Are writing courses worth it?

Baseball teacher and student in A-League-of-their-Own - Are writing courses worth it?

The world seems to be full of courses offering to teach you how to write. I should know, I’ve attended some and taught many.

This week, Jeff Probst fellow writer and follower of my email list asked the big question:

Are writing courses worth it?

This was his email in full:

Greetings Charlie!

May I have your opinion on writing courses?

Some cost thousands of pounds and I get the impression (sometimes!) that the tutors (usually at uni) will realise that a certain percentage will drop out and it becomes easy money.

I have been scribbling for about ten years and don’t really think I need one. After all, to my knowledge, novelists of the last century and beyond didn’t have writing colleges (I might be wrong!)

May I ask if you have ever enrolled on one? I do take WRITING MAGAZINE, do you?

Hi Jeff

Thank you – good question. Maybe I should do a blog on this one day.

The broad answer is some are excellent, some are crap and some are in between. To add some flesh to this:

1. What are you looking for?

You need to be clear on what a given course will provide and what it can’t. They are often very different.

I declare an interest. I’ve taught on a number of courses, short and long, for universities, film schools, festivals and independent organisations such as Euroscript, where I was on the board.

Of course, I was brilliant! I also studied at The London Film School and after I left I went on a number of short (1-2 day) courses, mostly run by organisations such as the Directors’ Guild, focusing on specific topics.

2. Course are full of students!

This is not tongue in cheek – what I mean is that a student is a client, and therefore free to ignore advice. In the real world, if you ignore the advice of your editor, you generally find you don’t get asked back.

I would always tell my students to approach any course as a professional rather than a student and to try to follow all advice, however much they might hate it! You’ll always learn more that way.

3. Know your course

Most courses will be very good on certain areas – depending on the background of the teacher involved. A teacher’s CV can be a guide, but not always.

There are many great writers who can’t teach and many great teachers who are not that hot at the actual writing. Just as a conductor doesn’t need to be brilliant at playing the violin. What you’re looking for is understanding and the ability to bring out your talent.

4. Time to write

One writer I know took the famous MA at UEA – generally considered one of the best. But he mainly went there because he wanted a year without other pressures, where he could concentrate on writing and be with other writers. That’s one potential goal. (He’s now onto his third two-book deal with a major publisher and teaching creative writing at Manchester Met).

5. Contacts

Another good friend took the course run by Faber. Already a very good writer (and a professional journalist) she found the teaching to be good, but also the contacts that they provided with the industry – that’s another potential upside. Nowadays many courses are run by publishers and agents – but check first that they will be able to provide the networking contacts you need.

6. Experience

I hear great things about The Arvon Foundation – where I believe you get time with experienced writers in a more open-ended way.

7. You

I wouldn’t agree it’s easy money for the tutors. All the teachers I know, good and bad, put in an enormous amount of effort, and care (possibly too much) about their students.

I often felt that I cared more about my students’ work than they did! It can be soul-destroying to give so much time and effort, and detailed notes, only to meet the writer a year later and find they haven’t done a thing with their story.

8. Support

Re comparing today’s novelists with previous, I think it’s easy to forget that writers used to get much more support. Editors spent much more time nurturing talent and were prepared to publish a number of novels while the author learned his craft. That’s all but gone. In addition, writers often found mentors – possibly among family friends.

Look at the bios of great writers and you’ll often find someone who took them under their wing and guided them early on. But that generally only happens if you move in the right circles. But it also probably meant that they took the advice more seriously (see 2, above).

By the way, yes I get Writing Magazine (and have written for it).

I also read every book on writing I can lay my hands on – I’m currently working through The Art of Fiction by David Lodge – excellent.

I also always hire editors – and listen to what they say. There’s always more to learn.

I hope this helps. I think I have gone and written a blog after all!

Very best
Charles

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Further reading

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Writing Magazine

The Art of Fiction