The Writing Craft; Authors Hone Skills in Classes, Workshops

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Maren Michel is turning her reality into fiction. As a graduate student in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, she is working on short stories and a novel, most of which are inspired by personal experiences.

"I have a historical novel in process," Ms. Michel says. "It's based in part on my family's history of immigration. It's an immigrant story."

To try to improve their writing skills, some scribes opt to earn specialized degrees in creative writing, while others take classes as part of a nondegree program. The instruction usually is tailored to fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction.

An education in writing can help a student sift through various processes for writing and decide which methods will work best, Ms. Michel says.

"You can feel divine inspiration, but there are times when you don't feel divine inspiration," Ms. Michel says. "You learn craft so you have tools."

A blend of literature courses and writing workshops makes up the curriculum for a master's degree in creative writing, says Jean McGarry, professor and chairwoman of the writing seminars department at Johns Hopkins University.

During workshops, students' work is critiqued by the professor and other class members, Ms. McGarry says. Students often go through many drafts until their work is complete.

"The whole philosophy of the workshop method is where everybody's view is important, even within levels of competence," Ms. McGarry says. "There are often differences in point of view."

Topics such as story structure, point of view, verb tense, span of time, pacing and characterization usually are mentioned during critiques, says Kermit Moyer, creative writing professor at American University in Northwest. He has a doctorate in American literature.

"Some writers begin with plot," Mr. Moyer says. "Many other writers feel that it's an artificial way to form a story. The story can unfold from the situation that you may imagine, rather than following the outline of a predetermined scenario."

Instead of teaching a specific process for writing, Mr. Moyer focuses more on the quality of the finished product.

In addition to the workshops, American University students take courses in literature, translation, journalism and how to teach writing. Pupils also undergo internships.

Although not all writers want to be professors, 25-year-old Sandra Beasley of Northwest wanted that option available upon graduation. As a December 2004 graduate of American University with a master's degree, she will be able to teach.

A poet, she primarily writes free verse. She recently wrote a sonnet sequence on Medea from Greek mythology.

"I looked at what other poets had done with the character," Miss Beasley says. "There is no point in regurgitating what's already out there. You want to find a new insight. …