“What do you study?”
“Oh, really? I’ve always loved English Literature.”
“No, Creative Writing. Not English Literature.”
“Wait. Creative Writing? That’s an actual degree?”
“How strange. But you still study books, don’t you?”
“Well, yeah, but – “
“Oh, great! What authors do you look at? I’m a fan of Dickens myself…”
We’ve all heard it before: Creative Writing is just a “supplement” to English Literature. It’s “not a real degree” (whatever that means). We’ll never get a job with it. That surely, if we love writing so much, we can do it in our spare time while studying something more “worthwhile.”
There are a great many out there who question the benefits of studying Creative Writing at university . And I don’t mean concerned parents and teachers – it’s a hot topic for writers too. One writer in particular, Hannah James Parkinson, wrote an article about the pointlessness of studying Creative Writing. After reading it through several times, I can safely say that I don’t agree with her…
…But she’s not completely off the mark.
I love studying my BA in Creative Writing – if I studied anything else, I think I would have died of boredom. But even I know it’s not all manuscripts and publishing deals: it’s hard, boring, sometimes aggravating work, that might fail spectacularly when you least expect it.
So, from my experiences, I have drawn the top three pros (and cons) of studying Creative Writing.
Here we go.
NO TIME FOR YOUR OWN PROJECTS.
Walking into the gates of university, you might have an idea for a story in your head. Novel, script, poetry collection – whatever it is, the idea has been boiling inside of you. It’s The One. And what better place to write your great, exciting idea than on your creative writing course?
Any place, actually.
Assignments are serious business. You will be studying different genres, styles, some which you might not like. There will be essays, reading, quote hunting, workshops, lectures, seminars. Yes, you might have that brilliant idea, but it can’t be the only one you write. You can’t dedicate all your time and effort on it.
You need to be flexible.
You need to be organised.
And above all, you need to meet your deadlines.
So that great idea you have? Get ready to put it in the desk drawer until deadlines are over. It’s a sad truth, but one you need to learn quickly. Which brings me to…
STUDYING CREATIVE WRITING DOESN’T GUARANTEE PUBLICATION.
Studying Creative Writing will sharpen you skills as a writer. With any luck, you’ll be taught how to approach agents, the various methods of publishing, and will overall improve the quality of your work. If you’re lucky, you may even get the opportunity to meet an agent or two (more on that later.)
But here’s the truth: Creative Writing courses will not lead you to publication.
You are not owed anything by anyone. Walking out with a first class degree is no guarantee of a place in the industry. You will gain knowledge. You will gain experience. But a publishing contract? An agent? That’s all down to you.
The course may provide you the tools you need, but when it comes to making your big debut, you’re on your own.
WRITING FOR YOUR LECTURERS.
This one is based on my own experiences and, frankly, I didn’t learn it until my second year at university.
Let’s say you’re in a prose writing class. The assignment is a 2000 word story. You know that your lecturer hates the Fantasy genre – thinks it’s a load of elvish twaddle. But you happen to like elves, and dragons, and twaddle, and happen to have a great short story idea dripping with fantastical wonder.
You have every right to write what you want. If you want to write fantasy, then go for it. But there will be lecturers who, despite their efforts to stay impartial to your stories, will allow their biases to get in the way.
Writing is a subjective art; there will be times where, if you want to pass the class, you will have to bite the bullet and write a story which appeals to your lecturer, rather than to yourself.
(This could be a pro, in it’s own way. After all, it teaches you to write to your audience, to gain the fortitude to write something that you don’t particularly like. But let’s be honest: it’s not what you took the course for. And sometimes, this necessary evil can feel like a betrayal of what you love.)
Now, with all the bad news out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff.
MEETING WRITERS – MAKING CONNECTIONS
Before I studied Creative Writing, I knew there were other writers out there, but I didn’t know what it felt like to be among them until I arrived. To have a group of people who understand what you’re going through – who get excited when you make a breakthrough in your story.
Creative Writing courses provide you with a social – as well as professional – circle of writers who are not afraid to workshop your piece to perfection. The kind of friends you make on this course won’t be like any other.
While there may be the odd person who workshops your piece a little too harshly, the people who have joined the course are there to improve as writers, and to see you improve as a writer. This support system has pulled me through many times before, and will no doubt do so in the future.
Alongside this, Creative Writing courses are excellent platforms for networking, allowing you to make connections you might not have been able to when writing on your own. Agents, editors, published authors; if you stick your neck out far enough, you’ll find professionals circling somewhere close by. Meeting them through your course may open unseen opportunities for you – provided you’re polite enough, of course.
BUILDING A PORTFOLIO
Whether you want to be a scriptwriter, novelist, short story writer, copy-editor, Creative Writing courses are a great way to build your portfolio. Over the course of your studies, you’ll be looking into a number of different styles and theories of writing, from stage plays, to prose, to poetry, to literary theory, to essential editing and copy-writing skills and beyond.
Having this flexibility as a writer is crucial. Once university’s over, and you’re working on your first manuscript, you will be able to draw on your other knowledge to help keep you afloat. Not only this, but if you’re thinking of applying to other writing related programmes, having a diverse and well-written portfolio under your belt will send you a long way.
There might be assignments that you hate, but remember: every experience will help build your profile as a writer.
I cannot stress this one enough.
Deadlines are everywhere on these courses. Every assignment needs to be written, re-written, edited and proofread in, sometimes, a matter of weeks. This pressure is constant and scary and will be hard to get used to. (The amount of times I’ve burst into tears because of a looming deadline is too many to count.)
However, though it can be stressful, this time-constrained environment is one of the best places for growth in writers.
When working from home, it can be very easy to be lax with deadlines, especially when they don’t come from an outside source. Missed that competition deadline? Pfft, no worries, I’ll just meet the next one. Missed that open submission to a publisher? No worries, I’ll wait.
At university, there’s no time to wait. No excuses. If you don’t meet the deadline, you will fail. And because of this, you develop the habit of writing, cultivate the thrill of finishing a piece and handing it in. This discipline training is the main reason I chose to study Creative Writing. I wanted to sharpen my edge as a writer, to become a person who can work through the procrastination and achieve.
There is no way I could have cultivated this discipline on my own.
Like all academic studies, it’s not going to be perfect. There will be times where you sit in a seminar, hearing a repeat of last week’s lecture, feeling like your time (and your finances) could be used for more important things; but there will also be times where the support of your fellow writers, the structure of a Creative Writing course, and the workshopping experience, can harness your discipline as a writer in ways that your spare time could not.
It all depends on what you want to get out of it. If you’re looking for connections, direct advice, an edge to sharpen your discipline, a chance to dip your toe in various genres and forms, a Creative Writing course will be just the thing.
If you want space to write, are good with self-made deadlines, can gain advice on your own and have a creative idea that you want to pursue above all else, a Creative Writing course may apply too much pressure for you to work in.
Creative Writing courses are inclusive, educational and opportunistic experiences for those who want to take their writing to a professional standard. They provide a platform for people who may not have the skills, nor confidence, to pursue their writing passion, and a stage for the people who do. Whatever anyone says, Creative Writing is as legitimate a subject as any other.
But it’s down to you how you use it.
Do you agree with my pros and cons? Do you have others to add to the list? Leave your thoughts below or tweet me @ERHollands.