Friday, 4 May 2012

Creative writing degree course?

Are you considering taking a creative writing degree course? If so, I thoroughly recommend a blog post by Danuta Kean. Do read it and then come back here, please. *taps fingers while waiting*

Isn't there a lot of good advice there? I particularly draw your attention to this: "Any course promising an agent and a publisher should ring alarm bells. Writing is incredibly competitive, and, in my experience, it is rare for a student to hold a contract alongside their degree certificate on graduation."

One question I'm often asked is this: "In my letter to an agent or publisher, should I mention that I've done a creative writing MA and how should I word it?"

Certainly mention it. But do not make the mistake of sounding as though you think this is a ticket to publication or, in fact, at all important. Ensure that you sound completely realistic and savvy.

For example, you could simply say, "I have an MA in Creative Writing from Marvellous University." And then go on to talk about other things, such as publishing credits. This makes your MA comment nicely understated.

Or, especially if it's an agent you're approaching (because an agent cares more about your attitude), "I have an MA in Creative Writing from Marvellous University. I do realise that MA courses have a mixed reputation but I enjoyed the chance to push some boundaries and I am grateful to the course for teaching me many practical aspects of the writing business." This is nicely modest and realistic. It allows for the fact that the agent may have a thing against such courses.

Just realise that, while your course may have been the most wonderful thing for you, it cuts no mustard with agents and publishers, compared to that crucial thing: your book. After all, no reader cares whether the author has a degree. Therefore no publisher does either.

Your creative writing MA is for you, no one else. The only reason to mention it at all in your letter is that it forms part of the body of evidence that you are committed to writing the best damn book you can.

PS Come back here this evening for a treat! PArty time at Crabbit At Home.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Nicola - a hardy perennial question. And I love the formula for side-stepping any prejudice an agent might hold!

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I see you're okay with RELEVANT links, so I hope mine to my own blog post on the pros and cons of writing courses is okay - it might be useful:

Nicola Morgan said...

Emma - absolutely ok with relevant links and your input is always welcome. Just that some people (though they rarely dare here!) view someone else's blog as a place to advertise themselves. Your link is EXTREMELY useful and relevant and welcome. Thank you.

JO said...

I'm currently doing a distance learning MA - so everything is online, which has its pros and cons, but is the only way I could do it.

And I took on all your and Danuta's reservations before I began. I don't need the letters after my name, but want to learn to write as well as I possibly can. I reckon that's a good enough goal - though how I might measure that I've no idea. If I come out of it with a novel - that will be wonderful.

But I suspect there are others on the course with dreams that might be cruelly - and expensively - shattered (though this isn't costing anything like £9000 a year).

Louise said...

I did an OU Literature degree and finished it with two creative writing courses. I enjoyed the courses at the time, but looking back two years on, the most useful aspect of them really was the introduction to writers I had not encountered before. I believe it's reading excellent writing, more than anything else, that has enabled me to write with self-belief at last, and to gain the success I have so far enjoyed - I have an agent :) I don't do writing groups and I have never read out my work to others, and I don't think I ever will. I like being "isolated" with my writing and I think if you're that kind of person, degree courses are not economical or even that helpful. Just read, read, read, then write, write, write :)

Kamille Elahi said...

I could not imagine why someone would want to study Creative Writing if they loved writing.

My poor experience in educational institutions scares me that a degree in what I love will crush every ounce of passion I have for writing.

Art and Education do not mix. Art and Learning do. I can Learn without having a teacher fail me for a writing piece she or he simply didn't agree with.

Some of our best writers in this day never studied Creative Writing.

Nicola Morgan said...

Camille - I understand that your experience has put you off. And that's a huge shame. But it isn't like that for everyone and it's impossible to imagine someone choosing to study creative writing if they didn't love it - that's part of the point! In fact, it's the best and only reason.

*Obviously*, lots of successful writers haven't done a course. No one is suggesting that anyone should. I didn't even do English A-level, let alone study it at University! I've never been to a single workshop, let alone a whole course, but I don't believe no one should just because I didn't. (I'm not having a go at you, by the way, just pointing out that there are different ways and experiences. And I am truly sorry yours wasn't positive.)

