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Is a creative writing course worth it?

27 September 2010

Can creative writing courses really open up the world of writing to the students who pay heavily for the privilege of taking them? As students begin the return to college or university across the northern hemisphere, this seems a good time to examine whether or not creative writing courses earn their keep.

There's no doubt that they are booming in both the US and the UK. America now has hundreds of college-level courses and there are 50 UK universities now offering MAs in Creative writing, as well as many other diploma and post-graduate courses as well. At a time when creative writing courses provide the universities with lucrative source of income, for which they are likely to have a high student enrolment (a key consideration in these times of economic stringency), it's easy to see why these courses are popular with the institutions themselves.

For the faculty, teaching writing can be a good way of supporting yourself if you are a writer and this is particularly true of poets. Out of the ten poets shortlisted for the 2009 T S Eliot Prize in the UK, seven teach creative writing at universities.

But the real question seems to be what benefit the students themselves get out of their course. It seems reasonable to assume that they will improve their writing, which is potentially a useful thing for anyone in almost any career. But is it fair to say, as distinguished writer David Lodge has done, that the qualities needed by a writer cannot be taught? Just what are these qualities?

There may be another negative too. There's also criticism in publishing that you can always tell a writer who has taken a creative writing course, because of the formulaic nature of their writing. Ellah Allfrey, deputy editor of Granta, says that: 'There's a certain style of writing that you can recognise now that comes from creative writing programmes and sometimes, if the programme is clearly focused on getting students published, there's a danger of them writing with an eye fixed on what's going to work commercially.'

But isn't this reasonable? The students pay good money to study creative writing because they think this will help them develop their writing and get their work published. After all, nobody writes just for themselves. Lionel Shriver, an outspoken author who won the Orange Prize in 2005 for her novel We Need to Talk about Kevin, admitted that: 'I have always felt a little queasy about majoring in creative writing. Theoretically, I think it's better for a writer to get educated in something with more intellectual content, such as history, but I needed an audience, which college provided.'

So what do the students themselves think? Many will find it disappointing trying to get their work published, as it's so hard to do so at present. But will they turn to self-publishing, or go off and pursue another career?

Josh Spears, writing on this site, said:

'The experience of gaining a university degree is unique and unforgettable and if you can get over the fact that the end result isn't exactly what you expected, I would give it my vote and reluctantly, my money.'

His article Is a creative writing degree really worth it?