Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Creative Writing Courses - should you or shouldn't you?

I have now tried twice to write about creative writing courses, and twice I have failed. I have failed because I don’t see the value of an undergraduate degree in the subject.

I read Danuta Kean’s blog about choosing a creative writing course, and I thought it very good, and still I couldn’t find a way to write on the subject, despite wanting to.
I know lots of writers who belong to groups and who go on writers’ retreats, and who love this aspect of the writing process. I get it, and I think it has some value, despite not actually wanting to do it myself. I don’t play well with others, except those I know intimately, and then I can collaborate all over the place and have a wonderful time.
I also know lots of people who have completed or are studying for MAs in creative writing. Again, I wouldn’t do it, but I understand why people do. Some people find it hard to impose structure on themselves, some need a little external pressure or encouragement, and some simply want to learn more about publishing, and that’s fine. The other reason that it’s fine is because it implies the student already has some formal education, probably a degree, and the whole point of an undergraduate degree, as far as I’m concerned, is to teach the student to think.
My real issue is with the BA in creative writing.
Getting an education is an expensive business. I’m glad I did my degree in Eng Lit and History (in those days we simply called it English, because by the time we got to university we were expected to understand how the language part worked... We’d had formal grammar lessons and everything!). However, I did embark on a fine art degree a few years ago, so I do have some idea how this works now, and, in particular, how the system works for the mature student.
My fears are these: The mature student will not pick and choose his degree, as Danuta Kean so wisely suggests, because of location. Many mature students are already well-established in their homes and probably have families and other commitments, so moving to somewhere that has a good degree course on offer might not be an option. 
Criteria for mature students going back into education seem to be nebulous at best. The academic requirements for a mature student to qualify for any course can be virtually non-existent. In a worthy attempt to make themselves inclusive, courses often have students with a perilously broad range of abilities; the natural consequence of this is that the group functions at the attainment level of the least able.  On my degree course, I found that I was learning alongside mature students who were functionally illiterate. Literacy might not seem crucial to success for a fine art degree, but I believe that it is. I found that the worked produced often lacked intellectual rigor and seemed to have little cultural relevance, both important in the arts. Despite being very fond of most of my classmates, I nevertheless found the entire process frustrating.
There is also the knotty problem of teaching. I have looked at a number of short creative writing courses with a view to broadening my own horizons, and found that the people teaching them, when I checked a little deeper, were less qualified to be taking the class than I was, and that some visiting speakers were self-published or had not been published at all. It might yet be a decade or two before teachers of creative writing themselves have specific qualifications in the field.
The whole thing seems rather troublesome, but I think, for those who want to write, there might be a simpler solution than finding an undergraduate creative writing course. My advice would be to study English Literature. If you have any talent, reading widely and learning to be critical will only increase your chances of becoming a better writer, and any decent degree course will teach you to think. If you’re a writer, you ought to be writing any way, and, if you’re really, serious, buy yourself a decent grammar primer and study that, too. 


  1. I can understand your arguments, but you are in the rare position of being immersed in writing and publishing already. I wish I had done a BA in creative writing, instead of being told I had to do something 'sensible, that will get you a job'. Despite being published at the time, I dragged myself through a science degree, partly paid for by cheques from magazines. I wish I hadn't waited so long before getting back to it, through undergraduate courses in writing with the Open University. Courses gave me the ability to identify what was good, as well as recognise the bad. They gave me access to published writers, that otherwise I never would have met, and taught me about the industry (because it's a fast changing world out there). Strangely, the English graduates on my MA had no advantage at all, the three fellow students closest to becoming published came from law, medicine and chemistry. Horses for courses, perhaps. I'm fortunate to be getting help from writers like Emma Darwin who wrote the Mathematics of Love and A Secret Alchemy - who teaches undergraduate creative writing.

    1. Thanks, Rebecca,

      Very useful viewpoint, I think. I notice, though, that the most successful people on your MA course all have degrees, and none of them in Creative Writing. I think that's the status quo right now, although, I'm sure it will change.

  2. [Declaration of interest: I teach [part-time] on the Creative Writing MA at Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland, so feel free to disregard everything I have to say on this subject as utterly biased!]

    I can't speak to the value of Creative Writing BAs. I don't think we've ever had an applicant to our MA from a student with a Creative Writing BA. A few of our students did English or English Lit BAs, but the vast majority come from other backgrounds.Most of our cohort are mature, ranging in age from mid 20s to late 50s. One big advantage of MA over BA Creative Writing does occur to me. The MA only takes a year [or two if done part-time].