DanielB said...

I've taught on a Creative Writing MA, but was never a student on one. My experience is that, like all university courses, they are under pressure to display that a certain type of teaching and research is taking place for the regular Research Assessment Exercise (which affects funding). Therefore this affects the kind of writers they take on as tutors.

Some MA courses will obsess over having the "right" kind of writers - i.e. those who write literary novels which are nominated for prestigious prizes and reviewed in the broadsheets. A commercial or genre novelist will often be less well-regarded in university terms, even though his/her experience could be invaluable to many of the students.

If I were a potential MA student, my priorities when looking at a course would be 1) Does this course feature published novelists as tutors? 2) Are they my kind of published novelists? 3) Are they any good? 4) Do they have experience of working with a wide range of publishers? and 5) I'd want them to have teaching experience, but that would not matter as much as their writing/publishing experience.

Because Creative Writing isn't like most other academic disciplines. It's a bit like golf or tennis - you need to be good, and if you are good, then personal one-to-one tuition by a Seve Ballesteros or Tim Henman of the writing world (or even someone seeded a lot lower) is absolutely invaluable, in a way that reading about it in books and having lectures and seminars and "workshops" about it just isn't.

Until universities get their heads round this, MAs will continue to aspire to produce not the next generation of novelists, but the next generation of Creative Writing tutors.

Kamille Elahi said...

Nicola, I wasn't saying nobody should study creative writing. I was just saying that I've never understood why someone would want to study creative writing like that when it involves: deadlines, subjective teachers and grades, exams and a traditional view of what makes a good book.

Creative writing will teach you to write well yes but it will never teach you how to write a successful book. But I do have a friend who is going to study creative writing at university but she's more serious about her writing than I am. We approach writing in a completely different way.

Although I wouldn't do a creative writing degree, I think I will take a course in the future just to hone my writing if the need arises.

I don't know if I've explained this well.

Anonymous said...

Can you tell us why 'most' of the new successful writers have creative writing degrees? It does catch the attention of publishers, doesn't it?

I don't think it makes you a better writer, but you learn what publishers want to publish and different types of writing skills.

If you never had a flair for writing; it would be a waste of time and money, but you can always get a job as a 'lousy' school or vocational teacher.

Nicola Morgan said...

Anonymous - "most"? No! That's so wrong - sorry! You are looking at a very small sample if you think that. What about the hugely successful commercial writers, genre writers, children's writers, YA writers? Also, the fact that they've done a course and also got published does not mean that doing the course got the attention of publishers. It means that they were good writers who wrote a good book that caught the eye of the publisher. That's all. I bet you (though we can never prove it) that if they hadn't mentioned the course in their submission they still would have got the publishing deal.

Doing a *good* course can certainly give you an advantage, as you suggest, but not because it makes publishers sit up, just because it can teach you some stuff that helps. I agree that a course won't help if you don't have a flair. Not sure that I understand your last half sentence though...

A course could make you a better writer. Depends on you and on the course.

Stroppy Author said...

"I've never understood why someone would want to study creative writing like that when it involves: deadlines, subjective teachers and grades, exams and a traditional view of what makes a good book" - Kamille

Because that's why publishing is like in the real world? Deadlines, subjective views of an editor, competition and knowing the traditional view of what makes a good book.

Though my experience of creative writing MAs (on the teaching side) is that they pay virtually no attention whatsoever to the commercial aspects of publishing and prepare people (perhaps) to write, but not to be writers.

I'd say look for a course with tutors who are experienced, published writers in a variety of fields. If all the tutors are literary novelists, give it a wide berth as the teaching will be too narrow. Don't shun courses because they have genre writers - they are most likely to be the people making money from writing successfully.

Courses to avoid are those that are not taught by published writers at all. And courses where all the staff are full time. That might sound odd, but it's not. Successful writers don't have time to be full-time teachers. A course taught by ten part-time writers who are successfully writing their own stuff the rest of the time is a better bet than one taught by five full-time teachers.

Anne said...

I mean why not? That would really be interesting to take online mfa creative writing programs as well.