School of Write

Mary Bailey wrote: “What discourages me is the huge emphasis on continuing education, joining writer’s groups, attending conferences, etc. This really puts a crunch in the budget!”

Good point, Mary. Believe me, I understand about having a tight budget. But this is one of those times when I will encourage you to make a paradigm shift. If a writer doesn’t see the value and even the necessity of continuing to learn, then I suspect that writer may not be treating writing seriously enough. And if you’re stuck on the financial cost, you may not be taking advantage of all the options available to you.

Continued, lifelong learning is the norm in many professions. Schoolteachers are required to put in a certain number of hours of learning each year. Lawyers are required to continue their education if they want to keep their licenses. Doctors and all kinds of counselors and therapists have similar requirements. It’s a drain on the time and finances, yet it’s required because none of us can ever afford to stop learning.

Now, you may think, “That’s different. Those people are already making money in their careers. I haven’t made a dime off my writing yet.” I understand that. But look at it this way. If your goal was to be an Olympic athlete, you’d spend years and hundreds of thousands of dollars training for it – never making a dime from it. If your goal was to be an EMT, or a paralegal, or a realtor, or a notary, or a hairstylist, or any number of specialized vocations, you would take it for granted that a certain amount of education is a prerequisite, and that it will cost both time and money.

Plenty of published authors spend a considerable amount of their time continuing to learn by attending workshops and partipating in writing clinics and critique groups. But mostly I think we emphasize learning mostly for those who aren’t published yet. I think it makes sense that if you haven’t “graduated” then you’d probably benefit from continued education.

As a writer, I hope you accept this lifelong journey of learning. There are ways to learn that don’t cost money, they just take time. (See my post “How Do You Learn to Write?” and be sure to read all the comments.) Other ways take both time and money. Determine what works for you. Try not to get hung up on the financial cost but instead look for options that fit your budget.

Just don’t handicap yourself by being discouraged at the need for a continuing mindset of learning (and networking). Embrace it!

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Eric J. Krause on August 27, 2009 at 11:51 AM

    >There is no reason writers need to spend much money at all to become better at the craft. Personally I have trouble meeting the bills each month, so there is no way I can spend money to go to conferences, workshops, or other activities that, though they would be great and educational, also cost a good chunk of change. The way around this is to simply use the Internet. So many great authors, agents, publishers, etc. put out excellent blogs that teach not only the craft, but the business side, too. There are message boards out there that you can visit, which not only help you with your continuing writing education, but get you networking as well. When I do finally break out of my low income, living month-to-month lifestyle, I plan on attending conferences and workshops and the like, but until then, the Internet is the answer.

  2. Dr. David and Lisa Frisbie on August 27, 2009 at 7:04 AM

    >If you live anywhere near southern California, or just need an excuse to see the ocean — join us for our annual Fall Writers Conference. The San Diego Christian Writers Guild is one of the oldest (and best) local writers organizations in the country. Here's a link to this year's affordable fall conference,
    held Sept 25 and 26 —

  3. Kimberlee Conway Ireton on August 26, 2009 at 11:17 PM

    >A 2008 study from Germany proves the adage that genius–in any number of fields–is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. This study reinforces one done in 1993 and reaches the same conclusion: to achieve mastery of a skill (like playing a sport or a musical instrument) requires 10,000 hours of practice.

    How many unpublished or newly published writers have spent 10,000 hours working on their craft? That's roughly five years of full-time work. That's a lot of time.

    When you're only able to write for an hour or two a day, those hours add up awfully slowly. But they do add up. I'm a better writer than I was a year ago and a much better writer than I was six years ago. And it's not because I've read a bunch of writing books or attended a couple of conferences. However useful those things may be, the thing that has made me a better writer is practice, is writing.

    And that doesn't cost anything except the daily discipline of showing up and putting words on the page–something I think we all can afford.

  4. Anonymous on August 26, 2009 at 6:35 PM

    >I think Timothy Fish is right.

    For all the talk about "investment," there's scant talk of returns, other than "connections."

    Which don't pay the bills.

