What I’ve learned by teaching writing

Can you teach someone to write?

Recently there’s been a lot of talk about whether there’s any value in creative writing courses, after author Hanif Kureishi described them as a ‘waste of time (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/04/creative-writing-courses-waste-of-time-hanif-kureishi)’. It’s a new take on the old question of whether you can teach someone to write. I’m a little biased on this one, as for the past two years I’ve been very fortunate to teach on the first-ever Crime Writing MA, at City University London.


On this unique course, our students write a novel over two years, while the writers who run the course provide mentoring and support to turn it into a market-ready book. We then help them send it out to agents and make sure they understand how the industry works. We have all kinds of books on the go in my class –historical, futuristic, noir, comic, psychological. I feel that, no, you can’t give someone talent or teach them to get ideas for fiction if they don’t naturally have them, but you can teach them how to read their own work critically, and most importantly, to tell the difference between writing that’s good and writing that’s rubbish. We also give our students the structure and support to actually finish something – they don’t pass the course otherwise. We like to say we help them to write their third novel, not their first.

As well as being very rewarding, I’ve learned a lot from my students, both in seeing how they tackle certain writing problems, and in clarifying what I actually think about various issues such as prologues, the present tense, intrusive narratorial voice, and other issues you should be mulling over if you’re writing a book. Here are a few things I’ve learned from teaching:


  1. It’s a very different thing to teach someone a lesson, and actually learn it yourself. Dissecting my students’ work for pace, plot holes, and prose style does make me more aware of what I need to change in my own work, but it doesn’t come naturally, and I have to remind myself every time to try and do better. Lessons don’t stay learned unless you put them into practice!
  2. Trusting the process is key. Again and again I see my students hit the same hurdles of self-doubt, plot complications, and word count woes. I remind them that a book doesn’t have to be perfect to be good, and it will go through many stages of editing once you think you’re done with it. What matters is that you keep working on it day after day.
  3. You can always cut something. In the first term of our course, we do an exercise where the students have to cut a piece of writing in half. They nearly always grumble, but usually they can see afterwards that nothing important is lost – because almost everyone over-writes, especially when they’re starting.
  4. It’s worth starting a book before you start it. By which I mean thinking about premise, character, viewpoint and set-up and working out ways you can make each as strong as possible.
  5. Just finish the book! I see a lot of people who have talent and a great idea and writing skill, but the thing that really sets apart those who get published is that they finish their books. It sounds obvious, but sometimes ploughing on and getting something on paper, then fixing it afterwards, is much better than crafting the same three chapters over and over.


So yes, I do think doing a creative writing course will teach you a lot and help you progress to your goal of being published and being a good writer. I also think it’s worth studying creative writing because you will meet so many great people there (I made some of my best friends this way when I did a course myself) and also to get over the pain of having someone read over your work as soon as possible. Good luck! 

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