On Creative Writing Courses

Many say that a creative writing course is a waste of time and money, they are not always wrong, but they are also not always right.

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“Creative writing courses are a waste of time and money,” I hear people say, and it disheartens me.

Creative writing at school was often sporadic at best, and I never quite learned the technical aspects of the skill. For me, learning to write fiction was based on writing in my spare time and never knowing whether I was making any mistakes.

When I moved on to further education, I chose to undertake a degree in illustration, but I always longed to write creatively in a classroom setting, to meet authors in the field and open doorways into the industry that I knew existed but weren’t sure what they were.

Then came my chance: a Master of Arts degree in Creative Writing at Canterbury Christ Church University. Given an unconditional offer, I took it and ran with it as far as my ability could take me, and did I go far. It turns out I really really like deadlines; without them, I’d just amble through my writing for years. Writing to a deadline is also extremely important in any writing job, and courses are great for this.

Many people see creative writing as writing novels; I did initially too. However, the principles apply to a lot of other industries. There are the obvious, such as screenwriting. There are also those that get a smooth ride into journalism or non-fiction writing, but those aren’t the only jobs you can get with a skillset in creative writing. It can help get you into marketing (think of all those adverts with an overarching storyline), and business, as well as opening doors into writing game narratives. You don’t have to be an artist to write comics, just write the script and get someone else to follow it.

Creative writing courses—for the creative aspects such as writing short stories—are generally like creative writing groups, in that your work is peer reviewed. While an MA is less hands-on than a three-year Bachelor’s degree, this aspect remained the same. People of various backgrounds, often in the same position as you (though writers for various genres), would read through your work and offer critiques. The difference is that the work is written to a deadline and a broad set of criteria to see that you’ve understood what is expected of you as a writer.

“Writing is subjective; you can’t have it ticking boxes!” I’ve always heard people crying; a similar statement to when I did my degree in art, but back then I agreed. The criteria on the course I undertook were quite lax, giving room for a lot of exploration and experimentation as a writer. In fact, my highest graded piece was a second-person science fiction short story that alternated between past and present. I couldn’t have predicted how well it’d do, but I found the criteria encouraged me (or somewhat prodded me) outside of my comfort-zone and let to me disregarding clichés with wild abandon and digging deeper into my creative conscience.

Creative writing courses also put more urgency in why learning to write short stories is so important. By the end of my first of two years, I’d been published in not one, not two, but three anthologies—all because I’d been spurred on by my desire to take as much from the professionals around me as possible.

This brings me to the tutors: they are active professionals in their field with great insider knowledge on the publishing industry. I’ve been to author readings and met people working in media, and each one has had valuable experience to share.

Good creative writing courses should set you up for working professionally, whether as a copywriter or a freelance pen-for-hire or something in the entertainment industry or whatever you choose. It teaches skills in marketing, social media management, and learning to support oneself in the industry.

Those on the Creative and Professional Writing BA course at CCCU also have the option to do work experience in the publishing industry during their second year (and possibly do so in North America), offering an unimaginable amount of wealth of knowledge to be gained.

Individuals on my own course could get their qualification and use it to impress their way into a new career, or choose to continue their education all the way up to a PhD. Some may even use it to become teachers in their own right and teach at universities themselves. Or, quite simply, with their fresh knowledge, they could seek an agent or publication for their novels.

Not all creative writing courses are at university (and aren’t as pricey), and it is worth checking the credentials of those offering them. People learn differently, and finding the right course for you—should you decide your skills need sharpening—is important for getting the most out of your time and money.

With all this being said, creative writing courses aren’t for everyone. Not everyone benefits from deadlines like myself, or needs to learn more about technical skills, or has the ambition of making it into the creative industry—they quite simply want to write a novel and that is okay. Others may have found all this information organically as they’ve grown as a writer, and such a course may feel quite patronising.

Personally, I feel it can be a bit elitist both ways. I’ve sensed snobbery from people who have degrees or been on writing courses, but I’ve also received it from people who haven’t, who judge me based on the fact that I pursued this course, as though it implies I’m not naturally as talented as those who don’t feel the need to receive outside influence in my craft. Hanif Kureishi once described his own students as “talentless” and remarked that storytelling is a skill that cannot be taught—something I disagree with, as does Neil Gaiman who teaches a Writing and Storytelling course for Masterclass. Kureishi went on to say that what people really need is an author to teach them, specifically, one on one, like a mentor-protégé relationship, which is nice if you can find one who has time to do it, especially for the 5+ years Kureishi insists people need. Though, judging by my own experience being taught by professional authors, I don’t see how that is different to being taught in a group setting.

Don’t let anyone shame you for how you decide to chase your dreams. It is worth noting that whilst a lot of jobs in the creative industry look at your qualifications as well as your portfolio, all will consider your knowledge and skill, which will invariably improve. Also, some people don’t have access to the wealth of writing groups that Thanet has, or would prefer a structured course format to learn more about the ins and outs of the trade they want to get involved with.

All this being said, creative writing courses are proliferate and as wide and varied as the writers who attend them. Choosing a course—for whatever reason—should be done with scrutiny. You need to know why you are attending. If it is simply to get an “easy” degree then you may not benefit as much as someone who knows where they’re headed. Choose a course with access, with active writers as tutors, and that treats its students with respect. Find one that has merit in its distinction, and by that I mean a quantifiable track record. Does their alumnus now have published authors in its mists? What kind of experience is it offering in its course that you can’t get elsewhere? This could present differently, but some competitions can only be accessed through courses, and student-led anthologies are a great way to get experience in both publishing and editorial work (if you’re on the team).

Finally, is it worth your money? What can you to get out of it? Are they offering access to author readings, literary festivals, or intense critique feedback from active authors in your field? Does the course include a work experience placement, and, if so, where? Does it give you a qualification that acts like a royal stamp of approval in a competitive job industry? Will it open the way for the next steps of your career, or even allow you to jump ahead a few?

Not all creative writing courses are as dedicated to their students as others. Lucy Ellmann says, “I know creative writing tutors who don’t even read their students’ work. This is criminal.” That, I’d argue, is true, as you’re paying to have someone professional critique your work, and at any level I’d want them to do it thoroughly so as to thicken my baby-soft skin. And as a speculative fiction author, I am all too aware that many courses don’t teach this genre (a reason I chose Canterbury Christ Church), and instead turn their noses up at the idea—to me this implies they’re not much interested in originality.

To paraphrase George Orwell, all creative writing courses are created equal, but some are more equal than others. Or something like that.

In short, if you decide to pursue a creative writing course, pick one that is right for you, at your level. You may simply want something short, or online, or you may be looking for a longer, more dedicated, or even full-time option. Whatever you choose, you should be harsh in your judgement of the institution, its tutors, and even its alumni, because whilst I have enjoyed my course, I will admit that there are those that wouldn’t have been worth it.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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