  5. Tara on August 26, 2009 at 5:45 PM

    >I think another thing to point out is that conferences can open doors through access to agents and editors. It isn't a guarantee, but the potential is there.

  6. Brandi Guthrie on August 26, 2009 at 4:56 PM

    >This post is spot on! I went to college to learn how to write, and I learned a lot, but there are things that only are discovered through experience, and the blunt opinions of others.

    Many online critique groups are free and I thoroughly recommend them. Not only do they let you stretch your writerly muscles, but they help you develop friendships.

  7. Rachel Hauck on August 26, 2009 at 4:04 PM

    >I can relate to the money issue. But publishing is a business, even before you are published.

    I love what Rachelle wrote: Embrace it. Networking and education is so necessary and continual!

    If you are short on funds, go to God. This summer I wanted to go to RWA Nationals, but did not have the money. I was up for the RITA and thought it'd be fun to go to the award ceremony, as well as sit in on workshops.

    I prayed and talked to hubby. He said, "I really feel you should go." Within a month, God brought enough My Book Therapy clients I paid for my trip!

    The Lord paid my way to go and accept the RITA not for myself, but for Susan May Warren. It was sooo very cool! He did something in my heart beyond winning or losing.

    God has always connected me at conferences. It's such His heart that we need each other. 🙂

    If you feel you are to go to a conference, ask the Lord to make a way. He will. And He'll make sure you connect with those you need and learn what will benefit you most.


  8. Michael Malone on August 26, 2009 at 3:09 PM

    >Keep up the good work, Rachelle. I've nominated you for a Kreative Blogger award. Have a look at my blog for details –

  9. Anita on August 26, 2009 at 1:48 PM

    >I say if the workshop circuit is too expensive for someone, then they should start their own. We have several large writers groups here in CO and I think they all have reasonably-priced opportunities for continued learning. Somebody had to start those groups.

  10. Reesha on August 26, 2009 at 1:32 PM

    >Ah. Perfect timing. I was just discussing with my fiance the value of saving for our wedding vs. going to a writing conference. Obviously the wedding won out, but we did decide that it will be worth it in a few years when we're more settled (and when I've completed my WIP) to budget for those things regularly.
    I'm going to point him to this post as a good perspective. Especially the part about exploring all the options available to me that don't cost money.

    Thanks, Rachelle!

  11. Edwina on August 26, 2009 at 1:25 PM

    Thanks for the great post. I am fairly new to the writing field, and am taking in as much education as possible. I would love to be able to go to ACFW this year, but the budget won't allow it. I'm already saving for next year. One awesome thing about ACFW is each month free class is offered on some aspect of writing. These classes are conducted by experienced, published writers and the ones I have participated in thus far have been incredibly helpful.


  12. Emily C. on August 26, 2009 at 12:43 PM

    >I've posted a lot of free resources on my blog (see the must-read posts). Also, I live and breathe by Holly Lisle's How to Think Sideways course. Not free, but it covers everything.

  13. Timothy Fish on August 26, 2009 at 12:33 PM

    >All hobbies require money and time, so there is no reason to think that writing would be different. Many people who golf spend money for someone to tell them how to improve their swing. Hunters often spend more money on equipment than what the deer is worth. But the hobbyist has a freedom that the professional does not. A hobby is an investment in me. It gives me an escape from my real job and allows me to relax. That alone may be valuable enough to justify an expense that I won’t get back. But a professional must make a profit. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t eat.

  14. Sharon A. Lavy on August 26, 2009 at 11:56 AM

    >Libraries are losing funding. But I have found really good writing books in my local library and read them before buying.

