It’s September, which means back-to-school time in most parts of the United States. Whether or not you are personally going back to school, or have children who do, the early days of September prompt us into a learning mindset. One of the blessings of living in modern times is the wide availability of educational sources: not just books and traditional classrooms, but online courses, podcasts, YouTube channels, blogs, news media, and digital archives. We’re fortunate to have access to this wealth of knowledge, but with the widening of choices comes a greater need to narrow your focus so that you don’t become paralyzed with indecision or drown in information.
So how do you figure out what you need to learn, and how to best teach yourself? All it takes to start is a pen and paper.
What do I need to learn?
Ask yourself these four questions:
1) What do I struggle with most while writing?
If that question is too general to provoke a response, you can change “writing” to “researching,” “reading,” “creative thought,” “publishing,” “networking,” and/or any other aspect of your writing life.) Frame your answers without judgement, using an ‘I wish’ statement. For example: “I wish I could be better at brainstorming and plotting so that my writing sessions would have more focus.” Or, “I wish I wasn’t always falling down a black hole of online research.”
Once you’ve written down an answer or two to this question, narrow each “I wish” statement into a specific skill or knowledge that may be lacking. Move the statement from “I wish” to “I need.” For example: “I wish I wasn’t always falling down a black hole of online research” can turn into “I need to learn skills that make me a more efficient researcher.”
2) In my work on my current WiP, what skill or knowledge is missing or needs improvement?
These answers should be learning-focused, such as “I need to learn more about hot air ballooning for my character who flies them,” or “I’d like to learn more methods of organizing a personal essay.”
Bravo! You’ve identified two areas— one broad, one specific— in which self-education would serve your writing. Now let’s figure out how to accomplish it.
3) How do I educate myself in these areas?
Think back to your most successful educational experience. Was it learning an instrument? Taking a painting class? A math project in seventh grade?
Then consider the elements that made it so successful. Do you need an accountability partner? A loose or rigid schedule? Consequences for slacking off, or rewards to motivate you?
Jot down some methods of learning that appeal to you. Will it involve reading, listening, talking to others? How will you fit it into your schedule?
4) Where can I find what I need?
Here are some places to start:
If you’re looking for online courses, try writing schools like Gotham Writer’s Workshop (I can personally recommend both their online and real-life courses) or ed2go.com (I’ve taken excellent classes on research methods and magazine writing). Or, look no further than DIYMFA courses DIY MFA 101 or Pixels to Platform!
If you’re looking for IRL courses (which may have more limited availability, but have the advantage of increased accountability) look for continuing education catalogs from your local school districts and community colleges.
If you want more of a casual listening or viewing experience, try The Great Courses. They have tons of classes in writing, history, creativity— anything you’d want to learn. You can purchase courses in audio or visual format. I like to listen to mine on my phone as I would a podcast.
Speaking of podcasts, don’t rule out finding a new podcast on what you need to know, whether it’s writing craft-focused, marketing, or hot air-ballooning. (Okay, that last one might be tough.) Podcasts are free, fun and generally informative. Same goes for YouTube channel subscriptions.
Or learn by experience or by conversation with others. If your character has a job or hobby that you haven’t experienced, take a lesson or meet up with someone who can fill in the gaps. Interviewing someone about their job is much more fun than looking up facts about that job on the internet!
Finally, head to your local indie bookstore or browse online for books related to your subject. Buy in your favorite format, and start highlighting!
Feeling inspired to learn along with America’s children this September? Don’t forget to share your educational growth with friends, family and your writing community. Be a role model to other adults, so that we can promote the idea of life-long learning… which will help all of us sell more books!
What’s your favorite method for learning as an adult? Do you already know what your next educational experience will be? Share your ideas with us in the comments!
Leanne Sowul is a writer and teacher from the Hudson Valley region of New York. She’s the curator of the website Words From The Sowul and authors the “Be Well, Write Well” column for DIY MFA. She writes historical/literary fiction and memoir; her work is represented by Suzie Townsend at New Leaf Literary Agency. Connect with her at leannesowul(at)gmail(dot)com, or on Twitter @sowulwords.