Nicola Vincent-Abnett

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

Wednesday 20 January 2016

A Comment on Writing Courses

Writing is Big Business

It’s true.

And I’m not talking about writers earning money from their work, because we all know how rare that is. The average advance on a first novel is dropping all the time, and the average sales of a first novel are lower than most of you can imagine or would believe if I told you.

Of course, there are stars in the literary firmament. We all know who they are. I also personally know some wonderful, well-known, award-winning writers who can’t make ends meet on the earnings from their work. I’m talking about writers who write consistently and have put out a decent body of work and continue to write a substantial amount.

Writing doesn’t pay.

Nevertheless, writing is big business.

It’s big business, because people still want to do it, they still think they can do it, and they still believe that they will make money at it. A lot of people who want to write still honestly believe that they will make their fortunes when they’ve finished their novel and those lucky publishers get to read it. People who haven’t done this job and don’t know what it means to do it still honestly think that publishers will fight over their work, and that fight will mean a bidding war that will land them earnings for life.

They might just as well buy a lottery ticket.

Writing is big business because very good writers need to earn money. They need to earn money because writing doesn’t pay them a living wage.

This equation leads a lot of people to be very happy to pay sometimes pretty large sums of money to take writing courses, and it leads writers to run them.

I’ve written about writing courses before. There are a great many of them, and I suspect that most of them aren’t terribly good or useful, depending on what the student is looking for or hoping to get out of them. I’ve never taken a writing course, and neither has the husband. We've never run one, either, not together and not separately.

When I mentioned that I was going to write this blog, the husband said that anyone who wanted his advice on writing and, in particular, on writing courses could send him a tenner… He was only half-joking.

Of course, I wouldn’t claim to be any kind of an expert, but that’s never stopped me having an opinion before.

The Husband at his desk, where he writes and earns money:
Not your Average Writer!
Photo by James K Barnett
It saddens and frustrates me that good writers don’t earn good money. On the other hand, there’s a little bit of me that still believes that if they really were that good they absolutely would be able to afford to live on their earnings. Not for nothing, the husband and I are both writers and our only income is what we can make from our writing. The husband’s pretty well known in his field, but he’s not the sort of megastar that might translate into a household name, and, let’s face it, a lot of the time, I can’t get arrested.

We work a lot and we work hard. We do what’s needed. We hit targets. We’re professionals. The husband’s talented and adaptable, and he works fast and cleanly. He’s also had a lot of practice at this thing we call writing.

The back page of Saturday’s Guardian Review section was a full page ad for the UEA-Guardian Masterclasses. Ad space in any newspaper or magazine has to pay, full-page ads are expensive and back page ads the most expensive of all. I happen to know this because I've sold ad space. This is a house ad, of course, but assuming the ad sales team could have sold the space to a third party, it would have been bloody expensive. Ad revenue is a big part of the profit margin of any newspaper and any magazine, and it’s often the difference between keeping the presses rolling and the end of the line.

The ad for UEA-Guardian Masterclasses clearly pays. People will respond to this ad and buy these products. The writing courses on offer from the Guardian in association with the UEA are clearly profitable, successful, beloved.

I will just say that the University of East Anglia probably has the best Creative Writing department in the country, with students studying at all levels. Its list of alumni is formidable. I question how it’s possible to teach writing, but if it’s possible at all UEA has learned how to do it well and effectively. The university deserves credit for its accomplishment. It has a great reputation.

Of course, the best writers seek out the best courses, and the best minds tend to congregate and find one another. I suspect that the writers that passed through UEA would still have written and would still have been published to great acclaim. Did their alma mater support and nurture them? I’m sure it did, but it did not make them; it could not have invested with talent those who had none.

Six courses are advertised on the back page of the Guardian Review. I’m going to talk about the first three. The first is a level one course titled How to tell a story, the second is a level two course titled How to complete the first draft of a novel and the last is a level three course titled How to finish a work of fiction. Having read the descriptions of the courses, and having surmised that the level distinctions indicate advancement, I’m jumping to the conclusion that completing these three courses might get a novice writer to the point where he’s happy with a final draft of a first novel.

Together, the three courses run for a total of twenty-one months. I think that it should be possible, with good intentions and this kind of guidance, to finish a novel in two years, even for a part-time writer.

This all sounds rather wonderful. With a bit of self-belief, lots of guidance from qualified people, (the courses are all run by writers), an investment of time and a bit of effort, a keen writer should have a finished manuscript in two years.

I repeat. That’s wonderful! If all that writer wants to do is finish a novel, and if what he wants is to meet other writers, and have his work appraised and guided, I’d have no problem saying, ‘Go ahead… Writing courses are a fantastic way to spend your time.’

Time is a precious commodity though, for most of us. Time spent doing something you love is always a good investment. If you love to write, don’t count the time spent. Most new writers, and most of the writers who want to be published aren’t thinking about it this way, though… at least not in my experience.

I generally write more than the average writer, at least more than the average novice or amateur writer. A portion of my year is given over to writing something for myself. I could earn more money by writing more of the stuff that earns me money, but it matters to me to do something of my own once in a while. I feel that I have something to say. To that end, I have several hundreds of thousands of words in files on my computer that have not been published or read by the public. That’s OK with me. I don’t know how OK that would be with most writers. I don’t know how OK the kind of rejection that goes with having a number of unpublished books languishing in files on a computer would be with most writers. I don’t know what percentage of writers keeps going. I don’t know what percentage of writers begins a second novel after the first has been soundly rejected… or the second… or the third. But, that’s what writers do.

Money is the other component in all of this. Money is also a precious commodity for most of us. Of course, there are people who want to be writers for whom money is no object. There are people who have or have had professions that have paid well, or who have private incomes or who even won the lottery, who want to turn their hands to writing. They’re the exception, but they must exist, I suppose. Any writing course will cost something. A weekend course run by someone who had a short story published ten years ago will cost less than something run by a big organisation with current authors, but every course costs money.

In my experience, novice writers think that the investment in courses will be more than recouped by their earnings. The total cost of the three courses I mentioned above is twelve thousand pounds… That’s £12,000. 

Let me put it another way. The cost of those three courses is roughly the same as the annual minimum wage.

In July of 2014 the Guardian ran an article by Alison Flood about the average writer’s income… Yes, the Guardian! She spoke to writers, including Will Self. He admitted that he’d seen his royalties decline dramatically over the previous decade. The article comes with numbers.

The median income of the professional author (by which they appear to mean writing full-time) was £11,000 per year.

The median income of all authors was £4,000 per year.

So the average professional author now earns less in a year than it costs to get the advice it requires from those same authors to become an author and earn an author’s income.

To take only one of those three courses costs what an average author earns in a year.

I can also tell you that to take only one of those courses costs more than the advance offered on the average first novel.

Perhaps it is in the nature of the writer to be an optimist. Perhaps we all believe that we aren’t going to be average, that we have something new to say and a new way to say it. Perhaps that’s true of one of us somewhere, and perhaps embarking on those writing courses might make a difference to whichever one of us that might be.

A great big part of me simply doubts that. So, I suppose, for what it’s worth, my advice would be, if you want to take a writing course and you can afford to, do it because you think you’ll have fun and maybe learn something; do it to meet new people, to get out of the house, to have your work read by someone who might have an objective opinion; do it to give you momentum and do it as a hobby. Please don’t do it with the idea that you’ll end up making money, or even that you’ll be published, because the odds are still very much stacked against you.


  1. Amazing blog and actually the true road of anyone, who thinks that writing courses will help them to be published automatically.

  2. Great topic once again Smiley!