As a writer who has completed both an undergraduate degree and a Master’s in creative writing, I think there is a lot of value in higher education for the aspiring novelist. A course will teach you technique, provide deadlines to help you get words on the page, and offer a source of feedback on your work. But an academic creative writing class isn’t the only option. If time or finances are holding you back, there are many other ways to learn the fundamentals of fiction writing, and many of these exist in a supportive group setting.
Most literary consultancies offer classes and workshops. BPA’s events programme, for example, includes online craft and genre tutorials, mini-courses, in-person away days and retreats. Organisations such as Curtis Brown Creative and Faber Academy offer novel writing courses that mimic parts of an MA experience, with a lower cost and time commitment.
Books, Blogs, and Online Resources
There is also plenty of creative writing teaching out there in the written form. Take a look at Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. Author Emma Darwin’s blog This Itch of Writing contains countless helpful (free) posts on the writer’s toolkit, from POV to characterisation to showing and telling. You’ll also find advice and exercises on the BPA blog!
Mentoring and Editorial Feedback
The most helpful aspect of my MA was the feedback I received from course tutors and peers on my work-in-progress. You can be taught something ten times but still not see the issue occurring in your own work until someone points it out to you. Editor Arthur Plotnik said, ‘You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you, and we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.’ Working with a mentor (usually an author with experience in editing) will almost always cost less than a university programme (probably much less) and you’ll receive more intensive feedback and hands-on guidance than you would from a course tutor. Mentoring is still a big commitment — another option is to receive feedback on your full novel, either by commissioning a manuscript assessment or swapping work with a fellow writer.
There aren’t many uses of two hours as intense yet rewarding as sitting around a table with a group of writers all discussing your own piece of fiction. This is an experience you’ll find in an academic programme that can easily be replicated elsewhere. Have a look at workshop groups accepting members on Eventbrite or in your local area, or start your own group with our guide to running a successful writer’s workshop. You’ll learn as much from the feedback you give as the feedback you receive.
Reading and Self-Teaching
Author William Faulkner said, ‘Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.’ Reading books about the craft of writing feels more like studying, but it’s amazing how much you learn just by reading for pleasure. Read books in your genre. Read books that have just come out. Read the books that you love. You can also teach yourself – take up free-writing and set yourself exercises. Print your work and edit it with a red pen. If you’re feeling particularly studious, set yourself an essay on the tools employed by the author in the last novel you read.
There’s a myth that creative writing can’t be taught, that all good authors rely on inspiration and raw talent. There’s another myth that you need to spend thousands of pounds to develop your ability to a professional standard. My advice to all writers is to find a motivating community and look for every opportunity to push your work to the best it can be.