Can Creative Writing Be Taught?Jul 03, 2022
Can creative writing be taught? It’s something many of us have pondered. Whether you’re just thinking about taking a creative writing course, or you’re already enrolled and hoping it’s a sound investment, it’s certainly a question that lingers at the back of many writers’ minds.
The world loves the idea of an overnight success story – the dustman with an incredible voice who becomes the next singing sensation; the single mum with a flash of inspiration on a train for an entire children’s fantasy series; the talented graffiti-artist-turned-art-world-behemoth.
But the truth is, there is work behind all of those success stories. Years of work.
Author and writing coach Katie Khan has taken a few fiction writing courses in her time. Here, she breaks down what can be learned on a writing course, and how every great writer learns from other writers and hones their craft one way or another, to really drill into the question of whether creative writing can be taught.
Do I need natural talent to become a writer or can creative writing be taught?
There’s a common misconception that you will only ever make it as a writer if you’re naturally gifted – you only need to look at a blank page and it will be filled with the brilliant outpourings of your genius mind.
I’m here to tell you there’s no such thing.
Writing is not a God-given gift or innate talent. It’s not something you are born with or can or can’t do. It’s something you learn, because you want to learn it.
Most people worry so much about whether they can write that they fail to notice that writing is not about the writing, or at least not in the way you think. Nobody ever stayed glued to a book for the complexity of its vocabulary.
Writing is about storytelling, and readers and publishers want stories. That’s why Stephen King outsells Nabokov on any day of the week. And here’s a secret: storytelling can be learned.
Here’s another secret: you’ve probably been telling stories every day of your life so far.
Sure, you’re going to need to read some books. And writers learn from other writers. Just like with any craft or trade, they take apprenticeships or courses and work with published writers.
Writing is not a God-given gift or innate talent. It’s not something you are born with or can or can’t do. It’s something you learn, because you want to learn it.
So if you’re wondering whether creative writing can be taught, remember that almost all writers learn from other writers. Most commonly, that writerly education takes place on a creative writing course.
Do I need to take a creative writing course to become a writer?
The answer, of course, is no. Writers are forged in many ways, and there are plenty of paths to becoming a writer. It’s my firm belief that if you write, you’re a writer.
You might be entirely self-sufficient and learn from free resources on the internet. You might find a writing group in your area to critique your work. Or, like me, you might write a blog for years and years, subtly honing your voice. Maybe you write in your day job in another capacity.
But perhaps you want to develop your craft skills. You want to know if your writing’s any good from experienced people in the industry. You want to learn from a generous writer who’s a great teacher. And you want a steer on how to write a novel.
Writing a book is a long and lonely marathon, and it’s likely you’ll want some motivation, support and company along the way. You’ll probably also appreciate some guidance about whether you’re doing it right.
Writing a novel is a long and lonely marathon, and it’s likely you’ll want some motivation, support and company along the way. You’ll probably also appreciate some guidance about whether you’re doing it right.
There are courses that introduce you to literary agents, if you want to be traditionally published, like The Novelry’s Book in a Year course. Or perhaps you’re writing a novel simply to see if you can, or to leave something behind for your children.
There are plenty of reasons why you might want to write, and plenty of creative writing courses tailored to each writing ambition. Make sure you do your research and investigate what each course offers. Read the reviews. And think about what you personally want from your writing.
You might be asking yourself the following questions:
- Can a creative writing course help me come up with an idea for a book?
- Can a creative writing course teach me to write better prose?
- Can a creative writing course improve my storytelling?
The answer to all of these, in some form, is yes! Most writers have learned from other writers, and many writers find their skills develop sharply when they’re working with published authors.
Author Naomi Alderman had published three acclaimed books when she wrote her breakout novel – the award-winning, feminist speculative novel The Power – while she was mentored by the award-winning, feminist speculative novelist Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Writing in the Guardian in 2012, Fay Weldon CBE FRSL described her own experience of learning to write through doing, and what she believes makes for a good creative writing teacher and the benefit of a writing community:
Four years ago, when I started teaching at Brunel, I was of the opinion that creative writing couldn’t be taught. I wasn’t taught how to write novels – I just wrote them. But I completely overlooked the years I spent writing copy in an advertising agency and what I learned about the nuances of language – for example, how switching the order of two words can completely change their meaning – or even just the impact of how words look on a page.
Now I believe creative writing can be taught, but only by published writers. A student with some aptitude and interest can benefit an awful lot from coaching and mentoring and sharing their work with other students.
Can creative writing be taught? These famous writers would probably say so…
We need to dispel the myth that it’s only writers who can’t write who take writing courses. That’s not true. Hell, no. Not remotely true. Some of the biggest names in fiction have taken writing courses – and many teach on them!
