This is an offshoot from a comment exchange on an unrelated question. What to submit when asked for "sample chapters"?

I know a large percentage of traditionally published fiction authors, especially newer ones, have degrees related to writing or similar extensive education. And many people here talk about formal structural writing with terms I understand immediately (usually) but haven't ever heard before. I find it interesting and sometimes helpful.

But I was a bit surprised to have the above exchange where the other person assumed I knew this "basic" stuff. I don't mean the real basics like beginning-middle-end and so forth, but specific terminology and details like:

For the reader, an "inciting incident" does not have to be perceived by the MC as a big problem, it can start small. It roughly occurs about 1/8 through the story (by word count), and then grows for 1/8 of the story, to the point that when Act I ends (25% through the story) it is a crisis the MC must deal with. This later point (25%) is when the MC "leaves their normal world" (either physically or mentally) and begins to deal with their problem, usually reactively and unsuccessfully at first. (As opposed to proactively, starting around 50% of the story). (From @Amadeus)

I have no objections to using methods like this, I just never learned them. I took fiction writing and technical writing in college and, in grad school, I wrote tons and I also taught writing to undergraduates for 4 years, all essay writing of various types. I've been published here and there and haven't published something large because I never pushed myself to finish a huge project before. My critique group loves what I've got so far, but I guess I won't know until a professional editor gets ahold of it whether it's structurally sound.

I'm well into middle age and feel pretty confident about continuing to write without more formal training, though I've considered taking some classes (more for the deadlines than anything else). But I'm curious to hear other experiences.

QUESTION: In someone with a strong general educational background, what is the importance of formal fiction writing classes for writing a novel?

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    I'm curious why you interpret this as "formal". It is a FORMULA.
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 2:00
  • @wetcircuit I'm asking about formal classes, vs just writing. Being self-taught with the same materials as the classes is another option, though I'm asking more about having the materials vs not.
    – Cyn
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 3:02
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    That sort of formula is very UCLA Film School. Others are extremely devoted to Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey (also UCLA Film School but a generation earlier). Maybe there is a certain confidence that comes from having a "solid" (rigid, set-in-stone) recipe to follow…. I think you always get something from the pursuit of knowledge. As an adult I could not sit in a class and write to a formula. If the stories I want to tell follow the formula, they would be hollywood movies and I wouldn't need to write them. Follow your path, but you can just buy a screenplay book and learn the formula easy.
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 4:00
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    TL;DR – you didn't learn that in college because it's just a trendy "screenplay" formula. There will be another in 10yrs. It will be based on Marvel movie formula.
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 4:06
  • 1
    @wetcircuit Thinking about this more...the above quote is an example and one that surprised me (yeah, I don't know that stuff). But there have been plenty over over the months I've been on Writing.SE. Lots of writing craft terminology and other structures. I just write... I mean I've had tons of English/Lit classes and so forth, just not anything like the writing classes so many here seem to have taken.
    – Cyn
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 14:55

4 Answers 4


Might be helpful, but hardly essential.

There were two brothers, both studying cereal chemistry. The elder brother went to Berkley and got the degree, the younger read all of the texts and was self taught. My uncle had the title, but my father had the longer and more varied career, working for the Government of Canada and later was headhunted by a Fortune 500 company.

My father believed that what mattered was possessing the knowledge. He was amused when the monogrammed souvenirs of conventions he attended and spoke at had him as Dr.

I have taken one creative writing class in my life, but have read for many years and have been writing since I was twelve. I believe that every book you read teaches you something, might not absorb it immediately but you do learn.

If a degree is a prerequisite for writing, I am in poor case too. Almost got an unmarketable BA in English Lit with a Philosophy minor. Life intervened.

If you have people who enjoy what you write, that is something for the win column. A degree might help prevent people from trying to reinvent the wheel, but lessons learned through experience are the ones you remember.

When I read Magic Mountain, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Very little happens and the characters are not terribly engaging. A rather vapid young man visits a friend in the hospital and contracts TB, so stays there. Life in a hospital tends to be rather dull.

If Thomas Mann had studied creative writing someone certainly would have told him not to bother with this story that is such a long slice of life, but not the interesting part of his life - write something else. Nothing happens and your MC is dull. I am glad such never happened and that he wrote that marvellous novel.

