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Are creative writing courses worth it?

14 February 2011

The big questions about creative writing courses still remain, although there's no doubt about their popularity, nor that the universities and colleges see them as real money-spinners. There are now a huge number of writing courses in America - no less that 1,000 - and, after a slower start, about 100 postgraduate courses in the UK catering for the creative writing student.

But do all these students go on to become professional writers? It seems pretty clear that they don't, since otherwise there would be far more first novels being published. But is this because they train people to write 'literary' novels, which mostly won't find a commercial home, or is it because they are not talented enough or don't know how to go about getting published?

Not all courses include much practical advice on publishing and exactly how to go about finding an agent or publisher. Mostly they exist in a writerly vacuum, but there is increasing recognition that the colleges and universities let their students down unless the courses include some exposure to the real world of publishing.

There seems little doubt that a really brilliant author will find a publisher. But what about the less talented, or even the merely competent? Perhaps the truth is that they were never likely to find a publisher anyway?

On the plus side, there is much to be said for a course which teaches you to write better, even if in the end it doesn't help you with getting yourself established as a writer. Most graduates of these courses seem to think that taking part in them has helped with their careers.

A recent Prospect magazine feature interviewed the first graduate of the famous University of East Anglia course, Ian McEwan, who said that, although he did indeed write his story "Conversation with a Cupboard Man" during his time at Norwich, the course itself was really an English MA with a creative writing paper tagged on. The students were not "taught" to write, but the course did give them space and time to reflect, and a good environment in which they could share their work, experiment a bit - and read, read, read.

So, are the courses worth it? It seems that only the individual aspiring writer can decide whether it's worth it for them - and also that only time will tell. On-the-ball agents are increasingly keeping an eye on the best graduates of the Creative Writing MAs, so it might be easier than it was to get an agent if you're really good, but otherwise things seem much the same.

Josh Spears asks: Is a creative writing degree really worth it?