Ian McEwan CBE, Anne Enright FRSL, and the Nobel Laureate in Literature Kazuo Ishiguro all graduated from the MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia (UEA), a creative writing course which has produced three Booker Prize winners.
The esteemed Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the United States has produced 18 Pulitzer Prize winners since 1947 – 40 Pulitzer Prize winners if you factor in their teaching staff. Oh, and 8 poet laureates.
The cynics among us might ask: but does that really mean creative writing can be taught? Would those authors have become bestsellers and award-winners anyway? Would they have written their novels regardless?
I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but I know that the best writing courses have offered me what I think of as ‘3 Cs’:
It’s true that I went onto a writing course with an idea of what I wanted to write, and a loose idea of the type of writer I wanted to be. But did I gain the confidence and craft skills to actually finish and complete a novel?
I couldn’t have done it alone.
My experience of learning creative writing
I thought it might be helpful to share my personal journey through the various writing courses I’ve taken over the years to hone my writing and my voice, so you can see where I started and where I ended up.
As I write this, I’m working on my third novel, and I’ve published two novels with Penguin Random House. My books have been translated into 22 languages and my first novel, Hold Back the Stars, is being adapted for film by the producers of Stranger Things.
Without a doubt, I got to where I am with the help of these writing courses.
My first creative writing course
I enrolled on my first course in 2009. I had never written fiction beyond short stories at primary school, where I wrote odd tales with fantastical twists, such as the residents of Highgate in North London (where I grew up) waking to find Pond Square full of floating eyeballs. In 2008 I started an anonymous blog about dating in London, a sort of rom-com caper about falling over in front of boys and my own life, heavily inspired by Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic novels, and I was interested in learning more skills and techniques to up my game.
My employer at the time ran a scheme where you could apply for funding if you could justify why an extracurricular course would benefit your business role, and happily, I got it. (‘Improved storytelling’ is a great skill for any business!)
At The Novelry, we run The Octopus Scheme, an annual scholarship program for writers who might not be able to afford a writing course otherwise. We know the benefit a bit of support and belief can bring.
I mention this because most writing courses are a financial investment, and not everyone can afford them. I was a broke assistant at the time, living at the bottom of my overdraft each month. I won’t forget how much my employer’s sponsorship lifted me and started me on this path.
That’s why, at The Novelry, we run The Octopus Scheme, an annual scholarship program for writers who might not be able to afford a writing course otherwise. We know the benefit a bit of support and belief can bring.
I had an idea for a children’s fantasy novel (thankfully not featuring floating eyeballs…) and with my funding I signed up for an evening class at City Lit University.
I had never written fiction, other than the few scenes I’d scrawled down in advance of the course. I had never shown anyone my prose. But I was regularly publishing a blog, and as that began to gain a readership beyond the circle of people who knew me, I grew some confidence.
I enjoyed moving words around and playing with style and voice to create different effects. I was good at it, I realised. Much better with words and writing than I was at my day job. My two bosses at the BBC agreed, and after the course, they began to give me small writing jobs on the company websites.
My second creative writing course
A year or so later, I applied to my employer again for funding for a longer, more substantial evening course – Creative Writing at the London School of Journalism. I’ll never forget that course. The teacher walked into a dusty attic by the canals of Little Venice in London and wrote, in screeching chalk across the blackboard: YOU WILL REVEAL YOURSELVES.
I mean, it’s a good lesson. There’s no hiding your true self, even in fiction. But it was like I’d crossed the threshold into some sort of clichéd Dickens classroom or a scene from La Bohème – struggling artists in a garret being told we might never make it, but in order to produce real art we had to be true to ourselves. I have some thoughts on this type of teaching, which I’ll touch upon later.
Across the course, I showed that chalk-stained teacher the scenes I’d written from my children’s fantasy novel. They were good, he told me, with a touch of surprise. Really good. The other students said my scenes ‘already read like a book’. I was ecstatic. I wrote no more scenes from that novel ever again.
Agent interest and my third creative writing course
In 2012 I was approached by a literary agent at Curtis Brown who read my blog and asked if I would be interested in writing it as a novel. I did want to write a novel, I said over-excitedly as I sat in her office just off Pall Mall, but not that novel. I wanted to write something that combined the rom-com caper style I’d developed on my blog – by then I was heavily into When Harry Met Sally and all things Nora Ephron – with my love of science fiction and fantasy. OK, she said, a little bemused, call me when you do.
I sent her that novel in 2015, a few years after I’d taken the Six-Month Novel Writing Course at Faber Academy. I think she was surprised to hear from me again!