  15. Roxane B. Salonen on August 26, 2009 at 11:56 AM

    >Rachelle, cost is a factor, but you're right that it doesn't have to be the obstacle that keeps an individual from realizing their dream. Think of J.K. Rowling writing away while on welfare (if I recall correctly). I just completed my second writing residency — a week of uninterrupted writing and prayer time. I've gone two years now thanks to a grant. There are other writing residencies such as this and grants are available; it just takes even a little more perseverance (but think of the payoff when the dreams are realized). I've also treated myself to an annual conference with birthday money (my gift to myself) and am soon to leave for a communications conference in Texas that I will go to with the help, again, of a grant. It takes some creativity and fortitude, but the opportunities do exist, so take heart, those who feel daunted. Been there, done that. 🙂

  16. Robert W. Leonard on August 26, 2009 at 11:45 AM

    >I completely agree. There are times when I can afford it and times I can't. I was happy to get to attend a big conference this year, but that was about my yearly budget as well. The internet is so full of information that anyone should be able to learn on their own to some degree. Good post.

  17. Anonymous on August 26, 2009 at 11:28 AM

    >So true. No amount of "training" will replace a natural talent and ability. All the courses in the world won't teach you to write, but you can improve over time.

    This trend of encouraging everyone to "be a writer" because it seems easy, fun or glamorous will only result in heartbreak for most who seek publication. Try to get published locally or submit short stories before you aim for the big-time. Publishers determine the market, not God.

  18. Lea Ann McCombs on August 26, 2009 at 11:22 AM

    >I, too, grapple with the balance between investing in my writing career, or asking myself if this is nothing more than an expensive hobby. For me, until I've earned a contract, it is still a hobby, because for every contracted author, there are reams of unpubbed wanna-be's who will never see their names in print. They can't honestly say writing is their profession, just as I could never claim to be a doctor simpy because I studied medicine a great deal.

    You have keep a balance. At the first writer's conference I attended, I met several people who had pursued writing almost obssessively, spending money I knew they did not have to attend every conference available. One look at their one-sheet told me their dreams may never happen. If they'd done all that homework and the writng was still that bad…

    It's those people I feel for when we hear the advice to keep pursuing it. The hopelessness on their faces, the discouragement when they truly didn't understand what was wrong, was heartbreaking.

    Maybe there is a time to give up and use that same dogged persistence to pursue something more attainable.

  19. Elizabeth on August 26, 2009 at 11:10 AM

    >Reading the work of others who are in the same approx stage in their writer's journey can be very helpful. That might mean a critique group, blog or online contests for unpubs. Also, if you have the right temperament, you can volunteer to be a judge in contests. That is one way to give back to the writing community–while giving yourself the opportunity to see how others practice their craft.

    Many organizations (such as RWA) have scholarship funds available, so think about looking into that.

    Finally, do some research into your tax laws. If you are genuinely pursuing a career in writing, some of your expenses may be tax-deductible. Many writers workshops will have information about this.

  20. jimnduncan on August 26, 2009 at 10:59 AM

    >Continuing education as it were in the publishing industry is a little different animal than other vocations. For most vocations, schooling is finite, you get a degree that allows you to go get a job and make money to justify the expense. Yes you have to continue to learn about your chosen field, but you're making money at it or better yet, your employer pays for it.

    Writing, like most artistic endeavors, is not so easily defined or contained. Sure, you can go to school, get the appropriate degree, but then…nothing. You have to make it work yourself at that point. Galleries don't hire artists to create the items they are going to display. It's up to you to create something they want. It's up to you to become good enough.

    Sad thing is, at least in writing, a lot of people actually are good enough but still never achieve publication. Good writing is only the foundation, the minimum one needs. Yes you can continue to educate yourself, strive to achieve higher levels of craft. This is all good of course. There is no end game when it comes to learning the craft of writing. One can always get better. Always. I also believe that a great deal of getting better at writing is self-taught. There is a TON of information one can get on one's own, and much of it is what one gets via paid actvities like workshops and conferences. Most of the stuff presented in these venues is already available in free or cheap avenues through books or connecting with people online.

    In my opinion, events meant to teach you about writing are really far more than about learning craft. It's about making connections with other writers. Far more is gained from the people you meet and interact with than any workshop. These people help teach, inspire, and help keep up the enthusiams for writing, because let's face it, writing is a solitary endeavor and involves vast amounts of patience.

