I started this post over a year ago. With all the recent articles in the media about the value of creative writing courses, I felt compelled to finish it. What I hope to do is give my own view of what I feel such a course can offer and what needs to be considered. Some issues need to be thought about prior to application and some will come into play once you start the course. And I hope to write the entire post without referring to Hanif Kureishi or Will Self. Did I mention that Ha – ?
In September 2012 I started an MA Creative Writing at Kingston University, Surrey. As a part-time student I covered two taught modules in the first year, and two in the second (plus a dissertation). I did them in this order:
– Writers’ Workshop
– Special Study (also a writers’ workshop, meant to be more specialist)
– Ten Critical Challenges for writers
– Structure and Style
The teaching on my MA has now finished (except for dissertation supervision) but I am still completing assignments, and doing my dissertation over the summer to submit in September.
1. What do you hope to achieve from the course?
It is essential that you are clear about this and that your expectations are realistic.
Speaking personally, my motivation was to learn about writing and to improve my own writing as much as I could via taught sessions and feedback from peers and tutors. I’ve been poring over books on writing craft for some years and I do find that I learn from doing this. But when I try out the methods and techniques, what I don’t know, without feedback, is whether or not I have been successful. With practice and experience you develop the ability to assess your own work, to self-edit, but when you’re starting out I believe it’s helpful to have guidance.
One of the things I’ve seen written about Creative Writing MAs is that ‘people’ think that having one will guarantee a publishing contract. I cannot say that I’ve read all the prospectuses for every MA in the world but do any of them actually claim that? Do they imply it? And if they do, on what basis? And do ‘people’ (presumably students) really think this? What, you collect your degree certificate with one hand and a publishing contract with the other? Ahem.
I think you can and should expect the following:
- to be taught by tutors with both teaching and writing experience & expertise
- to meet and learn with other people who are interested in writing
- to learn about writing theory and practice
- to complete assignments and get useful feedback on them
- to have access to extra-curricula events with publishing professionals
The ‘extras’ are worth researching via the course literature and by asking the staff in the department. If you can, once you start, I would go to as many events as possible: readings, launches, workshops, masterclasses, and socials. Learn as much as possible and network. This aspect is obviously something that you can’t get from a book. And it could help you to make contacts with agents and editors who might then be interested in reading your work. No-one is going to show special interest in you because you’re doing an MA (do I really need to say this?). Expect, as always, to be judged on the quality of your writing and the creative and commercial viability of your ideas.
Something else to consider is, can you teach writing? What about creativity? You will need to make your own mind up about this and there are plenty of people who will tell you that you can’t teach either. Writers are born, not made, they will tell you. They plop out of the womb with a pen or tablet in their moist fingers. And they’re entitled to think what they like but I don’t have to agree. As a teacher, I believe that you can teach anything. I show students how to write essays. I teach them facts about Psychology. I give them feedback on their exam answers showing them what they did well and what they need to improve, and how. If they practice, experiment, emulate, they learn.
I acknowledge that creativity is a bit different from writing. Some people are naturally more creative than others. But there are exercises that you can do to help you develop your creativity. To be honest, if you don’t have any ideas at all, and nothing screams out to you to be written about and explored, writing might not be the best thing for you to do.
2. Do you want to do an online course or go to an institution for your sessions?
This is really important and will affect the sort of experience you have. If you are fine with online tutorials, video conferencing and written feedback, a distance learning course might work well for you.
I was clear about not wanting an online course so I didn’t really research them much. I wanted to be able to go and see my tutors to discuss my work, and to be in the same room as my peers when learning.
3. What modules does the course offer?
What you will study and how is the most important consideration, in my opinion. And it can vary so research this carefully. I didn’t study English Literature and whilst I am interested in it, I didn’t want to do a writing degree which is actually a literature degree in disguise. Which modules are compulsory? Are there any optional ones?
