University courses in creative writing

University courses in creative writing have become ever more common, in both the US and the UK. But are they worth it? Personally, I’m sceptical. I think most people who do such courses are let down by them. I think the teaching is often far too removed from the market, and the writers who graduate are often hopelessly underprepared for market realities.

In the first place, it’s important to realise that agents and publishers couldn’t care a damn about your academic qualifications. My degree is in economics. I spent ten years working as an investment banker. There was nothing in my history to suggest I had any talent at creative writing – and no one cared. There’s only one aptitude test which matters and that’s whether you can write a good book.

Yes, it is true that agents will tend to stay in close touch with various creative writing schools, watching for emerging talent. But so what? The most that’ll do is ease your path into the industry. But if your book is good enough, and you’re not a total numpty about finding agents, you’ll secure representation anyway.

The killer question then is this: will university creative writing courses help you launch a career in writing?  Or rather – because any course will teach you something – are those courses effective ways of teaching you what needs to be learned?

And that’s where I have a problem. In particular, creative writing courses typically teach you how to write short stories and poetry and novels / novellas. You’ll get better at all these things. But there’s no market to speak of for short stories, or poetry, or novellas. If you actually want a career as a writer, they’re irrelevant.

What’s more, creative writing courses are typically excellent at teaching how to write prettily – because that’s easily done in a classroom / workshop – but they’re lacklustre at teaching plot and story. Those things are hard to handle, precisely because they’re so big. You can’t properly critique a plot without reading a whole damn book and working through it piece by piece. If the plot doesn’t work, the book has to be rewritten – then re-read, re-analysed, re-evaluated. Because these things are time-consuming, plot is often woefully neglected.

Which is madness! Plot and story are by far the things that matter most to agents and publishers. Get the story wrong, and no matter how much else you do right, your work is probably unsaleable. Plot and story should be the main focus of any creative writing course worth its salt.

And then too, I think way too many MA / MFA courses are desperately unrealistic about what kind of work is saleable. I have never, for example, come across any such course which has been good at teaching genre fiction: crime, thrillers, chick lit, and the like. And that’s bananas too! No, scratch that, not just bananas – it’s snobbish and stupid.

Good genre fiction is quite simply damn good writing. It deserves proper teaching as much as anything else. One of the first WW clients I had came to me after having completed a two year creative writing course at a highly respected university. He had written a thriller – clever, stylish, nasty, memorable. But it wasn’t right. It spent too much energy on the style, too little on the thriller.

I helped that client out with a couple of editorial reviews. Quite simple stuff, actually. The writer had piles of talent and a great concept. The things that needed fixing were fairly obvious, fairly fixable. But why the heck was I providing that feedback? Why hadn’t this guy’s tutors already told him what he needed to know?

He said that they were all literary writers who didn’t relate to what he wanted to do and had hardly ever read the full length manuscript. For my money, that’s pathetic. Inexcusable. (Oh, and we got that writer a top quality agent within weeks of his having finished his final edit with us. That shows how badly his course failed him.)

And even if your interest is in writing literary fiction, I’m doubtful whether most courses will set you on the right track. Fifteen years ago, there was a market for the ‘slim’ literary novel. You got paid £5,000 for it. It sold 200 copies in hardback. It sold 3000 copies in paperback. It got some nice reviews. No one made any money. After two or three such novels, everyone agreed that enough was enough and the author’s career drew to a close.

That just doesn’t happen now – and shouldn’t. Novels need to command an audience. The best debuts are loud, unforgettable, attention-seeking things: Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Audrey Niffenegger’s Time Traveler’s Wife, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. That’s what agents are looking for. Those are the books that can launch a career. Those are the things that MA / MFA courses should be teaching.

Yet the tutors – at least 90% of them – have never written such a book themselves. They’ve written short stories, published poetry, sold slim literary novels of their own … and never engaged with the industry the way that most MA / MFA writers want to engage with it themselves.

So be careful. If you do sign up for one of these courses, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. For example, do sign up for a course if:

  • you genuinely just want the thrill and satisfaction of writing creatively
  • you want the fun and company of going back to college
  • you want to broaden your feel for literature
  • your course tutors have the kind of track record and publication history that you yourself aspire to

If you want to write commercial fiction, or commercially successful literary fiction – if, in general, you want a career as a writer – then take care. I know some brilliant professional authors who used university courses to put the final finishing touches to their work, and whose careers took off as a result.

I know others – far more of them – who completed their courses, often with distinctions, only to find that their work was utterly unsaleable. Their creative writing tutors loved their work. Publishers didn’t want to know.

Don’t let that happen to you. As it happens, we run our own ‘complete novel course‘, which is like a slimmed down MFA. Only way cheaper. Way less intrusive. And, I’d guess, way more likely to lead to a career. (We haven’t been running the course that long, and already two of its graduates have hooked up with agents.) That course works because it’s taught by a pro novelist who understands the market for fiction.

I’m not saying you ought to do our course and or any course. And there will be a percentage of people for whom an MA / MFA in creative writing is absolutely what they ought to do next.

Only that percentage ain’t 100%. Or 80%. Or even 50%. So before signing up, think hard, do your research, ask the hard questions, and take care!

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  • I’m currently near the end of my MA in Creative Writing, and I must say, I found a lot of truth in what you’ve expressed. I’m attempting to write genre fiction (steampunk to be exact) which makes me feel slightly out of place. We haven’t had a lot of career guidance or discussion on what sells etc. The course mostly focuses on the specifics of writing and creativity – which is fine – as well as an academic study of existing literature. But as you suggest, that’s just one side of the coin. I have found the course beneficial, but there is scope for it to offer much more…

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  • Kharis

    Many thanks for this guidance. I did the BA Hons and to be honest I was sceptical about the MA given that the tutor was just totally disconnected with my work and termed it ‘unrealistic’. The genre I guess was very unrealistic to the world of academic writing and like you say he had had no such success himself other than a few off the wall short stories submitted to various anthologies. I didn’t think it was worth doing if it was the same tutor that would mark me down for my type of fiction, that is more in keeping with the current market. I think maybe following the exercises in various books is useful but as you say – story sells, not the academics behind it.