Oh, You Can’t Learn to Write Fiction? Really?

Every now and again I hear some author putting down how-tos. “You can only learn to write by writing,” they’ll say. “Don’t waste your time studying writing books. Just put a page in front of you and write!”

Which strikes me as making as much sense as saying, “You can only learn to do brain surgery by doing brain surgery. Don’t waste your time studying brain surgery. Just cut open heads and dig!”

Uh-huh. Excuse me if I show a preference for a sawbones who has studied under the tutelage of experienced surgeons.

Write Great Fiction Plot & StructureJames Scott Bell


Guest column by JAMES SCOTT BELL, the #1 bestselling author Plot & Structure and thrillers like Deceived, Try Dying, Watch Your Back and One More Lie. Under the pen name K. Bennett, he is also the author of the Mallory Caine zombie legal thriller series, which begins with Pay Me in Flesh. Jim served as fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine, to which he frequently contributes, and has written four craft books for Writer’s Digest Books. He graduated with honors from the University of Southern California law school, and has written over 300 articles and numerous books for the legal profession. A former trial lawyer, Jim now writes and speaks full time. He lives in Los Angeles. His website is www.JamesScottBell.com. You can follow him @JamesScottBell.

Another trope is, “No one ever learned to write by reading about writing.” Really? Isn’t that a bit cheeky, unless you’ve interviewed every published writer out there?

The writer I know best – me – absolutely learned to write by reading how-tos. I had been fed the bunk that “writers are born, not made” while in college, and I bought it, in part because I took a course from Raymond Carver and couldn’t do what he did. (I didn’t know at the time that there was more than one way to “do” fiction. I thought everybody had to pass through the same tunnel.)

When I finally decided I had to try to learn to write, even if I never got published, I went after it with a club. I started gathering books on writing, read Writer’s Digest religiously (especially Lawrence Block’s fiction column), took some classes, and wrote every day. Living in L.A. it was required that I try screenwriting first, so I wrote four complete screenplays in one year, giving them to a film school friend, who patiently read them and told me they weren’t working. But he didn’t know why.

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Then one day I read a chapter in a book by the great writing teacher Jack Bickham. The book had been the featured title of the Writer’s Digest Book Club, of which I was a member. How glad I am now I was. Because I had an epiphany. Literally. Reading one of the chapters, light bulbs and fireworks went off inside my head, and I finally got it. Or at least a big part of it.

I was keeping a journal at the time, and wrote this:

September 15, 1990


Light! A bulb! A flash! A revelation! My muse on fire!

I feel like I’ve suddenly “clicked into” how to write . . .  I mean, everything I’ve been reading and brooding about has finally locked. There is this tremendous rush of exhilaration. It just happened, and now I feel like everything I write will be at least GOOD, but can also be EXCELLENT.

I still get jazzed thinking about that moment. I wrote another screenplay, and that was the one my friend liked. The next one I wrote got optioned, and the one after that got me into one of the top agencies in town.

When I turned to novel writing, my second proposal got me a five book contract.

All because of something I read in a how-to book, and things I kept on learning after that.

That’s not to say I might not have “gotten it” some other way (like trial and error over ten years or so). At the very least my studies saved me time. And that’s the reason I write my how-to books and teach. It’s to save writers time, and give them the tools they need to make it in this game (and that applies to traditional or self-publishing).

“But you cannot learn to write fiction. . .”

Now it is quite true you can’t just read how-tos, or go to classes, and get better without practice. You have to write on a regular basis and apply what you’re learning.

Conversely, if you write blindly, without correction and education, you’re most likely going to be turning wheels like that rodent in the cage. A lot of effort but getting nowhere.

“But you cannot learn to write fiction. . .”

Then why do so many former students of mine, with contracts, say the exact opposite? Have a look at what the critically acclaimed author Sarah Pekkanen has to say on the matter.

In protest of the naysayers, doubters and gadflies, I am taking my intensive, 2-day fiction writing workshop on the road. I am out to bring every writer who signs up to their next level. That cities and dates are:

Austin, June 16 & 17

Nashville, August 11 & 12

Cincinnati, Sept. 15 & 16

Everything anyone wants to know, including links to the sign-up pages, can be found here:
James Scott Bell’s 2-Day Fiction Writing Workshop


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8 thoughts on “Oh, You Can’t Learn to Write Fiction? Really?

  1. marygrether

    That is exactly what I am now attempting to do, I am in an advanced writingclass, Learning the how tos and what fors , whell the gist of writing. and as you said, I wasn’t born to write, but I want to write. and to write I need to do it everyday! thanks for that article, it has inspired me to keep on going with the writing.

  2. Stranger

    I have to say That I agree with you guys as I am a new writer and if only for the sake of hope, I agree. I have a very large library of ” how to’s” and I am glad that I do, because when I am super-unmotivated and I think alot of start out writers are. I can reach for a book on dialogue, or characters and how to’s of all kinds . And I can get a little or a lot of inspiration….I am a fair writer at this stage , but I hope to become an excellent one some day. Being older doesn’t help my picture either. But I press on everyday, at writing something. Even if its about the point that is stopping me from writing now. To that I thank my teachers and my books and manuals. Peace

  3. Khara H.

    Love this, and totally agree with Jeffrey. I, too, have dealt with students who came into my First-Year Composition classroom convinced that they were “bad writers” and probably unteachable … in many cases, they made some of the best writers, because they were the most willing to be taught to write, and to begin applying the things they learned to what they already knew (which was usually quite a bit).

    I think what most people need is encouragement–to be reassured that, yes, they can write, and, no, they don’t have to be pure-blooded writing and creative geniuses to do so and do it well!

    One thing I told more than one student was that it’s a lie that writing cannot be taught; however, I can’t teach what they won’t learn, so they have to be open and ready to take up the mantle of “writer” and carry it strong!

  4. Roger174

    Thanks so much for the motivational words. This is the route I am taking as I try to improve and learn the craft. It is absolutely imperative those of us that learn this way and follow through with the process receive the occasional affirmation that success is possible. Thanks again.

  5. jefferymoulton

    Good article. I totally agree with you.

    I ran into this same attitude when I taught college writing—lot’s of students said they were just bad writers and couldn’t change because they weren’t “born with it.” I told them “bull-hockey” and set about teaching them the basics. A few months and several papers/stories later, most of them had become decent writers and some had gained a real passion for it.

    It’s like in Ratatoullie, where the chef’s motto is “Anyone can cook.” I believe anyone can write. They just need the right instruction, the right motivation, the right feedback, and a lot of practice. Natural creativity is nice, especially for fiction, but in my experience, most people who say they aren’t creative just need some coaching and training to unleash it (in addition to desire, of course). Just another argument that it can, indeed, be taught.


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