Julia Kingsford, literary agent at Kingsford Campbell, gives her perspective on how to choose a creative writing course.
As a literary agent, I often get asked for advice about creative writing courses. I’m very much of the belief that writing can and should be taught, but that it’s also important to find the course that suits you and your style – not just in writing, but in personality too, since you won’t flourish in an environment you’re not comfortable in. Sharing your writing is an intensely personal experience, and to be the best possible writer you need to find somewhere that builds up your confidence alongside helping you develop your work constructively.
At the very least, a creative writing course should leave you feeling that you’ve made improvements as a writer, developed your skills and a greater understanding of the craft, grown in confidence, and gained a better idea of what you’re good at, what’s working in your writing, and what you still need to improve.
But with so many options available, how do you choose the course that’s right for you? I’ve put together this list of things to consider before you make your decision, followed by a summary of the various options so you can choose what’s right for you.
1. What do you want to achieve?
Do you have a specific goal – a novel already planned (if not drafted), for example, that you want to get finished and published? Or do you simply want to improve your writing generally, finding your voice and developing your confidence? Are you just starting out or do you want to hone what you have? Perhaps you’re simply looking to meet a group of likeminded individuals and use the course as a means of injecting some extracurricular creativity into your life. Whatever your aim is you won’t make the best decision if you haven’t fixed on what you most want to achieve.
2. How much time do you have – and how flexible are you?
Some courses expect you to be in the same place at the same time every week. Some require you to do quite a bit of homework. Some don’t start for a few months, but you’re already raring to go. Think hard about what you can reasonably commit to. There are flexible courses and more regimented ones – think about which will work best for you.
3. Cost & value for money
There are really two things you should be paying for with creative writing courses: your teacher’s skill and expertise on the one hand; and on the other, rather like with personal training, you’re paying for the motivation. You want an expert eye that is helping you develop your work, but this is also about you making – and sticking to – a personal commitment to write.
So how much should you spend? Of course, most of us would happily borrow money to do an expensive course if we thought it guaranteed publication, riches and the life of an internationally renowned writer at the end! It won’t surprise you when I say that’s not going to happen (whatever the course marketing might suggest). So instead you should think carefully about what you most want from a course. Peer review? Motivation? Industry awareness? Are you buying prestige, or access, or a qualification? Are you looking for general tuition on the craft of writing, or feedback specific to your own work – or both?
Once you’re clear about what you’re looking for, ensure the money you’re paying is going to get you that.
4. What will the experience / teacher / other students be like?
As most courses are taught by a particular teacher, you really need to consider how that teacher is going to work for you. Some courses have big-name authors as their instructors, who write brilliantly but aren’t necessarily good at imparting their own skill. Some courses might be taught by writers you’ve never heard of, but who are really good teachers; others are taught by people who aren’t writers at all, but have great editorial and teaching experience.
Some people are a bit sniffy about having a low-profile writer teaching them, and I think this is the wrong attitude. After all, do you expect Derek Jacobi or Judi Dench to teach a course at a drama school? What you want is for the course to be taught by people who are good at teaching writing. This is about your skill as a writer, not theirs. And it’s about having someone you think you will trust to take you and your writing seriously.
Most courses are taught in a group environment – so you need to consider how that will work for you. What might the other students be looking for, and will their goals fit well with your own? (For me, this is the most stressful part of making the decision, probably because I had an awful experience in a creative writing class with a guy who thought he was the new Kerouac and who would mutter under his breath about how I wrote “like f*cking Jane Austen” – which I obviously considered a compliment but was aware wasn’t meant as one, and definitely impacted on what I was able to get from the class.)
So now you know what to prioritise when you’re looking into which course to commit to. Have a look at the following options, bearing those factors in mind.
Evening Classes at a local university / adult education centre
This is probably what most people think about when they think about a writing class. Typically, small groups are led by a writer/teacher with weekly/fortnightly set exercises that you analyse as a group – as well as a chance to develop a short project (a story or extract of a novel). If you’re lucky and you really gel with your group and teacher, these can be fantastic. But the obvious pitfalls are that the people in your group might have very different reasons for being there, with varying levels of commitment and ability. A worst case scenario is that there’ll be someone attempting to dominate the time completely so that it’s all about them – and the teacher isn’t able to control them. You’re all paying the same amount, but one of you is getting the bulk of the time and attention.
It’s also worth noting that you will by necessity spend a huge amount of time on other people’s writing, when what they’re learning may not be the same as what you need to learn. Of course, this can apply to all group courses. On the other hand, these courses can be great for motivation – particularly if you feel you need a bit of a kick to write regularly or just get started.
