[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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Formal Writing Training

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1991 and 1994 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

A question I hear a lot is: "As a writer, did you receive any formal training?"

My pat answer is yes: I wore a tuxedo to all my university classes.

Seriously, I took three courses in scriptwriting at university, plus one in creative writing (DAW novelist Tanya Huff was in the same class, by the way). Did these courses help? No. The two best courses I ever took for learning how to write had nothing to do with composition: one was in Greek tragedy, the other was on the early history of English plays.

I learned to write the way most professional writers did: by very carefully reading the work of others, plus reading many books on writing and grammar, and the commentaries by various writers on their own work.

The single best way to learn how to write, in my view, is reading attentively. Find some work you like and ask yourself why the author chose that word, that punctuation mark, that point-of-view, that place to break the scene, and so on.

Books that I admired whose influence can be clearly seen in my work (even if it's only in the way I wield a particular punctuation mark) include John Jay Osborn's The Paper Chase, Arthur C. Clarke's 2001, Robert Silverberg's Lord Valentine's Castle, Xan Fielding's translation of Pierre Boulle's Monkey Planet, Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Terence M. Green's Barking Dogs, Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, and Robert B. Parker's "Spenser" novels.

Note that there are several non-SF books on the list above: I firmly believe it's extremely important for an SF writer to read outside the genre. William Gibson didn't invent his version of Cyberpunk in a vacuum. Among his favourite writers were Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler — whose gritty worlds are clearly ancestors of Gibson's Sprawl.

So if you want to learn to write, pick up a good book — and start reading.

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Copyright © 1995-2020 by Robert J. Sawyer.