    Patience is key. If you don't have it, you'll never make it in this industry. You might as well enjoy your writing for the pleasures and rewards it provides you on its own, but forget trying to publish. Without patience it won't happen (except for the rare exception of course). You have to be willing to accept the fact that it may never happen (since for most it won't) and still be willing to try. Assume its not going to happen until it does.

    It's all about perseverence, luck, and good writing (whole other ballgame if you get published). Everyone can work on being a better writer, which in my mind mostly involves writing a lot and teaching yourself the basics of what it means to write well. Connect with other writers, you'll be much saner and wiser for it. Then all you can do is keep at it. The longer you keep at it, the better your odds. This is a slow motion industry. Perseverence can't be emphasized enough. You have to be willing and wanting to write without success. Then you just throw those darts and hope you eventually hit the bullseye.

    It can happen, trust me. A few days ago, I hit the bullseye.

  21. CKHB on August 26, 2009 at 10:20 AM

    >Yes, yes, yes.

    And, let's not forget that PLENTY of careers cost lots of money to study for, but don't guarantee high paychecks in the end.

    You mentioned that lawyers have to take continuing education courses to keep their licenses (true in most states)… but everyone thinks that lawyers make a fortune, so it's a drop in the bucket to pay for law school and keep your studies updated given the big salary at the end, right? WRONG. Some of the best lawyers work in government jobs or the public defenders or other places where they can practice not just "law" but a specific kind of law that they love, that they think is important to society. And some of those jobs only pay about $20K/year.

    Hmmm, how much is that law school debt, again?

    There are plenty of ways to study writing, and just like those amazing public-service lawyers, you have to decide what your career is worth to you.

  22. R. K. Mortenson on August 26, 2009 at 10:16 AM

    >The thousands of dollars (yes, thousands, easily) I've spent on conferences and the thousands of dollars I've spent on books and recordings to learn about writing and publishing have been worth it. Not to mention (but here goes!) the thousands of hours I've spent scribbling in notebooks and hunched at my computer. Big investment. No regrets.

  23. Dara on August 26, 2009 at 10:03 AM

    >I've been exhausting all the free options! Budgeting for writing related things is hard when you're still newlyweds and paying off a thousands of dollars of college loans and fixing up the house…:(
    But I'm trying!

    When a conference comes within driving distance, I try to budget for it. The conferences that require flying are still a little bit out of the budget (not to mention that I dread flying…LOL), but someday I'll try and make it to one of the "big" ones in NYC or elsewhere.

    I'm already trying to save up for a subscription to Writer's Digest (an invaluable magazine IMO), ACFW membership and the conference in 2010–it'll be in Indy then and that's only a 2 hour drive 🙂

  24. Candee Fick on August 26, 2009 at 9:45 AM

    >Several years ago, an online magazine editor pushed me toward a writer's conference with the words, "Although it does involve an expense, consider it an investment in what I believe is a career God is leading you into." (All because of an aritcle I'd written on request.)

    In addition to paying your dues and learning the craft (as others have mentioned before), I think an investment in your writing career adds value to the finished product.

    First, if I've put time and money (and blood, sweat, and tears) on the line, I'll be serious about making my writing the best it can currently be and won't send off flippant queries or half-baked prose.

    Second, when my writing is eventually published and I hold that beautiful book in my hands … I can't put a price on that feeling. But my investment along the way makes that price a little higher than it might have been. And the celebration that much sweeter.

    So, here's to being teachable and continuing to learn.

  25. A Musing Mom on August 26, 2009 at 9:42 AM

    >I think one aspect of some types of education (conferences and critique groups in particular) has a benefit that should far outweigh any cost and that's this: human contact. In a pursuit as solitary as writing, getting out and interacting with others writers is invaluable. The relationships that can result from these educational options can be a tremendous support for a writer. Conferences and writer's groups don't just shape your mind and craft, they can feed your soul. In the words of the Mastercard commercial, "that's priceless".


  26. Marybeth on August 26, 2009 at 9:40 AM

    >This totally echoes a post my husband wrote yesterday about our decision for me to go to ACFW.