    The Creative Writing MA on which I teach focuses on popular genres, experimental fiction, and commercial storytelling media. Our course has three threads - innovation, vocational skills [such as how to write a synopsis!], and writing practice. We don't do workshops, preferring one-to-one mentoring, critical self-reflection, and masterclass-style feedback. We teach. A lot. But we also focus on asking tough questions of our students and their narratives, challenging them to find their own answers. Because that's what they'll be doing for the rest of their writing careers.

    1. When you do begin to take students with BAs in Creative Writing I'd be very interested to know their general standard of education compared to those who took more traditional degrees. I think this sort of specialism is much better taken later in a person's education. I am happy to be persuaded otherwise, though.

  3. I once started an evening creative writing course, many years ago. The first evening, the tutor said to me, "You're clever, aren't you?" The second evening, he said, "You write well, don't you?" Both comments were made in such a damning tone, I didn't bother going back.

  4. I know two people with BAs in creative writing. One is a librarian come performance poet. The other is a NYT bestselling author. I suspect they would have both achieved that regardless of the subject they took.

    But then I can't really talk. My undergrad is in Archaeology.

  5. My BA was in a non-traditional subject: Communication Studies. It included modules in History, Linguistics, Politics, Mass communication Theory and much more. Like you say, a BA is to help you learn how to think and my non-traditional subject did that.
    I've never seen the syllabus for a BA in Creative Writing but my MA in Creative Writing (at Edinburgh Napier University) studies literary theory as well as the things David mentioned above. We've looked at Derrida, Barthes, Lyotard, Saussure, the Russian Formalists and much more. I think a BA in Creative writing would also cover literary theory; which is indeed intellectually challenging.

  6. Coming to the end of my English BA i would completely agree that the avoidance of the Creative Writing BA and similar such courses to be a wise move. My reasoning for this was due the choice of two short electives experienced during my second year; both creative writing cross-overs.

    Both single semester modules had a mixed class of elective students from BA Literature, Language and the like, while the majority would be made up of Creative Writing students for which the class was mandatory. What i experienced from there on in was interesting to say the least...

    As you mentioned many a tutor was either self-published or not published at all; the latter making up the majority in my case.
    I also found that such teachers, deficit in a publishing deal, would often title each sentence with the utterance 'As a writer i think...' It was this condescending, attention seeking ego that i noticed permeated the entire Creative Writing course throughout.
    Looking to its students in particular i noticed that the plethora of Mac Book Pro's and none-perscription thick rimmed glasses made the classroom feel more like the front window table of a Starbucks than that of an actual room intended for learning - their pretentious attitude in general suggesting they were rather there for the 'scene' of a fine arts course rather than the education it so desperately attempted to offer.

    In terms of education I found the courses; 'this is how to be creative' teaching scheme to be contradictory and rather biased to one creative method of writing (namely the tutors). The thing i (suprisingly) learnt during my time on this elective is that you can't teach someone how to be creative; that skill is something inherent to the individual; you can herd people into methods that 'influence' creativity, but you can't really teach it fundamentally.

    Catherine Simpson is right in that BA creative writing does offer literary theory, but this is limited to the first year and as such proves to be a very abbreviated account of such a study; this too being a shared class amongst English based courses.
    Due to this lack of follow up theory, I found through various group activities, the overall grammatical skill of the students to be embaressing, especially when taking into account that this was a course that included the term 'writing' in its description.

    I currently believe that a BA or even an MA is best used towards sweetening your employability chances in the world of careers - As Gemma stated above; one of her friends became a librarian and the other a best-seller - I seriously doubt that the first took a Creative Writing BA in order to better secure his chances of becoming a Librarian. Yet further she is of the opinion that regardless of the course they could achieve these outcomes anyway. We are often aware of successful writers and musicians that have no educational background relevant to their profession.

    My advice? With the overall average fee of a BA Honours Course being around £24,000 there are much easier and cheaper ways of learning to become a writer; amongst these are buying a pen and paper, reading a variety of books and even the super cheap 'good'ol elbow grease' of persevering with hard work.

    Education aside, Kerry Katona had published three titles - i very much doubt she finished secondary school, let alone spent any amount of time in further education to achieve this.

    BA in Creative Writing = Too much for too little.