is there a way I could understand it better, short of enrolling on an expensive, long course or anything? I have tried a couple of books from the library, but they are often very prescriptive "how to write" books, which I have not found very helpful or interesting.

OddMollie Thu 11-May-17 21:35:19

I don't think studying classic literature is a pre-requisite, but reading widely and identifying what writing you like and admire is pretty important. And though you say you don't want to copy anyone else's style, I think that's actually a really useful way of getting started. I'm not suggesting out and out plagiarism, but certainly emulating structure and flow and the way a writer mixes dialogue and description or whatever can be fantastic tools to developing your own style.

squishysquirmy Thu 11-May-17 21:43:07

Thanks OldMollie.
I think my problem is that when reading, I get too absorbed in the book to notice the techniques the author is using, if that makes sense?
Likewise with poetry, I can write (rather naff) poems if they follow a strict metre, or a some kind of rhyming pattern. I can tell when its finished and when no more improvements can be made, even if I am not happy with the finished poem. It works fine for silly, funny poems but not for anything more serious.

If I try to write free form, I get lost and never finish it. I enjoy reading free form poetry, and can tell that some poems work and others don't, but can't identify what it is that makes them work.

PencilsInSpace Thu 11-May-17 21:47:56

I don't think it's necessary. Sometimes studying something intensively can get in the way. I have 7 years uni level art education and I can't make art any more, although I used to be able to and I used to enjoy it.

If you read a lot, know what you like and what you don't like, and can say why, and you have something to say, then go for it!

Read loads, write loads, ditch 90% of what you write and the other 10% will do you proud. Don't worry about copying other people's style in the early days, you'll gradually find your own voice and will be able to name people who have inspired you, not people you have copied.

TizzyDongue Thu 11-May-17 21:49:06

To write really well i imagine it is essential to have a very decent understanding of language and grammar more than anything. I don't have a great grasp yet still can spot poor use of language and it does make a difference to the book.

Learning English like that shouldn't be difficult (says me, who does find it difficult!).

elephantscansing Thu 11-May-17 21:52:36

It's essential to read as widely as possible - books written in different centuries, different genres, from different countries. This will give you a much better understanding of language, and it will feed into your writing. Read fiction and nonfiction. Just read.

Doing a creative writing course is often not the best way to learn to write!

PeppermintTeaPlease Fri 12-May-17 23:38:01

I have a BA and MA in English Literature, and while I find literary criticism interesting, it hasn't impacted my writing nearly as much as just reading widely across eras/genres.

Now that I think about it, intense study of literary criticism was probably the WORST thing for my fiction writing.

Academic writing style does not transfer well to fiction. I had to "unlearn" the academic style for which I received so much praise in graduate school. Nobody wants to read a novel that uses the language of academics prattling about postcolonial or psychoanalytic/neo-Freudian or feminist, etc. approaches to literary criticism. You are better off never, ever getting into that stuff if your intention is to write fiction well.

I advise you to make yourself a reading syllabus of literature from multiple eras/genres. And then, don't force yourself to read all of the works of any author you find you don't like. Your goal is to discover and get excited about the language of writers who are new to you.

If you give us an era or genre that interests you, I'm sure we could offer some suggestions smile

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