The manuscript was, of course, the story that would become my debut novel, Hold Back the Stars, in which a couple fall through space with only 90 minutes of air remaining, intercut with their love story on a future Earth. ‘Gravity meets One Day’, was how I described it.
I’d workshopped parts of that new novel on the Faber course, along with 5,000 words of feedback each week on my fellow students’ writing. It was heavy going, critiquing that much work in every lesson, every week. I wrote most of my own novel in the years after the course, using what I’d learned and the confidence it gave me.
I signed with literary agent Juliet Mushens, and you might think my story ends there: I got an agent, a book deal, and the rest is history. Nope. There’s a little more.
Creative writing courses aren’t just for ‘aspiring’ writers – they’re for published authors, too
After my first novel came out and my publisher briefed me on the (tight) deadline to deliver my second novel (eek!), I heard about a new writing school set up by the Booker Prize-listed author Louise Dean, who believed you could write a first draft in a season – in ninety days. She offered the chance to write alongside other writers with coaching, courses and community. I signed up for what is now The Novelry’s Ninety Day Novel Course and never looked back.
The course, the community and the guide, are the best things that have ever happened to the writer in me. If you’re serious about writing a novel, don’t let it roll about for 10 years. Write it in a season, while it’s fresh and you’re on fire. DO THIS COURSE! I challenge you not to fall in love with it.
—Rashmi Sirdeshpande, published by Puffin Books
I’d had the idea for my second novel for two years, but I’d written only 10k words in that time. Coached by Louise and using the course materials at The Novelry, I finished the 80k-word draft in 87 days. My publisher was incredibly surprised when I delivered The Light Between Us a week ahead of deadline! And perhaps even more surprised when the first draft was well-plotted and, if I can say this about my own work, a little more consistent than my first novel, which I’d written in stops and starts across many years.
I’m not the only published author who thinks creative writing can be taught, and uses writing courses to continue to improve my craft.
Our members and graduates at The Novelry include:
- Acclaimed children’s writer Susie Bower, published by Pushkin Press
- Debut thriller writer Kate Gray, who achieved a six-figure deal with Welbeck Publishing and is the author of women’s fiction novels under the name Katy Colins
- Children’s picturebook writer, Rashmi Sirdeshpande, published by Puffin Books
- Suspense author Tracey Emerson, whose new novel The Perfect Holiday was optioned for television
- Sunday Times bestselling author of Dear Amy, Helen Callaghan
In fact, we’re so sure creative writing can be taught – even to the most seasoned pros – that we’re going one step further.
The new Advanced Novel Course at The Novelry offers new techniques for experienced writers. Whether it’s your first novel and it needs to pack a punch, your second novel or your sixth, this is the course for writers who won’t leave their story to chance.
Creative writing can be taught – with the right method
Remember that dusty attic I sat in with a chalk-stained teacher pointing at a blackboard? I don’t think creative writing should be taught like that. Not these days. We’re not in a Dickens novel.
Coaching, not teaching
I think you should look for someone collaborative, currently published, with some genre expertise, who will work with you on your novel, rather than didactically teaching from the front of a classroom.
Remember what Fay Weldon CBE said in the Guardian? ‘I believe creative writing can be taught, but only by published writers.’
The bestselling author of Blood Orange, Harriet Tyce, herself the graduate of a Creative Writing MA, agrees:
Much more helpful are those writers who see teaching as a collaboration, who have the confidence to admit how much they themselves still have to learn. I know from the work I’ve done with other writers how much there is to be gained from working on a problem together. In analysing someone else’s narrative, I crack issues with my own. To borrow a quotation from the world of medicine, by which I was really struck when I read it: “The safest thing for a patient is to be in the hands of a man involved in teaching medicine. In order to be a teacher of medicine the doctor must always be a student.”
At The Novelry we have a team of writing coaches published across a range of genres who will roll up their sleeves and dig into your story with you.
Every writer benefits from sharing their work with someone they trust, who cares about your story almost as much as you do.
One of the first questions we ask in those one-to-one coaching sessions is: what do you want from your writing? A book deal with a Big Five publisher? To finish a story? To leave something behind? And we tailor our subsequent advice across the year to your answer.
Personally, I’m grateful for each and every writing tutor and writing course I stumbled onto along the way. They made me the author I am – and I’m excited to find new courses and learn new craft skills in the future that will make me an even better writer.
Will you be joining me?
Author Tutor at The Novelry
Katie Khan is the author of two speculative fiction novels. Her debut novel Hold Back the Stars was translated into 22 languages and is being adapted for film by the producers of Stranger Things. Katie tutors writers tackling speculative, science fiction and fantasy as well as YA fiction at The Novelry.