There has been much debate over whether something as individualised and nebulous as Creative Writing can actually be taught. The recent boom in creative writing courses at university level suggests that growing numbers of students hope that at least some elements of good writing can be. This book seeks to provide an introduction for those prospective students, specifically those contemplating one or more undergraduate courses in any aspect of Creative Writing such as fiction, plays, poetry or scriptwriting. It offers a readable and informative overview of what studying Creative Writing will involve, together with advice about how to get the most out of such a course.
Hemingway once observed that the art of writing lies in applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair, and there is unfortunately no way around the fact that learning to become a writer inescapably involves writing, and then writing some more, and then more writing. But part of that process can usefully involve studying the many aspects of learning how to write: beginning to read as a writer, how to manage to write regularly, learning to edit (and re-edit) effectively and nowadays, of course, thinking about how to pitch work for publication. All of these skills can be learnt from a well-designed Creative Writing course. The book’s emphasis on how university study can develop these skills makes it an excellent primer for undergraduates on the methods that will be used to teach them these basic “tools of the trade”. The author is himself a Creative Writing lecturer, and often uses incisive examples from his own teaching.
The book describes the process of choosing and studying a Creative Writing course clearly and succinctly. It is divided into three parts of two or three short chapters each. The first part discusses the reasons why someone might want to study Creative Writing, and what to look for when choosing a course. The second part explains what students will actually be required to do as part of a university course. The third part suggests ‘best practice’ working habits to learn and apply the skills taught. Each chapter ends with a summary of its main points, and includes many “In Practice” writing exercises to introduce tasks that students will likely be asked to do. There is a good extended discussion of the format and requirements of the Creative Writing workshop, which includes suggestions about how to read other students’ work as a writer, and how to provide critical feedback that stimulates the editing process. This is valuable because the workshop is likely to be a new experience for many students, as well as a potentially daunting one for any would-be writer. There are also welcome explanations of the practical aspects of university study, such as the means of assessment, which can often include students submitting not just the expected creative pieces but also self-reflexive essays on their own writing practice.
The book stresses that both writing and university study have to be undertaken systematically. The approach is particularly appropriate for this subject, since to succeed first as a student and then as a writer requires developing work habits that involve writing regularly and editing work rigorously. The book is also mindful that studying Creative Writing is, for many, the first step on the long, uncertain road to publication. It strives to remind students of the ongoing value of the skills being learned – so, for example, advice about how to best present writing for assessment will also be useful when later submitting work to agents or publishers. The book concludes with some exploration of alternative career paths, and some insightful case studies of writers who also studied Creative Writing. These also serve to apprise students of the difficulties in studying a subject where career success is notoriously elusive. The appended Further Reading section of additional resources is handy and up to date, although the relevant parts might have been better placed at the end of each chapter.
The book will be most suitable as an introduction for those prospective students who have no clear understanding of what it might mean to study writing as a university degree subject, since it sets out well what to expect and what to prepare for. The simple prose, together with a well-designed structure and layout, makes the book ideal for undergraduates. It would be most appropriate for students to read before commencing an option or course, or else in its very early stages. The book could also be used as a basic introduction for the growing numbers of MA students, particularly those who have no undergraduate experience of studying Creative Writing.
One minor drawback is the recommended retail price of £11.99 – a slim paperback introductory text such as this might be more attractive to students at under a tenner. Hopefully, the price will not prove too discouraging, since anyone considering studying Creative Writing at undergraduate level who reads this book will gain an accurate understanding of what will be involved. Reading it will not guarantee that they will go on to write as well as Hemingway, but it should certainly make them better-prepared students.
Royal Holloway, University of London
Read Steve May’s article on the student experience of Creative Writing in this e-newsletter