Another guest post from Lucy Redland, who also wrote a post about the pros and cons of getting a literary agent in a post a few weeks back.
Over the last decade or so, it seems as if there has been an explosion in the numbers of writing courses and workshops available. From postgraduate degrees to courses run in local libraries, everyone can take a writing course now. But does that mean everyone can be a writer?
Some writing courses run by publishers offer the potential for publication at the end, whilst university courses list their publication successes in their prospectuses – but there’s no guarantee that anyone who sits a writing course will be published. So what is the point in doing one?
Writing, Reading and Listening
Writing courses, at all levels, tend to be workshop based. Students are asked to share their writing with the tutor and other students, and they receive feedback. Is that a valuable formula, likely to lead to the creation of high-quality pieces of writing? Or does it just provide the illusion of progress to those who lack real talent?
This depends on your view of talent. Is it something that some people just have, and which cannot be taught, or is it something that must be nurtured? It seems that we often expect our writers to just arrive, fully formed, without any training. Few would hold the same view about those in other artistic fields. We accept and expect our musicians and visual artists to need and to benefit from training, but not our writers. Why is that?
It is partly because in the past, there were many fewer writers. That meant that a new writer could submit a draft of a novel to a publisher, and if they thought it was worth working with, they would help the writer edit and improve. Today, there is no such opportunity. Publishers are inundated with novels every day, and expect perfect, finished work, especially from first-timers. Creative writing courses can help provide opportunities for writers to develop and improve.
Creativity and Work
The opinions of others can help writers improve their work, but they can’t replace ability and hard work. For a writer to be successful, they need to have some level of innate talent, and they need to be willing to put in the hard graft needed to make the most of that talent. This is where those who criticise creative writing courses may have a point. If ‘everyone has a book in them’, that doesn’t mean that everyone has a publishable book in them. Taking a creative writing course might help many to get their book written. That in itself is valuable. Writing is not just a commercial exercise, just as music is not, and art is not. Few would sneer at the amateur musician, hobby singer or weekend landscape painter. Somehow, we seem to see writing as something that is only really worthwhile when it is paid for.
Perhaps that is partly because writing is such as solitary task. A writer needs to be prepared to lock themselves away from the world for long hours and days. Getting contact with other writers is, then, another benefit of creative writing courses. They give writers the chance to make their writing at least a partly social activity, rather than being a purely solitary one. Writers, artists and musicians thrive when they are surrounded by others. That is what has led to the creation of artistic schools: a critical mass of creative people in the same place at the same time can help others develop their own creativity.
The workshop format helps writers to try out ideas and experiment. Because writing is so solitary, it is important for writers to be able to gain validation (or not) for their ideas. Workshops and courses can also provide a useful system of deadlines for writers. More than one writer has been known to spend their time procrastinating over which broadband provider to choose for their research, rather than actually getting down to writing.
What creative writing courses will not do is to transform poor writers into good ones. Nor will they help good writers get their novel finished unless they are willing to put in the work they need to do so. They can, however, help those with some talent to thrive and to provide the motivation they need to progress.