On my course we had to do a compulsory literary theory module which I was unhappy about. It was taught very well but I resented having to spend several days of my week ploughing through Barthes and Foucault. I still believe that it wasn’t necessary and hasn’t been useful for my writing. Some of it was interesting, a lot of it was deathly dull. A few of my peers liked it. Most, like me, gritted their teeth and prayed for it to be over soon.
MAs bring in a nice chunk of income for universities, especially from overseas students. I know several people who’ve done them and this is my second one so I’m not making it up, honest. Longstanding courses are often very good because teething problems have been resolved, and a good set of adult teeth are in place (that doesn’t quite work, does it?! Puppy on the brain). New ones need to run for a few years for them to bed in (ohmygod, that sounds like dentures, it’s getting worse). Sometimes the rationale for what to include on the programme is driven by who is available in the department to teach and what their expertise is rather than what needs to be included to provide a good course. It shouldn’t be like that but it sometimes is.
I am sure you will have noticed how many MAs are now being offered. Does the amount on offer devalue what you can learn? And how they might be perceived? Not necessarily to the first question. If there are lots of rubbish electricians or builders, does it mean there aren’t any good ones? No. Does it mean I’m going to be more cautious about which electrician I will let loose on my wiring? Of course it does, and so it should. Research and reputation (amongst people whose judgement I trust) are what I go on. The same is true of all the other writing courses which are popping up. If someone’s written one book and they want to teach novel writing, personally, I’d want someone with greater experience. But that does depend on the situation and individual. And I may be more bothered about this because I’ve been a teacher for 10 years.
As for how your MA will be perceived, who knows? Some people will think you’re wasting your time. Some will respect you for being prepared to put money, time, effort, tears and gallons of wine behind helping yourself to learn. Yes, it’s okay, I do realise that wine doesn’t aid learning but it does help you cope with having your latest offering shredded at workshop. Some people will be envious, and will snipe that it’s ‘alright for you’ . . . Shoes. Walk. In. Them. Before . . .
4. MAs are expensive – how are you going to fund it?
With fees starting at £6,000 for a full-time UK student, and going up to well over double that, depending on the institution, MAs don’t come cheap. Does more expensive mean better? Not necessarily. Does the status of the university and course matter? Not to me, no, at least not in itself. Courses such as the UEA one, which have been running for years, are often excellent as they’ve sorted out what works and what doesn’t. Had I lived near to UEA and been able to afford it, I’d probably have applied. Not because of their Alumni but because their MA looks excellent and their teaching staff are awesome. Some new courses, especially in Greater London, are charging a lot. Personally, I wouldn’t pay it. If you have plenty of money, it perhaps matters less but if you have to save, borrow money and make sacrifices to do the course, I think that this can add pressure to the experience. I know that I felt I wanted value for my hard-earned pounds. I saved up over a lonnnnnnng period to pay for mine.
There are a few discretionary awards on offer, depending on the institution. Some are awarded on the basis of hardship, some on excellence.
5. Who teaches on the MA?
Some institutions use big name authors to attract students. If this works for you, that’s fine but it is often the case that this person has no day to day involvement with the university and doesn’t do much teaching (if any), so you might not even meet them. Having been a teacher for ten years I am bothered about how people teach and so my view is that I want to be taught writing by people who are both successful, published authors and who know how to teach. It’s almost pointless being taught by someone who is technically strong, and whose prose makes you hold your breath – with admiration not horror – but if they cannot show you how to do things, you won’t learn much.
Your tutors also need to know how to give feedback and how to manage the feedback-giving of your peers in workshop modules, both those who give inappropriate feedback and those who cannot be bothered to read your work for class and/or comment on it (but expect you to read theirs). The non-feedback-ers. Both tutor and peer feedback are incredibly important. On my first MA, in Effective Learning, we covered a module on Assessment for Learning. This is used a lot in teaching. We learnt about how and when feedback does and doesn’t work. If you get very crushing feedback before you have built up confidence in your work, it can quite literally stop you from writing. More on feedback below.
