Note to Will Self: we need these courses to keep good creative writing alive

Sharpen up. Stocksnapper/Shutterstock

Art school, drama school, film school. Do people have a problem with these? If the arts pages of broadsheet newspapers are routinely filled with articles by celebrated artists, dramatists and film-makers arguing that attempts to teach their respective crafts in schools and universities are doomed to failure, then I keep missing them.

But one piece that does crop up from time to time, with increasing and rather tiresome regularity, almost as often, in fact, as the one about the death of the novel or the death of the printed book, is the one about writing school. You know how it goes. You can’t teach people how to write. (But, if it turns out you can teach people how to write, they all end up writing the same.) Creative writing courses are a waste of time and money. And, in the latest blast from my good friend and writing colleague Will Self in the Guardian, studying creative writing is a misnomer, since there’s no actual studying involved.

Where to begin? I could start with the observation that studying creative writing under Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia didn’t seem to do Ian McEwan any harm. Or with a roll-call of the successfully published alumni of the Manchester Writing School at MMU, where I teach creative writing alongside a number of respected colleagues.

Or, with an admission that the naysayers actually have a point. They do. They have a single point and they make it over and over again. You can’t teach people how to write, they say. I would agree that if someone has no talent at all, no gift for writing, you can’t pluck one off the shelf and give it to them. If they don’t have it, you can’t provide them with it. But if they do have something, you can help them grow it, develop it, refine it. And even if they haven’t got it, you can still teach basics and offer techniques.

I have an MA student at the moment who has a brilliant idea for a novel, a superb voice and a good ear for dialogue, but she struggles with punctuation. It’s as if someone bought her a bag full of colons and she feels she has to use them all up, no matter that in most cases she should be using the humble comma. She reads plenty, but she’s not picking up the rules or nuances of punctuation from her reading, so this is an area in which she can benefit from being on the course.

Another student writes flawless prose packed with vivid description and the story cracks along at a fair old pace, but every now and then she will slip into telling rather than showing. If a tutor and fellow students point this out to her, she will be able to correct not only those instances, but hopefully change the bad habit she has acquired.

More importantly, perhaps, the poetry or novel workshop is a safe environment in which writers can experiment and expect to receive honest feedback – positive, constructive criticism. If something doesn’t work, we’ll tell them; and if they’re getting it right, who doesn’t benefit from a little encouragement?

But it’s not all about writing. If it were, all we would have to do as writers is download Write or Die, the app that starts deleting your words on screen if you don’t keep adding to them at a particular speed. If all that mattered was shoving words on the page, there’d be a point to National Novel Writing Month, and this, along with Write or Die and other apps and fads, certainly has its passionate supporters. Every November, hundreds if not thousands of wannabe writers get caffeined up and speed-write their way to 50,000 words, and a certain number of them will send off what they’ve done to an agent or publisher without even thinking about a second draft. They might give it a quick proofread. I guess it worked for Georges Simenon, who published almost as many novels as he slept with different women.

But the thing is, it’s not all about writing. Sure, you won’t complete a novel without writing, and a routine may help, a certain number of words a day or whatever works for you (maybe even Write or Die, though it was a double-edged sword for David Nicholls, who generated 35,000 words he couldn’t use). But your novel will need editing, and these days, increasingly, your own first editor is you. A course in creative writing will teach you necessary techniques and skills.

We produce knowledge-based, ethical journalism. Please donate and help us thrive. Tax deductible.