    We disagreed at first when I asked him to go, to the point that things were tense between us. Then a friend reminded me, "Shut up and pray." So I did. Yesterday he called me to tell me his story about the sales call. He said God whacked him over the head with that realization and that he would make it possible for me to go as an investment in my calling and my craft.

    Your post was only another confirmation of this concept of investing into our future. So, thanks!

  27. Lynnda - Passionate for the Glory of God on August 26, 2009 at 9:28 AM

    >Good morning Rachelle,

    You can add accountants and engineers to the list of those who have continuing education requirements.

    I want to say "Amen!" to embracing life long learning. My 90 year-old Mother and I share a home. Since her passion is cooking and baking, she prepares most of our meals. Mother is always experimenting with new recipes and making new versions of old ones. I think one of the reasons everyone thinks she is 70 instead of 90 is because she never stops learning. The fastest way to grow old – no matter what your calendar age reflects – is to stop learning. Learning is a real fountain of youth!

    Be blessed!


  28. Jody Hedlund on August 26, 2009 at 9:18 AM

    >I LOVE this post, Rachelle. If we're serious about our writing career, then we'll need to invest both time and money. Time is always a necessity. But putting out the money might not be as important until we're further along in our writing journey.

    When I first started writing, I invested mostly time. I focused on reading craft books. I borrowed most through the library system and could get just about everything I needed that way. I spent most of my time writing and reading.

    After I'd been writing and learning for quite a number of years, I started to query. It was at that point that I knew I needed to take my writing career to the next level. I was ready to invest money into it. I started entering contests, paying for an editor, and am attending my first writer's conference this fall.

  29. lynnrush on August 26, 2009 at 9:05 AM

    >Great post. You know, it's so true. When I decided to dive into the world of writing–seriously–I sat back and thought about the most valuable/respectable conferences available.

    Then, me and my sweet hubby sat down and decided how to budget in the cost. It's been a year, but I've saved enough to attend ACFW this year. And hopefully an RWA conference next year.

    If you pray about it and your spouse is behind you, then God can make it happen. I'm living proof.

    Press on!!

  30. Enjoying the journey, Karla on August 26, 2009 at 8:39 AM

    >I love the post Rachelle and will check out your former post for more information. I don't have much money to invest and have young children at home but I have been trying to find opportunities to write and have my work critiqued by others to help strengthen my writing. My favorite is a group call "Faith Writers" who do a writing contest every week. The topic changes each Thursday and then your post is put out for other writers to comment and critique. I have found it very helpful.

    Great post.

  31. Nicole Amsler on August 26, 2009 at 8:33 AM

    >To add to fuel to the fire, I attending a well respected author's class and she suggested that buying books is also part of the "pay to play" issue.

    Paraphrasing, she said, "If I want others to buy my books, I need to be forking out the money to other authors."

    As someone who goes through books like water, I lean heavily towards my library and used books stores. But I saw her point and it DID make me purchase more books. I tend to read them first and if I love them, I buy them from a book store and recommend them heavily to friends and family.


  32. Teri D. Smith on August 26, 2009 at 8:15 AM

    >Since writing is my passion, I get almost as excited about learning a little something new as I do the writing itself.

    I think I read somewhere that even Francine Rivers still attends writers conferences.

    And there's nothing that sparks new ideas for a work in progress like a book on craft.

  33. yarnbuck on August 26, 2009 at 8:10 AM

    >Try to Double-Dip. Find a WS or Conf that you can stretch into a Spouce Jaunt or business trip pertaining to your paying job.

  34. Lori Lowe on August 26, 2009 at 7:58 AM

    >Conferences near home are often quite inexpensive. I recently attended the Midwest Writer's Workshop, which was only an hour's drive for me, but allowed me to participate in workshops and network with great agents and writers. It was well worth my time and money.

  35. Heidi Yantzi on August 26, 2009 at 6:29 AM

    >I think education is the best use of the internet as far as learning about the publishing business. I seriously don't have the money to go to any kind of conferences or workshops, other than one-day events hosted by my writers group. (discount!)

    But man, can you learn a lot here.

    It's been worth the time.