These vary hugely in what you’re going to get, and therefore in what you should pay. At one end of the scale, they offer generic content and can therefore seem quite cheap. $90 will get you access to a series of pre-recorded videos from James Patterson, for example. But there’s also a range of teacher-led courses that are very similar to local writing classes, just done remotely. They include exercises, peer review, and some opportunity for interaction and feedback from your tutor.
The advantages are particularly obvious if you live somewhere remote or don’t find it easy to get out – and, of course, if you don’t feel comfortable with social interaction (which, around something as personal as creative writing, can strike even the most extroverted). A disadvantage is that remote access doesn’t always inspire the same level of commitment to the course – and that might apply to your teacher and peers too.
The important thing with online courses is to read carefully between the lines so you know what you’re getting for your money. Often the most prestigious providers of creative writing courses are also offering online courses – just make sure you’re not being offered generic content, which can be demotivating and frustrating.
Creative Writing Masters
An MA is, obviously, a serious commitment in both time and money. It can be done part-time and it can be done remotely – both of which minimise the commitment – but you’re still looking at something spread out over at least a year and costing at the very least £4000, but often £6000 and more. (If you are a UK citizen, one option is to go for the Open University and study remotely, part-time.) Obviously with this much time you should expect to make substantial progress into a full-length work, and most courses are geared towards exactly that – completing a long piece of writing, at least up to around 40,000 words.
You also get the benefit of a qualification at the end of it, and no one can take those letters after your name away from you – though this is just for you: I’d be irresponsible if I said that qualification is going to guarantee that agents or publishers will take your submission more seriously. Another benefit is that most MA courses are very proud of their alumni who’ve gone on to get book deals, so they are quite focused on ensuring you’re put in front of the right people to be seriously considered by agents and publishers, usually via some sort of industry showcase and an anthology of your class’s work.
Curtis Brown / Faber / PRH / Guardian
This breed of courses from specialist professional companies has been going for about a decade. They emerged from companies who saw an opportunity to offer a valuable service they were already experts in. They are modelled similarly to traditional creative writing courses – focused around group sessions with a teacher, plus talks and masterclasses from special guests – but offer much less individual tuition than an MA, with fewer opportunities to have your own writing read.
Their obvious benefit over and above what you’d get at a local college is the level of access and exposure that they offer. Moreover, they don’t just accept anyone – you have to submit work to get on to the course – which means the calibre of your classmates is usually quite high. They’re also generally more expensive (though many offer scholarship places or discounted costs for those with reduced means), which means that you and all your classmates really are seriously committed to getting the most out of the course.
I always recommend really reading the fine print to see how much direct feedback you’ll be getting on your own work, and whether you feel that’s reflected in the overall price of the course.
Retreat-style short courses
Arvon are the best known provider of short courses on residential retreats, though there are plenty of other options both in the UK and abroad. The appeal is to take you away from your everyday life and intensively work on your writing. They’re great if you simply can’t fit writing into your life, want to take some time to work on something very specific, or are after a valuable kick-start.
It’s important to think about whether the teacher is going to suit you and also what the day-to-day experience is like, along with the setting. Some people are inspired by sunny days and exotic locations; others find it hard to work when all they can think is how much they’d like to be lying back and relaxing! Some people find it takes a long time to get into the swing of things and their time is over before it’s really begun. But for many, these provide excellent opportunities to give a short burst of focus to creativity and your writing in an environment where you don’t have to worry about anything else.
Ink Academy is an entirely new way of teaching creative writing, born out of its founder’s personal frustration at the courses available not being quite right for her (she chose an MA in the end) and the realisation that she had the professional experience to create the course that she was looking for. What’s unique about it is that it takes the best of creative writing courses – focused work on you and your writing – and strips away everything else that can feel obstructive (generic content, obligatory reading and editing of others’ work, a syllabus that isn’t relevant to your work). Its emphasis is very much on a personal relationship with your tutor – you’re taught one-to-one and face-to-face by an experienced editor, so the level of focus and commitment you’re getting from them is extremely high.
Being face-to-face does mean that, for the time being at least, you need to be able to get to London (though I understand tutors will be available in other locations around the UK in time); they do offer some Skype sessions but the majority of classes must be in person. And if you’re looking for a course as a sociable exercise and group environment, this won’t be for you: although there is the additional option of group workshops seeking the benefits of group discussion and peer review, the focus is principally on one-to-one teaching. But it fits around your life: you can schedule classes at times that work for you.
Ink Academy’s course mimics the traditional experience that, as a writer, you will hopefully one day achieve with an agent and publisher: working on the writing you’ve produced to develop your style, voice, plot and characters.
Whatever you choose, get writing. Courses, masterclasses and retreats all offer fantastic benefits and enhancements to your work but none can replace you making a regular commitment to sitting down and writing.