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Should I study creative writing at university?

Deciding whether or not you want to go to university, no matter what subject you’re interested in, can be tricky. The structure of a degree isn’t for everyone. We all learn and create in different ways and those differences should be celebrated and taken advantage of.

If you hated school/college and you desperately want to take a different path to pursue a career in writing, go with your gut. If you are considering studying creative writing at university, but you’re unsure what to expect, keep reading!

How do creative writing workshops work?

Every creative writing course is different. You may be going for a degree where creative writing is only one component (with other modules in English, Journalism etc.) or your course may be solely dedicated to creative writing. Either way, going to your first class can be daunting and you may not know what to expect or how to prepare.

Most creative writing courses typically do some variation of workshops.

In my first creative writing workshop at university, we had the usual awkward ice-breakers, then we read and analysed a few short stories/poems, and had an open discussion about them. Afterward, we were put into small groups and given a homework task (write a story with an element of the surreal). In the next class the following week, we went back into your small groups after reading each other’s work and shared our feedback.

For me, this style of creative writing workshop was the ideal mix of reading, writing, and criticism.

The importance of feedback

The practice of giving and receiving feedback can take some time to get used to. A lot of writers are naturally protective of their work. They don’t want to hear anything negative about the piece they worked hard on and put a little piece of their soul into.

But being openminded and willing to incorporate valuable feedback will set you in good stead for your degree and for your future career, no matter what field or profession you go into.

Feedback is also valuable because it will give you a unique insight into how someone else views your story.

Once during a meeting, another writer was talking about one of the female characters in a story I had written. They said that they thought this character seemed somehow untrustworthy, there was something suspicious about her.

I didn’t intentionally or even consciously write the character this way and I hadn’t thought of her as a character who was up to something. But, when I reread the story, I picked up on subtle mannerisms that would’ve painted her in this light. With this feedback, I fleshed out her character further and developed this side of her. Without that feedback, the character might have turned out to be completely different.

(Stephen King, when rereading his first draft of Carrie, picked up on the prominence of the blood imagery he had weaved throughout the story. When he redrafted the story, he developed these references and used blood to represent feminity, maternity, sexuality, guilt, salvation, and more. Having a fresh pair of eyes on a story, whether your own or someone else’s, will open your mind to new perspectives.)

The great thing about receiving feedback is it’s up to you what you choose to incorporate and what you don’t. In creative writing workshops, nobody is an expert – everyone is still learning. You can pick and choose which pieces of feedback you want to act on.

On the flip side, when you’re giving someone else feedback, even if you think the piece is weak or underdeveloped, I recommend highlighting at least one thing that’s positive about the story. Constructive criticism is valuable, but if someone receives nothing but negative comments delivered in a blunt, dismissive manner, it’s discouraging and typically unhelpful.

Remember to be kind when you’re expressing your opinion. Creative writing workshops where you have the opportunity to deliver feedback to others will help you develop your analytical skills and, with practice, you’ll become more articulate in forming arguments – a skill you can use in your essay writing.

Get involved and get experience

To make a headstart on a career in writing, your degree alone isn’t going to be enough. The earlier you start building a portfolio of writing the better.

If you choose to go to university, gain as much extracurricular experience as possible. I would recommend writing for your university’s student newspaper/lifestyle magazine and submitting to/getting actively involved in running the literary magazine.

If your university doesn’t have a student newspaper or literary magazine, start one! Many universities have funding available for new societies, so if you have an idea for something you think your university is lacking, research how to start it up yourself.

Joining or building your own community of writers is a great way to learn, meet likeminded people, and enhance your overall experience at university. As well as joining/starting clubs, I would recommend writing outwith your degree, too.

Research literary magazines online, write, and submit work to them. It’s never too early to get started and get your work out there.

Or, if you don’t want to submit to literary magazines, self-publish! Start a blog, publish your stories on Medium, or start a literary forum. If you have a burning desire to do something a bit different or to start a project you feel hasn’t been done before, you’ll regret it if you don’t give it a go.

Go your own way

Some of the best writers, musicians, and artists in the world are self-taught in their craft and you don’t need a degree to succeed in your chosen field.

If college or university simply isn’t for you, that’s okay – don’t be pushed into applying. Plenty of people write in between work and family life and find themselves being able to produce large, quality pieces of writing.

Making a commitment to regular writing is more important than obtaining a degree. Many people go to university to study creative writing in the hope of becoming a published author, but their writing routine falls by the wayside once they graduate. The structure of university is a great incentive to be creative and productive, but it’s maintaining that momentum that will prepare you for a career in writing.

If you simply love writing in different formats, enjoy dissecting language and writing essays, and if you truly want to go to university to study creative writing, go for it. But don’t let anyone else’s path to getting published dictate your own.

Everyone is different and we all reach different milestones and achieve different goals at various points in our lives. Comparing yourself to other people, in writing or in life in general, will only discourage you.

Create a plan for what you want to achieve and take your own path to get there. When you hit bumps along the way, muddle through them and don’t beat yourself up. Writers are often their own harshest critics, so be kinder to yourself and write what you can when you can.

What can I do with a creative writing degree?

Humanities students often get teased for pursuing ‘useless’ degrees. But there are countless career paths you can take after a creative writing degree. Creative writing graduates have gone on to become published authors, freelance writers, copywriters, publishing professionals, self-employed tutors, editors, journalists, marketers, teachers, bloggers, and much more.

The skills you will gain in a creative writing or any English-related course are essential, practical skills you will use for the rest of your life. Even if you go into a job that’s completely unrelated to your degree, your written and verbal skills will be excellent and your ability to quickly and efficiently write great cover letters, applications, CVs, logs, reviews, and reports will be valuable no matter what career path you choose.

You can choose to utilise your degree and go after a job you really want, and if the ‘dream job’ doesn’t exist, create one for yourself.

University courses, like most things in life, are what you make of them. It’s what you choose to do after graduation day that matters.

Did you study creative writing at university? Thinking of going for it? Or did you take a different path? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. 

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