The internet is such a useful research tool. If there are tutors on a course you’re interested in, google them. Have they been published? Was it in 1946? Look at their website. Does what they say about writing sit well with you? Have they written newspaper articles sneering at writing courses and students? Do they tweet negative things about students’ assignments and how bored they are by the prospect of their next lecture? Or is their track record solid, and they seem like people you can respect and learn from? I was lucky at Kingston: I had four main tutors, and I liked and respected all of them on a personal and professional basis.
Two other good ways to get information are to go to Open Days and also to sit in on lectures and seminars by tutors of the course you’re interested in. Of the two, I’d say the second is the best. At Open Days students are prepped to say positive things about the course, tutors and institution. This means that . . . yes, yes!
With regards to access to tutors and meetings, this will vary depending on their contract, what days and hours they work, responsibilities and other commitments.
6. Feedback is best viewed within its context
One of the reasons why I wanted to do an MA was because I wanted some rigorous, informed feedback.
Some people claim that all feedback is good. I don’t agree with this as either a student or a teacher. On a course I did I had one peer who colour coded my work according to what he did and didn’t like and this meant almost every word. It must’ve taken him ages but it was just not helpful as he didn’t understand how contemporary commercial crime fiction is written. There was so much negative feedback, it made me doubt my abilities as a writer for several weeks at the start of my course and was a really horrible time. Fortunately my tutor went through his feedback with me and set me straight.
Initially the workshop experience – where you share your work prior to class and have it critiqued in class – was an uncomfortable and negative one for me. Having set up and run a writing group locally to where I used to live, I was used to sharing my work with people and getting their opinion on it. I knew that the feedback from my MA peers – and tutor – would be much more rigorous, and that was what I wanted. In my writing group, no-one was prepared to say anything negative. But the MA workshop experience was challenging. I was in a group with people who didn’t seem to like crime fiction, and who weren’t familiar with the conventions, tropes, techniques and trends of the genre. As crime overlaps a lot with the thriller genre, I use(d) a lot of thriller-writing techniques. But my peers didn’t seem to like shifting PoVs, little ‘world-building’ at the start, not knowing what was going on, deliberate false clues, unreliable narrators, particular text formatting for emphasis, and short sentences. 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: I just wanted feedback which helped me write better crime fiction.
Finally, on feedback, I want to say that people can have very fixed ideas about what constitutes good writing and how things should be done. I find this disconcerting. If they say it’s their opinion but are happy for you to do different, that’s fine. In the ‘real world’ of publishing people will say, ‘Nope, don’t like it done like that’. But I believe that teachers should say, ‘These are the various ways of doing this. This is how I do it and what I think works best. But it’s your piece of writing and the choices are yours to make. This is what will affect, and be affected by, those choices’. But be warned: you may encounter someone who will mark you down if you don’t do things the way they tell you. Very annoying. Just get a doll and stick pins in it. Kidding. Smile sweetly. And kill them off in your next book.
7. Expect to read and write outside your comfort zones and preferences
One of the modules I’ve enjoyed on my course was Structure and Style. We learnt about, and wrote, poetry, drama and short stories. Learning about a form of writing that you aren’t used to and aren’t thinking about pursuing beyond the course might seem like a waste of time. I don’t want to write poetry for publication (world, you’re safe!) but I do write short stories and would like to write scripts for TV at a later date. Having to focus on these forms did take me away from my novel-writing, and it’s important to be able to cope with that distraction. I decided to go with it, and have suspended my everyday novel-writing since September 2013 as I just couldn’t focus on it adequately and do my MA work.
In terms of reading, at first I found it hard to read genres and forms with which I’m not familiar. It is, however, a good way to learn about the tropes, structures and techniques of those forms. And with commercial fiction becoming increasingly cross-genre, it’s definitely worth broadening your focus.
So, are you still awake? Do you still want to do an MA? If you can afford it and are passionate about writing, I’d say do it. But do your homework thoroughly, be clear about why you’re doing it – and don’t let people put you off or put you down.
Vicky Newham 2014