The best way for a writer to learn is to read. Study books you enjoy to work out why they’re so enjoyable. Study books you didn’t like to learn why you didn’t like them. Apply both to your own writing. Learn also that writing is subjective: technically good work can be boring to read. Even if you never want to write poetry, read it: Edgar Allan Poe’s stories chill because he used poetic devices.
Why bother with a creative writing course if all you have to do is read?
• Creative writing courses can teach you the craft and technique of writing.
• Creative writing courses can help you learn where your weaknesses are and how to improve.
• Creative writing courses are an opportunity to meet other writers, swap ideas and anxieties.
• Creative writing courses are a short cut to experience. Most writers get their experience through reading, writing, submitting and learning from mistakes. Here you have the chance to learn from other’s mistakes and gain from the tutors’ insights.
What creative writing courses can’t do:
• Teach you to write. You can learn all about technique and craft, just as a tone deaf person can read music and learn how to play an instrument, but, just as that tone deaf person will never develop as a musician, you will never develop as a writer if there is no underlying talent for writing. Not everyone is equipped to write their own life story. But discovering you can’t be a writer gives you chance to develop the talents you do have.
• Write your work for you. You may come away from a novel masterclass buzzing with solutions to your latest plot and/or characterisation problems, but once that buzz has fizzled out, you still have an unfinished novel to complete.
Are creative writing courses right for you? Consider how you best learn:
• You like academic environments and learn well in a one tutor to many students set up – try creative writing courses.
• You prefer to read a book or manual – Stephen King’s “On Writing” is a brilliant place to start and there are many “How to” books around.
• You like learning in a group but don’t like a formal tutor and student structure – join a writers’ group or on-line forum (or more than one) where you can give and get constructive criticism and still learn from others’ mistakes and gain from others’ insights.
• You prefer one to one learning – find a mentor, but remember writers are busy people and a good writer isn’t necessarily a good mentor.
How do you pick a good course? Consider what you want from a course:
• Inspiration’s hit a dry patch, you want ideas to kick start writing – try a one day or one-off workshop or course as these are often a quick introduction to how to write a poem or story and you usually get the chance to write from ideas suggested by the tutor.
• You’ve started writing but want to learn more about technique and craft – explore longer courses at local or on-line colleges, these may run from six weeks to a full academic year and are often led by writers.
• You’re working on a longer piece or collating a collection of poems and want space to write alongside guidance – try a writers’ retreat or a course where you stay on campus, such as the Arvon Foundation courses.
• You want an in-depth study of writing, techniques, criticism and development – explore universities offering further study in creative writing often leading to a further qualification such as an MA.
Once you’ve decided which type of course is best: research.
• Do you know who the tutors are? Do they have teaching experience?
• Has the course run before and has it had good feedback?
• What are the aims of the course and do they fit with what you want to achieve? Check whether the course is aimed at beginners or writers with some experience and publishing credits.
• What are you expected to bring to the course? Not just in terms of writing materials but are you expected to comment on others’ work, are you expected to bring a work-in-progress or are you expected to write new piece(s) during the course?
• How is the course structured? Do you work alone or are you expected to work as part of a group, does this suit you? How much feedback is offered, is it feedback from the group or in one to one sessions with the tutors and which suits you?
• Do you like the environment? A writers’ retreat in a warm Mediterranean country may sound just right but if you’re self-catering and can’t speak the local language, would you see that as a chance to learn or a barrier to learn?
Creative writing courses don’t suit everyone but a bit of research beforehand can help ensure that if you do decide to take a course, you find one that suits you and offers maximum benefits for you.