Dear Poetry Newbies: do you need a creative writing qualification?

The World Is Your Oyster Now

A previous version of this post appeared at One Night Stanzas in September 2008.

There are a lot of people out there who will tell you that in order to become a successful writer, you will definitely need some kind of creative-writing-specific qualification. However, there are also a lot of people out there who will tell you that you should avoid creative writing qualifications like the plague. Personally, I decided to go down the qualification route: I have a MSc in Creative Writing and I’m soon to complete a Creative Writing PhD. In light of this, I thought I’d stick my oar in on the subject.
I’m not going to say a definite yes or no either way — you may or may not want or need a creative writing qualification. You may not know right now. You may have people telling you what you should or shouldn’t do on all sides. At the end of the day, the ‘to study or not to study?’ question is yours to answer… but I can offer some pros and cons, dos and don’ts to help you.

Creative writing courses: Pros

- Courses provide opportunities for quality workshopping and mentoring.

- Seminars and tutorials are often run by experienced writers (or former writers).

- You learn about writing, editing, drafting and publishing processes… on some courses you can also learn about how writing is marketed, distributed and sold.

- Opportunities for publication may well be open to you.

- You’re surrounded by other writers like yourself who understand your ambition and won’t try to discourage you.

- You get honest, useful feedback on your work, and help to implement changes.

- More and more courses are springing up all the time, and more and more people are taking them - this means more choice when it comes to where and when you study, how you study and with whom.

- Being part of a course-group often provides opportunities to attend writing-related events, and to meet people in the writing business.

Creative writing courses: Cons

- Creative writing is a very specialised field and you may find yourself with limited career options when your course has finished.

- Creative writing is sometimes looked down upon, or not always well-respected - by businesses and even by some academics.

- There is a common belief that creative writing cannot actually be “taught” and so courses are a waste of time.

- Courses of all kinds can be very costly, particularly if you enroll at a prestigious institution.

- Some courses are run and taught by individuals who do not have sufficient knowledge or experience of the field.

- Workshops can often be less constructive in a long-term course situation, because cliques and animosities can develop between classmates.

- Some writers (even some editors) reserve a certain kind of snobbery for those with creative writing qualifications.

- Because more and more people are studying creative writing, qualifications of this kind are becoming less unique and as a result, less respected.

Dos and don’ts.

DO find a highly-rated course at a good institution. Yes, it’s expensive to go to a good Uni or college, but you generally do get what you pay for. Make sure the qualification you get is going to be legitimate and useful.

DON’T take online creative writing “Masters” or “Degree”, particularly if you have to pay for them. They are generally worthless on paper. (Some online short courses are good, but generally aren’t accredited — so you don’t end up with an actual qualification at the end.)

Probably DON’T take creative writing as your first University degree. By doing so you may back yourself into a corner when it comes to career options. Take a more open-ended degree and specialise in creative writing later, or take a creative writing module or postgraduate course.

DON’T feel that you have to rush into taking a course. If you finish high school or graduate from your degree and you want to do other things first, do by all means. If you want to produce some more writing first, do. No hurry.

DO make sure you can afford your chosen course. If you can’t, look around at other courses - but DON’T just enrol “because it’s cheap”. There may be a reason for that. At the same time, DON’T assume a course is really good because it’s expensive. Do your research.

DO make sure that, if you’re required to have “writing experience,” you have some. You may well be in a class with people who have a fair few publications and projects under their belt. If you’ve only ever written three poems, look for a course designed for beginners.

DO vet the course-organisers and tutors before you apply. Do they sound like they have the right experience/type of writing/research interests to teach you?

DO vet the course, too. Does it go in the direction you want? Does it look unprofessional, or too academic? Trust your instincts, get on a course that will benefit you personally.

DO search around for funding, from student loans, grants, bursaries and scholarships. DON’T run up your course bill on a credit card or via a personal loan unless you’re sure you can manage it.

DON’T take the word of people who say you must or must not study creative writing. Listen to their advice, but DON’T feel obliged to act on it.

DON’T start a course if you already think you might find it too hard, or you might drop out. It can be really costly.

DO vet “free” courses very, very carefully.

DON’T assume that taking a course will make you a writing superstar… but also DON’T assume that, just because it won’t, it’s worthless.

I’d love to hear what you think about the benefits and disadvantages of creative writing courses. Have you done one? Give me your feedback!

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One Response to “Dear Poetry Newbies: do you need a creative writing qualification?”

  1. Jim Murdoch Says:

    My best friend got an engineering degree back in the seventies. He said he never used a thing he learned in his course in his career and it was only good for one thing: it provided quantifiable evidence of his ability to learn. I suspect that as far as a career in writing goes the same applies: Hey, he’s got a PhD so that must mean he can write. If you’re a jobbing author looking for freelance work then it’ll do you no harm at all to have a qualification on your CV at the start. As for whether or not you can be taught to write, like you, I’m not going to say yeah or nay but I suspect these courses help more people than they hinder and the only danger is that it’ll take you a bit longer to find your own voice, to formulate your own set of writing rules and shake the—what shall we call it?—‘house’ style. Writing is one thing, then there’s the business of writing and that’s another skill set completely; I’m not saying that can’t be learned from books but it’s an aspect of what it means to be a writer in the 21st century where you should take all the help you can get. I never went to university which I regret but that hasn’t stopped me writing. Just a shame I can’t write something commercial but it’s never been about the money. (That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.)