  36. Ebony McKenna. on August 26, 2009 at 6:14 AM

    >Great Post Rachelle.
    I have a theory that perhaps when people are just starting out, all the advice they hear includes the phrase 'read lots of books'. This can sound expensive. And time consuming. It's all true!

    But they're in a rush. And they've always wanted to write. Surely there are some short cuts we can hand over?

    Sorry. It's a slow march up the hill. You've got to be in it for the long haul.

    There is a disconnect out there – it only takes a few hours to read a book which took the author months to write and years to find an agent and who then slogged to find a suitable publisher, who then took another year or so before publication.

  37. ginny martyn on August 26, 2009 at 6:08 AM

    >I must not be a serious writer because my career budget looks like Bernie Madoff’s bottom line.

  38. Jessica on August 26, 2009 at 5:10 AM

    >If the cost makes me cringe once in a while, this is what I remind myself of, that it's "college" and I have to pay to learn, just like everyone else. 🙂

    Nice post!

  39. Krista Phillips on August 26, 2009 at 4:23 AM

    >Oh my, I SO agree with you– as well as the above commenter comparing it to time/money spent learning for an artist/musician.

    I think it comes down to this: How much do you want it… and for Christians… is God REALLY calling you to do this?

    If you want it bad enough, if it's THAT important to you, you can budget for it. You can apply for scholarships to conferences where you can, but other than that, set aside a few dollars every paycheck. Give up fastfood at lunch and pack a PBJ instead. There are ways…

    and I know we all tease about people touting "God told me to write this…" but even though we aren't supposed to go around using this as a weapon, it's still true. God DOES call people to write, and if you are REALLY called, then you have to trust him to provide you the tools in order to do it.

    Books/Writer's Groups/Conferences are all tools of the trade.

  40. Helena Halme on August 26, 2009 at 4:23 AM

    >I'm an education addict, with an Economics degree, MA in Creative Writing and professional qualification in Accountancy (yes it's true) under my belt. Yet I cannot resist another writing course. I enjoyed Robert McKee's Story Seminar so much I'm considering retaking it. But, I do sometimes wonder if enough is enough.

    With writing, as with any other profession, actually doing the writing is highly important too, don't you think?

    A happy middle of the road approach must be the answer. Keep your pen sharpened while enjoying the occasional trip to the sweet shop of education.

  41. Bailish on August 26, 2009 at 4:18 AM

    >It may not be valid to compare writer training to the training needed by teachers, lawyers, paralegals, etc. But if we compare writers to artists or musicians, the need for education and long hours of practice is similar.

    Also, I'd like to mention some of the free resources available on the 'Net. In addition to numerous blogs like this, there are critique groups that you can join as well as informative forums available to read.

    I plan on exhausting the free resources, along with purchasing books, before I pay some real money. In that way, I'll have a head start on understanding the material and I can better get my money's worth.

  42. Laura Martone on August 26, 2009 at 2:52 AM

    >I have no issue with continuing to learn about my craft – and networking with writers, editors, agents, and the like. I don't think anyone's education is over, even after he/she graduates from tradtional schooling.

    The only thing is… it's hard to compare the time, money, and energy required to better ourselves as writers to the same requirements of teachers, lawyers, paralegals, etc. Mostly because, although nothing is guaranteed in any industry, some paths are easier to see and follow than others. To be a teacher, you need to go to college, get a teaching certificate, and send out your resume – but chances are, if you're a good teacher, you'll probably find a job (well, maybe not in THIS economy). But it's harder to see the "path" to becoming a published novelist. Even if you're a terrific writer, attend as many classes and conferences as your budget will allow, and follow all the querying "rules," there's simply no guarantee that an agent will notice you. Luck is such a factor – which is what can be discouraging.

    But you're right – there are ways to learn without spending a fortune. Heck, reading such blogs as yours and Nathan's certainly helps!

  43. Anne L.B. on August 26, 2009 at 2:12 AM

    >This is an excellent post to help distinguish between whether a writer is writing for the pleasure of writing or writing to pursue a career as an author.

    If I've learned nothing else here, it's that writing may be used for fun or profit. Publishing is a business, to be taken seriously.