Creative writing courses – is there any point in doing one?

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Sunday 14th August 2011

Creative writing courses have sprung up all over the place over the last 20 years. I still can’t quite believe this but apparently there are a mind-boggling 10,000 short creative writing courses and classes currently on offer in the UK.

Lots of people sneer at the notion that creative writing can be taught but I totally disagree. I was one of the first batch of students to do Manchester University’s MA in novel writing 18 years ago and it inspired me from start to finish. Launched by novelist and academic Richard Francis and Michael Schmidt, the founder and editorial director of Carcanet Press, it gave me the time, space and confidence to write Hard Copy, my first novel. It also encouraged me to study writers I would never have read in a million years otherwise – Ismail Kadare and José Saramago for starters.

Richard, who’s had ten novels published, has always been a firm advocate of creative writing courses and was professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University till 2009. “You may not be able to teach people to write,” he once said, “but you can take people who are capable of writing and provide them with the space and structure within which they have to write.”

It was certainly true of my intake. We were a very eclectic lot, some producing literary fiction, a couple dreaming up hard-bitten thrillers, one working on a comic novel about a game-show hostess and one (me!) writing about a Fleet Street hack whose career was on the slide. Each week we read and commented on each other’s work, making suggestions and encouraging our fellow writers along the way.

The upshot was that out of the 12-strong group, at least five became published writers. The most successful is the highly acclaimed Sophie Hannah, who’s not only a brilliant poet but has also written a string of bestselling psychological thrillers. Meanwhile TV scriptwriter Sam Bain has a list of credits as long as his arm (including Channel 4’s Peep Show) and Anna Davis, the author of five novels, is now director and tutor of Curtis Brown Creative, the first literary agency to run its own creative writing courses.

So if you’re an aspiring author who’s thinking of doing a creative writing course my advice is: ignore the cynics and get that application form off in double-quick time.

PS: I’ve decided that the washing line at the House With No Name (above) is the most scenic in the world. Hanging washing out is the dreariest chore but over the last two weeks I’ve done it with a spring in my step. As I pegged basket-loads of laundry on the line I stood in the sun and gazed across at this amazing view. Blissful.

6 comments so far

  • A timely post, this. I’m beginning the Manchester course (on line) this September. Because I believe it will make my writing better (whatever that means) – and because I believe I’ll enjoy it. No better reasons.

  • So glad this post was timely. I’d love to hear how you get on, Jo. I found my course really inspiring and helpful. Let me know how it goes!

  • I think creative writing courses are a bit like Michelangelo’s block of marble. The writer is already in there but needs some help getting out.

  • A great analogy, Liz. I don’t think a creative writing course can teach you to write from scratch, but it can encourage, inspire, hone your skills, and most important of all, set a deadline!

  • I had mixed feelings about courses before I really knew what they were about, but now I’ve seen how helpful they are, I am a firm believer in them.
    As you say, they won’t teach you to write, but they will help you shape and model your inspiration to achieve the best result. There are many techniques that will help you squeeze the most out of your ideas.
    And if these are courses for relatively small groups, they will help you with specific tips for your own work. These will help you see where you’re going wrong and what you can improve.

  • Thanks for commenting, Sarah. I remember that on my course, which was relatively small, some of the most helpful comments came from fellow students. We also had a few guest speakers, including agents and publishers, who gave us a real insight into how publishing works and what they were looking for.

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