Vicky Newham

What have I learnt from the first year of my MA?

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In September 2012 I started the first year of an MA Creative Writing at Kingston University. As the year progressed I’ve reflected on how it’s all been going, and what I’ve learnt. I’ve now completed the first year. Have I enjoyed it? Have I learnt from it? Do I regret enrolling? Here we go.

Kingston University, Penrhyn campus, where the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) is based.

Kingston University, Penrhyn campus, where the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) is based.

A part-time student covers two taught modules in the first year, and two in the second (plus a dissertation). The module I started with was the Writers’ Workshop. This was followed by Special Study in semester two, which was basically the same (although was supposed to be more specialist).

I’ve organised this post around five main areas of learning.

1. Feedback is best viewed within its context

One of the reasons why I wanted to do an MA was because I wanted informed feedback on my writing. Some people say that all feedback is good. Having been a teacher for ten years, and seen how destructive feedback can be, I don’t agree with this.

Initially the workshop experience was an uncomfortable and negative one for me. The way this works is that, when it’s your turn, you send your work to your peers and tutor and you come to class with each piece printed and annotated, ready to discuss. Having set up and run a writing group, I was used to sharing my work with people but there no-one really wants to say anything negative. I knew that the feedback on an MA would be much more rigorous, and that was what I wanted.  The MA workshop experience was very different. Participants were supposed to say what they liked and thought worked well before they said what they didn’t but in practice people just launched in with perceived faults, and it went round the room like this. I was in a group with people who didn’t like crime fiction, and who weren’t familiar with the conventions and trends of the genre. As crime overlaps a lot with the thriller genre, I use a lot of crime- and thriller-writing techniques. However, many of my peers didn’t like multiple PoVs, not knowing what was going on, deliberate false clues, any use of italics, and short sentences. So I found myself having to defend my choices to people who didn’t seem to like my genre. It wasn’t that I wanted them to tell me my writing was great if they didn’t think so. I just wanted something that would transcend the conventions of crime writing and a balance between positive and negative. It was easier in the second semester as my tutor for that module is a crime writer so he was able to put things in perspective.

I had one peer who colour coded everyone’s submissions according to what she did and didn’t like and this meant almost every word. She wrote ‘lazy’ and ‘cliché’ all over people’s work, and crossed out every single adverb. I wouldn’t have enrolled on an MA if I didn’t know to avoid clichés and lazy writing and to minimise adverb usage. Many of her comments were detailed, and some useful; it must’ve taken her ages but it was excessive. It also made me doubt my abilities as a writer for a good few weeks which was a really horrible time. In the end I had to go and see my tutor and ask him to help me sift through everyone’s feedback and decide what to consider and what to forget about. After this I felt more confident. Please note: if you are going to workshop your writing, you have to expect to have it torn to pieces. Not everyone does this but some will and tutors don’t always intervene. You have to develop the ability to cope with it, and to weigh up feedback.

When processing criticism of your work I think it’s worthwhile considering the following in relation to the person giving it: their motivation; their experience; their technical knowledge. It is also true, of course, that some people will ‘get’ you and ‘get’ your writing and others won’t. You have to be prepared to be honest with yourself: if the feedback rings true, it’s worth considering. If you’re not sure where the person is coming from, or it doesn’t feel right, you don’t have to take it on board. I know I respond best to criticism from people who I know well and trust, and who know me well. The problem with ‘workshopping’ writing is that you’re often doing it with strangers.

Room 3005, where my workshop sessions were held in both semesters.

Room 3005, where my workshop sessions were held in both semesters.

2. Expect to read and write outside your comfort zones

Like all writers, I read widely within my genre. However, there are certain genres which I don’t tend to read. In my workshop groups I had people writing children’s fiction, dystopian fiction, science fiction, travel writing, memoirs, experimental writing. Some pieces were set in places and cultures I know nothing about.  One piece, for example, was part-fiction, part-non, on life in (very) rural Dakota, US and fracking. I couldn’t relate to it at all. Initially, it threw me. I found some of the pieces hard to read and I had no idea how to comment on them, let alone say anything useful. But gradually I grew accustomed to my peers’ topics and styles. What also helped was that at Kingston we are allowed to attend some of the undergraduate modules within the faculty so several of us went to lectures on genre fiction. I also read up on the conventions and tropes of different genres in commercial fiction. Both of these things helped me to feel more confident and informed. It was no different, of course, from my peers not knowing about crime fiction: we each tend to read certain ‘stuff’ and learn about our own writing genre.

In my final semester this coming year I will be doing ‘Structure and Style’. In this module we write and study multiple forms of writing, and also have to write it. I’m looking forward to this as I think that it will be good for my writing. Poetry. Er … yes, that too. Eek!

3. People have fixed ideas about how you should write

In an ideal learning world there is: ‘These are the ways that other people do it and this is how I do it’. In practice I’ve found that what you get told is mainly the latter … except it’s not presented as ‘This is just my opinion’; it is presented as ‘This is how it’s done’. I have also found that when you talk to some writing tutors about your work, the default mode is to tell you how they would write your book. Sometimes I do want to know how they would do it, but often I want to know what the options are.

So what do you do if one person hates prologues and says they should be avoided, and another says you have to have them? If one person says you have to write your prologue like this, another says definitely not, and someone else says that it doesn’t matter? Well? What do you do? It can be very confusing when lots of people tell you different things and insist that they’re right. What I do is think about all their views, have a look at other people’s prologues, and then write mine the way I want to. Obviously I’ve used prologues here as an example (although this happened to me with mine) but it’s the same with numerous aspects of writing: people have their own way of doing it and you have to figure out your own. Oh and just hope that you find an agent and publisher who like it.

