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Creative writing courses - a good investment for writers?

19 May 2014

Creative writing courses continue to proliferate on both sides of the Atlantic .Many writers believe that enrolling on a course, particularly a university one, will make all the difference to their writing careers.

In the UK the rapid growth in courses has been described by the Bookseller as ‘a viral contagion'. Writers have rushed to sign up to the new university courses for writers, with growth from 64 writing programmes in 2003 and 504 degree programmes offered by Higher Education institutions a decade later.

There has also been an explosion in courses for writers run by publishers and others, with the Faber Academy and Curtis BrownSee Curtis Brown listing's courses well to the fore, but new courses popping up all the time.

In the US the famous Iowa Writers' Workshop started it all going as long ago as 1936 but now there are hundreds of courses. This particular course only currently takes 2% of applicants, but many other courses have an acceptance rate of less than 5%. Increasingly, low-residency programmes are becoming popular and these might only require your presence on campus for 10-14 days twice a year. Some courses, such those run by the University of Texas at El Paso are totally online, catering for those who are hard up or have jobs they need to keep up with.

So does attending one of these courses repay the considerable investment? Obviously a lot of people think so but it's actually quite hard to measure. Of course most aspiring writers can improve their craft and this is certainly something that can be taught. By the time you come out of a course like this your writing should have improved and you will also, these days, have learnt a lot about publishing. Having your work read and commented on by a course tutor is one of the most important elements of a creative writing course. Clearly some of the writers attending courses are very talented as well, but would they have made it anyway?

Does a course at least give you a chance of talking to an agent? Possibly, but don't forget they are looking for the top talent too and will be highly selective.

There's no obvious answer to this and it looks as if there might be quite a bit of heartbreak amongst those who have invested in a course but still can't find a publisher, especially if they don't feel comfortable about self-publishing.

There is also the danger of writers' work getting more ‘samey' as straightforward talent is banished in favour of those who may know the ropes a bit better but show less originality. That could be a real problem, as originality is what agents and publishers all say they're looking for at the moment.