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Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Can Writing be Taught?

I've been published for nearly a year now, and during that time I have often wondered whether it would be worth my while to go back to college/university to obtain a qualification in creative writing.

But something has always stopped me, and that thought is: how can I guarantee the course will be worth my time, and most importantly, my money? So after a long time thinking this through, I came up with this answer:
  • No college or university course can ever come with any guarantees, no matter what you study. But degrees in creative professions seem less likely to promise a successful career in whatever direction you decide to go in.
Now I am not saying degrees are pointless full stop ... far from it. If you want to become a lawyer you have to study law, and there's absolutely no way around that. If you want to become a journalist or a copy editor, you have to obtain a degree in a specialised subject. But I have always been someone to think that great art cannot be taught.

Creative writing courses might be able to teach you vital grammar skills and great sentence construction, but I honestly think that the most effective way to become a great writer is to teach yourself.  After all, how many best selling novelists can you think of with creative writing degrees? I bet there isn't as many as you might think. Reading voraciously and learning how other writers are successful are two fantastic ways to start off with. Study characters profiles, setting scenes, plotlines and pacing.

And as the publishing industry is changing so much, I think if there was any degree I would love to have it would have to be in marketing. As with most writers, I love to put pen to paper, finger to keyboard, but marketing really stresses me out!

What do you think? How many of you have degrees in creative writing, and are they as useful as some people make them out to be? Please share your views with me.


  1. Interesting questions, L.K.

    I was a creative writing (and journalism) major, yet never finished my degree path due to the fact that I was offered a very highly paid job in photo equipment sales in my junior year of college. Two faculty advisers told me to grab that job and never look back, so I did... yet many times later in life I did look back, even after a successful career in the photo industry and later with computers.

    A friend recently had her first book published by Scribner, and currently it's in the top 20 on Amazon in three categories... not bad for a first book. Yet she received her BA (Magna cum laude) in Political Science, and that's completely unrelated to the topic of her book. Her secret is that she put a few years in as a journalist and becoming a managing editor of a regional magazine.

    She would probably advise you to get that degree while you're young enough and if finances allow it. And don't necessarily get a degree in creative writing; if you like cooking, for example, look to culinary arts and go for that. You're already a published author, a relevant blogger and a damn fine writer. I know, as I bought and reviewed your book, and am still looking for the next one.

    And never worry about marketing, it's far easier than you might think...

  2. Hi John,

    Thank you very much for commenting.

    It's an interesting fact that most people these days seem to end up in a job that's completely unrelated to their studies. One of my favourite British singers - Chris Martin, lead singer of the band Coldplay, has a degree in ancient history and yet I think he is one of the most talented musicians in the world. It seems like a classic case of serendipity: you go in one direction in pursuit of a certain goal, and then come out at another angle better off than you had ever expected.

    Thank you for your kind comments. I can guarantee you'll be one of the first on my list who I will contact when my second book comes out, and I hope you'll enjoy it even more than my debut book!

  3. I was immediately struck by the phrase "qualification in creative writing", because the concept of "qualifications" is something I've been meaning to blog about for some time but not got round to. In short, I believe that a degree is not a qualification, merely a piece of paper that says you attended a particular course. When you think about it, a "qualified creative writer" is a bizarre concept.

    I can't help wondering what this says about the way English is taught nowadays at the school level. I have no "qualifications" in English, merely a solid grounding in my native language between the ages of 10 and 14 (1956-60), yet I worked as a journalist for seven years and as a copy editor and proofreader (academic science and philosophy titles) for 20 years. In the UK, the formal teaching of grammar in schools was abandoned in the 1960s.

    By the way, your opening sentence caused me some confusion: "nearly been published" had me thinking about some kind of logjam that was stopping your work appearing. It was only when I read the first comment that I realized that "nearly" was meant to be modifying "a year".

  4. Hi Dennis,

    Thanks for the comment.

    It's interesting to read about your career in journalism and editing. I can't imagine doing any sort of job like that without the relevant degree, and I certainly wish I had studied the technical side to writing in more detail when I was at school. Instead I think too much time is wasted trying the interpret the meanings behind poetry and literature. I know the technical side to English is certainly more helpful when you're a writer.