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    Thanks but I'm not asking about the degree, just the classes.
    – Cyn
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 3:01
  • 2
    @Cyn, I think it means skip "the classes and self-pursue" (Father didn't take the classes, just read the texts on his own)
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 4:04

I do think time spent in school is useful in that it teaches one how to use language effectively. I've never seen a poll of how many successfully published authors have taken classes, but I doubt it's an overwhelming majority. There may be some merit in learning formal structure but to the degree it acts as a constraint there are limits to that. I've had several stories published (granted, in comics while you write prose) and have taken a total of one (1) creative writing course as a sophomore in college.


Taking classes isn't vital. Learning to write well is. How you do that is up to you.

I have done a distance-learning writing course (until the company went out of business) and I learned a great deal from it. I have also read numerous blog posts and several books about writing. All these have good advice (usually). However, I don't think I have learned to write by reading them: I've learned to write by writing. Of course, I've taken the advice of others into consideration. Of course, I've read about fiction structure (most I've found unhelpful). But of course, I've written, revised and re-written to try to improve my writing.

I don't think there is one structure that 'works'. As an English teacher, I have read and taught numerous books. There isn't a single, successful structure. 'Heroes', by Robert Cormier, has the past and present tense narratives collide at a vital point. A Zane Grey novel (I can't remember the title) has the hero try to kill his loved one as an act of mercy just before the end. 'Macbeth' and 'Romeo and Juliet' may have followed an act structure in printed editions, but word counts and scene lengths were not obviously Shakespeare's concerns.


Classes teach what study, experience and opinion believe to have produced prior success.

Corollary, businesses prefer what has been previously successful. A sure win is money in the bank. If only anything was sure in business.

If you take classes that are well constructed (no guarantee of this), you are likely to be taught strategies that will work to produce works in generic ways. But, it's not like anyone has has studied all permutations of words and identified strategies for ending up in the goldilocks zone of what we call a book.

What you are more likely to obtain from coursework is a common language and bedfellows who believe the same things you do. So it may be more likely that after you join a school, you're swimming in the right direction. ;)

So here's the question. How do we know what will beget success? The answer is not very clear.

Let's consider some writers who were very inventive, at least as we view them today. Mary Shelly wrote all of Frankenstein in a weekend on a bet. Professor Tolkien spent most of his life tinkering on an encyclopedia history of middle earth that most people find to be a drag. His other four books (The Hobbit, and the trilogy comprising Lord of the Rings) are much more well received. But for as different as they were in their approaches to writing, they both were immersed in the writing world entirely.

However, there are many writers without writing degrees who are equally interesting. Ray Bradbury, Maya Angelou, Truman Capote, Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, and Jack London are the first in the list returned by google/pastemagazane.com who did not complete any kind of writing degree, let alone collegiate degree.

Regardless all of these people loved literature, had a passion for reading and writing it. And eventually were surrounded by those with like minds. It's not so much that you need to go to school to learn the rules of the road; it may help if you do, it may also close your mind off to the possibilities you would otherwise consider. It depends on who you are, who you are surrounded by and who is passing on what they pitch as 'wisdom'.

You do not need to go to school. You do not need to avoid school. You need to love writing and you need to hone your craft so that it is appealing to readers, consumers, and those in the business that would absorb your work. Schooling is but one method of learning what it might mean to do that. It would not surprise me to find publishers who prefer people with writing degrees to those without; though I've yet to hear of anything quite like that. It would greatly surprise me to find publishers who prefer bad writers with writing degrees to good writers without.

At the end of the day a publisher is going to take any book they think they can sell better than any other book they are being offered at the moment. How you become the person that writes that book is a personal journey and history tells us there's many possible journeys that lead to such a result.


Note, I do know that some short story submissions recommendations and even query letter recommendations suggest listing your prior successes and education. And it used to be the case, but no longer appears to be the case, that publishers wouldn't consider novelists until they'd acquired a mass of published short stories and had "proven" themselves. Nowadays, my understanding is that what people want is a gripping read (whatever that means to a publisher) that a target audience will be receptive to.

It has been the case that an education has helped some people become published. It has also clearly been the case that the opposite is true.

So, to answer your question succinctly. No, it's not required; but, you might want to consider it if you think you can get into a prestigious school as it may open doors more readily for you (it may also bankrupt you and force you to get a "real" job so that you can pay off your student debt and then you won't have time to write; I'm not jaded. I'm not.)

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