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Choosing a Creative Writing Course

Maggie Butt and Graeme Harper give some useful insights into choosing a course from the wide range of options available.

Maggie Butt

Creative Writing courses are like jelly beans; they come in every colour and flavour imaginable. And this is surprising because only a few years ago you had to hunt to find one at all.

In 1990 there were a handful of MA courses, one undergraduate degree and a sprinkling of creative writing modules within English degrees. Now UCAS lists eighty institutions which offer writing courses.

These courses vary widely in content and style. The range of names reflects the spectrum of possibilities - they may be called Creative Writing, Professional Writing, Media Writing, Imaginative Writing, Dramatic Writing, Writing and Personal Development or simply Writing. Some exist as single subject courses, others combine with English or a wide range of other subjects. They include online courses, HE certificates, degrees, MAs or PhDs.

This rich variety reflects the fact that creative writing is a relatively new academic subject in the UK. Most courses have been devised by enthusiastic writers and lecturers who probably took traditional English degrees themselves, so each course has been created afresh, and they are as individualistic as their creators.??

As the number of courses has grown, NAWE realized it was becoming increasingly difficult for prospective students to choose between them. So we decided to ask the students to give you a flavour of some of the courses on offer, because they have nothing to sell and nothing to hide. We commissioned a number of students on a range of different types of courses to write articles about their experience. They reflect what it is really like to take a writing course at University - the hard work, the frustration, the support and the companionship. They include articles from several mature students who have 'plucked up the courage' to give up their previous jobs and found 'the rewards are immense'.??

All these courses will give you a chance to experiment and take risks within a supportive and creative environment, to stretch your writing muscles. The undergraduate courses will probably give you an opportunity to try a number of different media and genres of writing, while MA courses are more likely to expect you to focus on one form. ??

None of the courses will promise to turn you into a best selling writer - they are practice-based, rather than vocational - but they will all give you a chance to find out what you might be capable of.??Good luck in finding the one which is right for you.

Maggie Butt, Creative Writing Programme Leader, Middlesex University

Graeme Harper

There is no one way to learn creative writing; nor is there only one correct way to learn to improve your creative writing. However, if you are considering undertaking a creative writing course, there are some key points that might assist you.

Before considering these, however, I should note that in the Britain there is no national benchmark for what a creative writing course should include. That is, each institution - in fact, in many cases, each course tutor - can decide on the style, structure and content of their courses. With this in mind, the prospective creative writing student needs to be prepared to add up the pros and cons of any one course at a personal level, as well as according to more general guidelines as follows:

(a) a good creative writing course will give you time to work on your own creative writing;

(b) a good creative writing course should make room for you to improve your understanding of the writing arts generally, so that you can be aware of the context of what you are doing;

(c) a good creative writing course is often one that connects your personal strengths with the strengths inherent in the course (ie. if you are the kind of person who gains a lot from group discussions, then the workshop-style creative writing course might well be best for you; on the other hand, you might be the kind of person who mostly prefers to talk about your writing one-to-one, working more closely with a supervisory/tutor, and occasionally meeting with a larger group. Both approaches work; both approaches are available in Britain);

(d) a good creative writing course often starts with 'introducing the basics' and finishes with 'completing a small, or large, project with advice from your tutor'.

And an additional note: not every creative writing course aims to produce creative writers. Yes, the vast majority do, in some way. But there are other creative writing courses whose primary aim is more broadly 'self-expression' or 'self-development'. You'll find these kinds of courses in Britain too.

Finally, taking a course is certainly not the only way to learn write creatively. The old notion that the best way to learn to write is simply to keep doing it, over and over and over again, has a fair amount of truth to it. Perspiration as much as inspiration!

However, if you are interested in writing creatively, what a creative writing course should do for you is that it should speed things along, help you to pick up problems in your work more easily, make you more aware of what the writing arts are about and how they work, and give you access to skilled writers and informed critical opinions.

Learning to write creatively is a wonderful experience, a great career option, a fantastic way to improve your communication skills more generally, a portable, adaptable and often fascinating skill, and a link to many other interesting subject areas as creative writers tend to draw on the knowledge of many fields.


Professor Graeme Harper - Chair, UK Centre for Creative Writing (Research Through Practice).

PostGrad Forum
If you are considering a PhD in creative writing, there may be answers to your questions in our Postgraduate Forum.

What the students say
"I wanted the creative side of me back... Writing has provided me with a whole new perspective on life." - Vicki Austin

"I discovered it is near impossible to be a good writer without being an avid reader as well...
I know so much more about myself." - Adam Raoof

"The single biggest gain you make from a writing course is a sense of imaginative self-awareness." - Scott Anthony

"Academic study allows us to think about how and why we make choices as writers.... Enlightening, enjoyable and a fantastic opportunity for creative fulfilment." - Emma Hardy

"My world has changed... This course is giving me the tools to increase, as well as control, my imagination... My development as a writer is due to my development as a human being." - Beth Lomas

"Sales skills are as important to a writer as they are to any other professional... You need to be a great editor to be a good writer." - Nicola Monaghan

"Being able to say I was studying writing gave me time psychologically I've never allowed before in which to experiment... I am confident that analysing my creative process has stimulated rather than inhibited my writing." - Sarah Salway

"Your own standards are often the hardest thing to come up to." - Jonathan Stone

"The course has given me direction, determination, confidence, numerous writing contacts and that all-important slice of a writer's life." - Carolyn Thomas

"The best part of the MA for me was mixing with other people who were as obsessive about writing as I was." - James Walker

"For the first time in my life writing came first, not last, and I didn't feel guilty about it." - Marianne Wheelaghan

"Inspiration can't be taught but it can be encouraged." - Anna Woodford

Studying Creative Writing ed. Sharon Norris is designed to help students succeed at their creative writing degree. It supports good teaching by helping students overcome barriers to effective learning. Available to NAWE members at 75% discount with free delivery in the UK.