When we submitted work for formal assessment, we had various student discussions about whether to write things according to our own style or whether to try to meet the expectations of our tutors. At MA level I want to be able to do the former but in practice, well, you get the gist … I’ve met a lot of other people who’ve done MAs in Creative Writing and who say the same thing: to get the highest marks you have to write things the way your tutor tells you to.

Fortunately, there are plenty of texts available which explain how to write, and what the various views are on keys issues, but you have to trawl through them and there isn’t one text which covers everything.

The post-graduate office, where we submitted work for formal assessment and collected it once it had been marked.

The FASS post-graduate office, where we submit work for formal assessment and collect it once it’s been marked.

4. Tutors vary in style and what they will offer

It’s stating the obvious but all teachers are different. Two people can respond very differently to the same one. I think that it is important to have writing tutors who are both successful, skilled writers and good teachers. The two don’t necessarily go together. There is no point having a tutor whose prose writing is divine but who is unable to communicate how to write, or who is unable to be encouraging and constructive. Similarly, some tutors are more approachable than others and some more accessible.

Given the fees charged, I expect to be able to make an appointment to see tutors in the department for a proper 20-30 min meeting if I need help with something. If you are planning to start an MA it is worthwhile checking how things work in your institution as, in practice, staff seem to be limited in the time they are able and/or prepared to give. When I did my Psychology degree we were able to make an appointment to see a lecturer in the department even if they weren’t teaching us. I did it numerous times when I need some pointers from an expert on a specific topic or issue. Maybe things have changed.

5. MAs are expensive

When I was researching my MA I saw that fees range from £5,000-10,000. I think it varies depending on the institution and whether it’s distance learning. I wanted to be able to attend seminars and speak to people in person.

You study 4 modules and complete a dissertation. Term starts at the end of September, usually with an enrolment week and then an induction week. Teaching doesn’t start until mid-October. After a few weeks there is reading week, then a few more weeks then it’s the end of term. I was surprised how little teaching hours you get for your money. Maybe this is partly because I’ve been within a school environment for so long and there you feel like the terms just go on forever. Of course, on an MA, the expectation is that you spend a lot of time doing independent study (which I do) but I don’t consider that I pay for this as I do it anyway. I consider I pay for teaching, feedback, access to staff and facilities. On my MA you get two hours contact time a week on each module. When I thought about it I realised that this is the same structure and format as the previous MA I did at the Institute of Education: 4 modules plus dissertation, two hours a week on each module, so perhaps it’s standard.

Conclusions? It is vital to research carefully the MAs on offer and to visit the university. I think it’s also important to be clear about why you want to do one and what you want from it. Some institutions will let you attend lectures and seminars to get a feel for what they’re like. This is a great idea and is definitely worth doing if you are applying before term ends. At the Open Evenings you will get the party line: ‘Come and do your MA here. Ours is the best and everything is perfect’. What you really need is to find people who’ve completed them and get the low-down. Despite being slightly disappointed about some aspects of my MA, I do not regret starting it and have learnt a huge amount. You do have to grow a thick skin but I consider that this is good training for entering the publishing industry. And it is worth remembering that we can be defensive and stubborn about our writing for free if we want to be! So, if you want to learn as much as possible, and you’re going to pay a lot of money on an MA to do so, it’s good to be open to the feedback you get but also to try to develop your ability to weigh up what people say, and also to edit your own work ruthlessly.

Vicky Newham © 2013

Author: Vicky Newham

Vicky Newham is a writer, living in Whitstable, Kent. She writes crime fiction, psychological thrillers and science fiction. Her main projects are novels, but she also writes short stories, flash fiction, non-fiction articles and some poetry.

5 thoughts on “What have I learnt from the first year of my MA?

  1. Pingback: What have I learnt from the first year of my MA? | transcendental swimming

  2. This sounds really difficult Vicky. I admire anyone who goes through this. To put your work out there is tough, to put it through a group like that for taking apart purposes – wow. It’s strange how some people embrace that part of the course work so thoroughly. I’d have to grow a ridiculously thick skin and pretty quickly.

    Good luck with your next year!

    • Yes, I don’t have a thick skin either … but I think you need one to survive in the publishing industry so I’m rubbing away at mine with surgical spirit like you do your heels for walking! Thanks so much for commenting. I don’t mind putting my work out there as long as I get a fair go. I would like a bit more hours for my money though!

  3. Vicky – thank you so much for writing this and sharing your experiences. I toyed with the idea of an MA myself, for similar reasons to you – but on balance decided it wasn’t the right route for me. I started an OU course a few years ago and didn’t finish it, primarily because of the reasons you mention re: ‘the tutor’s way’. I found the comments unhelpful, and not at all suited to my genre. Telling someone ‘how to write’ when you clearly don’t have an understanding of the type of writing that person is doing can be very disheartening for the writer. And damaging. I agree it is good to develop a thick skin, but I also do question some people’s motives for the feedback they give! If I had done your MA so far I am almost certain I would have given up writing… But by seeking feedback from writers who understand and have good knowledge of my genre, I have gone on to secure an agent and finish my first draft (which I would be editing now, if I hadn’t been distracted by this wonderful post!) Good luck with the second year, and most of all, good luck with your book – I can tell that you are going to get to where you want to be 🙂 xx

    • Thanks so much, Susi, for taking the time to comment on my post. Getting feedback from the right people is so crucial. For me I have to trust that the person has my interests at heart (improving my writing and getting published) and understands my genre. I think a lot of MAs aren’t properly thought through.

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