Creative writing courses… why bother?
Posted by Frances Gow
I was inspired by an article I read in The Conversation about why the teaching of creative writing matters by Simon Holloway, Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Bolton, who says that ‘very few students will earn a living as a writer. But writing is about more than that, and the ability to communicate effectively is a rare and precious thing’.
There is mixed opinion about the benefits of undertaking a course in creative writing; Hanif Kureishi, author of The Buddha of Suburbia, famously said that creative writing courses are a ‘waste of time’.
By coincidence, I was recently invited back to my university to talk to the MA Writing students about my experience of the course and what I have gained. It is only a year since I graduated, so it is still fresh in my mind, but talking it through with a group of engaging peers at various stages of their careers helped me to reflect on and consolidate my own experience.
I thought it might be useful to share some of my reflections in the hope of reaching out to anyone out there who is at a cross roads and trying to decide the best route to take.
It is unfortunately true to say that few creative writing students will earn a living as a writer, but even as I sat in front of this year’s cohort and asked them what they most wanted to learn from me, many said it was how to earn a living from writing. Although I have a full time day job as well as being a writer, this is perhaps one area in which I can add some valuable insight. I work in graduate careers and employability, and much of the advice that I offer students in preparing for the jobs market is transferable to writers preparing their work for publication. In fact this is the one area where my day job and my writing work find a happy coexistence. Here are my top tips for getting a job and/or getting published.
Research your market:
As a writer, this cannot be emphasised enough. You need to read widely and know which agents/publishers/editors to target. The same applies if you are job hunting. Know the organisation inside out and show this knowledge and enthusiasm in your application, matching your skills, experience and values to the needs of the firm.
Preparation. Get it written, get it right:
Before you send anything out, whether it is a job application, a story, poem, play or a novel – make sure it has been thoroughly prepared. Have someone else (not family and friends!) check it for you and provide feedback. The quality of your submission or application makes the difference.
Follow the guidelines:
Editors, agents and publishers put guidelines on their websites for a reason. Likewise, graduate recruiters always provide details about how to apply. If you ignore the guidelines, it shows either a lack of attention to detail or that you don’t really want the opportunity. By adhering to the requirements of the editor/recruiter, you are demonstrating motivation. Show, don’t tell (sorry… couldn’t resist that one.)
Keep a file or a spreadsheet of your submissions and applications. This way you can systematically move from one market to the next until you either sell a piece of work or get the job. It also makes it easier to follow up if you don’t get a response within a reasonable timeframe.
Often overlooked, but so important for both writers and job seekers. If you don’t build up your resilience to being rejected, you face the danger of either going off the rails, or grinding to a halt. You build resilience by being persistent and repeating the exercise over and over until you either get the job or sell the novel/story/article. Being organised helps, so create a top twenty list of preferred markets/companies and move systematically down your list, making notes in your spreadsheet as you go. Remember – every rejection brings you closer to the editor/recruiter who will say ‘yes’. Three more tips for building resilience:
- Learn to accept feedback graciously, don’t be defensive – if you don’t like the person’s comments, you don’t have to act on them.
- Don’t compare yourself to others in the field (unless it is to learn from their experience). Everyone is at a different stage of their journey.
- Don’t be too precious about your work. Be open to learning and growing; both in the world of work and as a writer. You don’t have to wait until your CV or your story is perfect before sending it out. If you are anything like me, it will never be perfect! Get it as good as you possibly can and send it out, take feedback, make any appropriate adjustments, then get it back out there.
It is not just writers that feel awkward about this one. I see many students who have difficulty articulating themselves both on paper and at interviews. You don’t have to be the one who shouts the loudest or boasts the most. It is often more important in a job interview situation to show how well you work with others. If you use social media, use it for a purpose and be aware of managing your online presence. Pick the platforms that work for you and for the industry you want to work in. But more importantly than anything, just be yourself.
So, what did I get out of doing an MA in Creative Writing? I had the opportunity to engage with a group of like-minded students from diverse backgrounds, many of whom I still keep in contact with. We debated style, imagery, structure, genre and through workshops, shared our writing, giving each other feedback and encouragement. We fed off each other’s creativity and worked in groups on projects, for example, setting up an online magazine to showcase our work. The structure of the course and its varied modules created a playground for experimentation in different genres, developing technical craft that fed from one genre into another. I built a toolkit of research methods and techniques that are relevant in every piece of writing I undertake. I learnt about the business of writing because however good a writer you are, if you don’t understand the business, how will you ever hope to earn a living from writing?
But above all, I had the most fun ever in any development activity I have so far undertaken.
And I would do it all over again.
Posted on November 13, 2016, in Books, Careers, Writing and tagged Advice, Authors, Books, Careers, Communication, Creative Writing, Employability, Getting a Job, Hanif Kureishi, MA Writing, Simon Holloway, Teaching Creative Writing, Words, Work, Writing, Writing Top Tips. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.
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