ACW

ACW

Sunday, 24 May 2015

To Do or Not To Do—Writing courses

I’m currently studying for a degree with the Open University, and over the last two years I’ve worked my way through the Creative Writing and Advanced Creative Writing modules.

With both courses, we had a dedicated forum for sharing and critiquing our work. Tutors warned that students who didn’t use the forums tended to get lower marks. Despite that, few people took advantage of the opportunity to have their work critiqued—or to offer their thoughts to other students. There were many reasons for this, including fear of allowing people to read their writing, fear of giving someone else the wrong advice, and of course lack of time. Interestingly, most people seemed to interpret the tutors’ warning as a threat—‘If you don’t put in an appearance, you’ll be marked down’—rather than recognising the correlation between feedback and improving our work.


I started the Advanced course with a tutor who was completely wrong for me—or perhaps I was completely wrong for her. Either way, it was a disastrous fit. When it reached the point where I was ready to throw away my chances of a degree and leave the course, common sense prevailed and I requested a change of tutor, which the OU granted. My new tutor was a much better fit, and I began to enjoy the course.

Having just sent off my final assignment for the advanced course, and with two months to wait for the results, I’ve been reflecting on the value of writing courses.

Would I recommend writing courses? There are many articles on the web that proclaim ‘you can’t teach creativity!’ This is probably true, but courses can teach the basic skills—grammar, punctuation, writing techniques—and by extension offer an environment where innate creativity can grow.

We don’t expect artists to know instinctively how to paint like Rembrandt. Nor do we expect wood turners to produce magnificently carved and polished tables or cabinets without many years as an apprentice, learning and developing the craft. So why do we think writing is any different?

As an editor, I see many manuscripts that clearly demonstrate the author’s creativity—there’s a great story in there—but they’re let down by the mechanics. That’s where courses can play a part.

Few students will reach the lofty heights of J K Rowling, but there’s nothing wrong with being a solid, dependable writer whose books sell steadily, if in more modest quantities.


So yes, I think there’s value in writing courses if they’re done professionally and with professional (and experienced) tutors.


Adrianne Fitzpatrick has around 25 years’ experience in the publishing industry as a writer (for adults and children), editor, teacher (of writing and editing), photographer, book designer and bookseller (both new and secondhand books). She has had numerous short stories and articles published; and her first novel, Champion of the Chalet School, was published by Girls Gone By Publishers in 2014. Adrianne has worked with many authors to see their dreams of publication come true, so it’s not surprising that she has started her own publishing house, Books to Treasure, specialising in books for children.

11 comments:

  1. I tried a course where the forum for other students' critiques dominated. I think even Jane Austen would have been demoralised to read 'OMG, tha Emma is a complete bitch - I'm no reading any more of your work!!'

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    1. I would be demoralised by that too, Eve! That's where the tutor should come to the fore and teach students how to critique rather than criticise. Critiquing - effective feedback - is an important skill to learn. Just as important as learning to write, because as we critique other people's work, we learn to avoid the same mistakes in our own.

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  2. I did a correspondence course in writing for children. It left me discouraged and unpublished in spite of a minor success in a competition.. It took me nearly twenty years to start writing again.
    On a brighter note, Adrienne, I was interested to read in Together magazine about your career. Sue.

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    1. I'm sorry you had such a negative experience, Sue. I know that my first attempts at a writing course, many years ago, was less than helpful, but in that case I only received limited feedback from a single tutor - and I was a raw beginner and probably not ready for it. The beauty of the OU course, and others like it, is the feedback from multiple people. Even a tutor has some measure of personal bias (although hopefully balanced by experience). If one person highlights a problem we might be able to disagree and ignore, but when three or four people are all pointing out the same section as having a problem, we need to pay attention.

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  3. This is really interesting. Thank you. I am debating whether to go down the OU route so this has been helpful. I agree we need to be open to critique if we want to move forward as writers.

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    1. Thanks, Wendy. Do get in touch if you want more information about the courses. :-)

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  4. A great article with lots of sound advice. Thank you.

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  5. Very interested to hear about you and your tutor not being a good fit. Then you having the courage to ask for another one. On my MA in Creative Writing, my first tutor was also not a good fit. I did not ask for him to be replaced, but his circumstances changed and I was appointed a new one. Nine years later and he and I actually work together lecturing on the course. We are simply a better fit. Good for you for having the courage to ask!

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    1. Thanks, Fiona. I'm fortunate to have had a very good mentor assigned to me from the very beginning, and she supported me all the way in requesting the change.

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