Skip to main content

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

Let author (and guest poster) James Scott Bell explain why learning the how-tos of writing fiction is not only important, but essential to getting published.

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 & Structure
James Scott Bell

Guest column by JAMES SCOTT BELL, the #1 bestselling author Plot & Structureand 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 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.

[Want To Be a Great Fiction Writer? This Free Download Will Help!]

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

From Script

Adapting True Crime and True Stories for Television (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, exclusive interviews with writers and showrunners Robert Siegel and D.V. DeVincentis (“Pam & Tommy”), Patrick Macmanus and Liz Hannah (“The Gril from Plainville”) who both have taken creative liberties in adapting true stories for a limited series.

Chanel Cleeton: On Reader Enthusiasm Conjuring Novel Ideas

Chanel Cleeton: On Reader Enthusiasm Conjuring Novel Ideas

Author Chanel Cleeton discusses how reader curiosity led her to write her new historical fiction novel, Our Last Days in Barcelona.

Writer's Digest Interview | Marlon James Quote

The Writer's Digest Interview: Marlon James

Booker Prize–winning author Marlon James talks about mythology and world-building in his character-driven epic Moon Witch, Spider King, the second book in his Dark Star Trilogy in this interview from the March/April 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: New Podcast Episode, a Chance at Publication, and More!

This week, we're excited to announce our newest podcast episode, your chance to be published, and more!

David Adams Cleveland: On Truth Revealing Itself in Historical Fiction

David Adams Cleveland: On Truth Revealing Itself in Historical Fiction

Award-winning novelist David Adams Cleveland discusses the timeliness of his new novel, Gods of Deception.

Lisa Jewell | Writer's Digest Interview Quote

The WD Interview: Lisa Jewell

The New York Times-bestselling British author discusses creating thrilling plot twists and developing characters in her 19th novel, The Night She Disappeared, in this interview from the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

5 Tips for Successfully Pitching Literary Agents in Person (That Worked for Me at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference)

5 Tips for Successfully Pitching Literary Agents in Person (That Worked for Me at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference)

Author Anat Deracine found her agent at Writer’s Digest Annual Conference. Now she’s sharing what she’s learned to help other writers become authors. Here are her 5 tips for successfully pitching literary agents in person.

Tips for Reading Poetry in Front of an Audience

8 Tips for Reading Your Poetry in Front of an Audience

Poet's Market editor and published poet Robert Lee Brewer shares eight tips for reading your poetry in front of an audience.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Strength Lost

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Strength Lost

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, let a character lose their powers.