I know that might be the opposite of what you expect this time of year, but the fact is, school is always in session, if you’re paying attention.

I’m getting ready to teach another term’s classes at Bellevue College, starting to write another book on the art and craft of writing, and here I am blogging right now. You do need to be in the Seattle area to take my classes, the new book won’t be out for a while, and I’m happy to have you here now, but I hope you aren’t depending only on me for your education, especially when you’re surrounded by teachers.


Here’s a picture of my university:

This is a small portion of my own personal library. Each one of these books, and each of the rest of the books I own along with every book I’ve ever read and every book I ever will read, is a classroom.

I’ve been doing some freelance editing and reading stories by my students—and have spent years reading story and novel submissions—and have read some great stuff, and some terrible stuff, and an awful lot of stuff in between. There are certain things you can easily learn in terms of the craft of writing, and some things that have to come naturally. Let’s concentrate on some of the things you can learn, and how you can learn them.

Formal education costs money. I do think you should go to college, but you don’t have to. Continuing education classes like the ones I teach are a great alternative, but can cost a few dollars. I’ll continue to encourage you to go to conventions and conferences, but those can cost money, too, especially if you have to travel to get there, stay in a hotel, etc. So set that stuff aside for a moment and look at the opportunities for education that are all around you, and may not cost anything at all—at least if you live reasonably close to a public or school library.

Sci-Fi Cover

There are very specific books like The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, which, of course, I’m biased in favor of. But however proud of it I may be it will not teach you everything you need to know, and in fact is purposefully light on some of the practical stuff. I only had so many pages to work with, so couldn’t get into things like sentence structure, grammar, punctuation . . . the real craft of writing in general.

And there are books on those subjects—plenty of them. Read a couple of them, at least, but I hope you’re also reading fiction, narrative non-fiction, and so on, in and out of your chosen genre. Each and every one of those books is a classroom, too.

The books in the photo above are all in my “fiction section”—I know, I can be extremely anal about organizing my books—and each one is a classroom. Each one, if carefully examined, will teach you a lot about how to write.

A few years ago I attended a book conference in Portland, Oregon and had a chance to listen to mystery author James Elroy speak. He talked about his love of reading and desire, at a young age, to try his hand at writing. He said he used to copy books—actually sit at a typewriter and transcribe his favorite books, word for word, comma for comma, and that was how he learned the craft of writing. That was how he learned to form a sentence and learned where commas go in relation to quotation marks, and so on.

I’ve seen some manuscripts by otherwise very smart people, who are telling exceptional stories full of compelling characters and equally compelling plots, but have some of the most simplistic things simply done wrong.

Set aside for a moment the idea of purposefully breaking the occasional grammar rule—I’ll refer you to a post I wrote on one of Paul Auster’s books for more on that. For this lesson, just about any book will do, but the more books you read, and the closer you pay attention, the more robust your education will be. Enjoy the story you’re reading, by all means, but at least just as an experiment, grab a book you’ve already read and open it to any random page.

Find any paragraph and read the first sentence. Don’t worry about what’s being said and concentrate on the stuff that your eye tends to skip over, or only partially register, as you’re reading. Stop at each punctuation mark. Is there a comma? Where is that comma? Why is it there? Is there dialog? Does the line of dialog end with a comma or a period? Why one and not the other. Is there an em-dash or ellipses? How are they rendered? Are there single quotes within double quotes, and is there a space between the single quote and the double quote? When are words capitalized and why? How is that author (and his or her editor) using italics? For emphasis? To indicate a character is thinking? Other reasons?

Since we aren’t all looking at the same book, and are coming to this with varying levels of experience and education, it’s hard to come up with examples, but the more you see certain rules actually applied in practice, and the more you compare the work of published authors (with the help of their professional editors) to your own work, the more you may find you’ve got it right—or realize you’ve got some stuff wrong.

I will always end with the caveat that, in creative writing, rules are made to be broken. But there is a difference between breaking a rule on purpose, with a particular goal in mind, and just not knowing the rule in the first place. And as a professional writer, you have a responsibility to know those rules, and do your level best to follow them when they serve, and break them when they don’t.


—Philip Athans





About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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3 Responses to SCHOOL’S IN

  1. rogersjeanne says:

    Hi Philip,
    I truly enjoyed your post, and will look forward to the release of your book, “Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction.” I write middle grade fantasy, and after having not much success in ‘selling’ my manuscript to either a publisher or agent, I decided on self publishing. At a conference I attended this weekend, which focused on children’s literature, I realized something. I realized that the kind of fantasy I am writing is not ‘trending’ right now. This is a disappointment to me, but will not stop me from writing what I enjoy. Once again, thank you for your post, your insight and expertise. It is appreciated.
    J.E. Rogers

    • Philip Athans says:

      Don’t worry too much about what’s “trending”–no one really knows that, and “trends” come and go quickly and entirely at random. Right what you love and believe in and you’ll set your own trend!

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