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Writing novels is one of those things that many people dream about doing at some point in their lives, but if you've ever tried it yourself you may have realized that good writers make it seem a lot easier than it actually is. Good writing isn't a fluke, and it isn't a job for everyone. While you don't necessarily have to complete the same level of formal education that an engineer or doctor would, you still have to master a complex set of mechanics. The way you learn to write is up to you, but you do have to learn.
Literacy might seem like a no-brainer, but it's very important. To be a novelist, you must be comfortable both with reading and writing, and you have to appreciate the power of these skills to shape the course of your life. Depending on the kind of novels you want to write, you probably don't need college-level reading comprehension, but you do need a good vocabulary, a strong grasp of the rules of English grammar and considerable practice with writing essays and other short pieces from beginning to end. A great way to build your literacy outside of regular schooling is to take on jobs or projects that require you to write and to receive feedback on your writing.
Extensive Reading Experience
If there's one educational requirement you absolutely can't skip, it's reading. To be a writer, you must know what writing's all about, and the best way to do that is by reading other people's writing. So read, and read a lot. The earlier in life you start, the better. Think of yourself as an apprentice learning from many masters -- and some not-quite-masters. Reading exposes you to the mechanics of writing, and by reading a great deal of work from many different authors, you can develop a healthy voice of your own. Don't just read novels, though. Read everything from poetry to biographies to the news. Even the labels on cartons at the grocery store can add to your understanding of how writing works.
The Novelist's Own Expertise
Some skills you learn as you go, so you can expect that your early work won't have the best polish and technique. These things come with experience. As a novelist, you have to create characters and make them compelling individuals. You have to learn how to craft plots and create dramatic tension. What themes your story conveys and how to integrate them into the narrative will be major decisions for you to make. You'll have to illustrate a scene using only words, which isn't the easiest way for many people to visualize things. Using literary devices and figurative language to get points across without being literal all the time will challenge you. And you have to do all of this in a way that appeals to your readers. It isn't easy, but to make it even harder, you also have to build experience in navigating the publishing market, building audiences and presenting yourself publicly.
Writing is one of those things you can teach yourself outside of school if you have the passion for it, but to learn about grammar and essay-writing, you can't go wrong with a full high-school education heavy on reading and writing assignments. Beyond this, you don't have to go to college to be a novelist, and many of history's most prominent writers didn't. Keep in mind, however, that most employed writers need to have a college degree to get hired. If you do go for a degree, you could take a literature, creative writing or English major. Many novelists come at it from another direction, however, by earning degrees in the areas they want to write about. For instance, many early science fiction novelists were originally engineers.
Josh Fredman is a freelance pen-for-hire and Web developer living in Seattle. He attended the University of Washington, studying engineering, and worked in logistics, health care and newspapers before deciding to go to work for himself.