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Can you teach creative writing?
There has been a huge expansion in creative writing courses in the last decade, but is it something you can teach? Well-known writers give their verdicts

It has featured on US higher education programmes for more than a century, but British universities took longer to be convinced by creative writing. The notion that decent writing can't actually be taught was something Malcolm Bradbury found himself up against 40 years ago, when he was setting up an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia (UEA), the first of its kind. The course is now considered by many to lead the field, and has an impressive alumni list including Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Anne Enright.

A new book from UEA by Andrew Cowan, novelist and director of the university's MA course, is intended to offer an insight into the UEA method. It covers how to structure short stories and novels, creating convincing characters, writing believable dialogue and even how to overcome writer's block. Giles Foden, author and professor of creative writing at the university, says the book "answers many of the criticisms levelled at the subject and, to some degree, opens up the fabled 'black box' of our teaching."

The last decade has seen a huge expansion in creative writing courses. More than 90 British universities now offer a range of postgraduate degrees, and around 10,000 short creative writing courses or classes are on offer in the UK each year.

But, 40 years on and amid all this clamour to master the art, how well do universities teach creative writing? Can anyone actually teach it at all?

Andrew Motion, author, poet and professor of creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London

There was a time when creative writing courses were seen on a par with athletes taking steroids, as if it somehow gave them an unfair advantage. There was this idea that creative writing was something that had to take place in a garret. But aspiring dancers go to the Royal Ballet School, and actors to Rada – why should writing be any different?

Now there are many MA programmes and degree courses with a creative writing element. There is also a move to introduce creative writing into GCSE and A-level courses. But teaching is still of variable quality. It's not about teaching students to avoid making mistakes or 'bad' writing; finding out what a blind alley looks like is an important part of the process.

David Baddiel, author, comedian and broadcaster

There seems to be a real hunger to know about the writing process. The thing is, all writers approach the process differently. I know that I work very differently to someone like Roddy Doyle, for example. He plans out the plot from start to finish before he starts a novel, whereas I tend to improvise until I feel a structure emerging. So I'm not sure writing can be taught as such. Certainly, I think you can pass on your experience as a writer and this can be used to develop latent talent. I haven't done any kind of creative writing courses myself, but I have got an English degree from Cambridge University, which was a fairly classical grounding. Ultimately, I think the only way to learn is by reading other writers.

Will Self, author, columnist and broadcaster

I'm still not convinced creative writing can be taught. Perhaps you can take a mediocre novelist and make them into a slightly better one, but a course can't make someone into a good writer. Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguru both did the UEA MA, but they were both innately good anyway. Some people swear by creative writing courses. I say, go and get a job, a fairly menial one instead. Otherwise what are you going to write about? Writing is about expressing something new and exploring the form in new ways. So unless you want to churn out thrillers or misery memoirs, you can't work from a pattern book. You need to autodidact.

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