Is a qualification necessary to become a writer? Why/why not? by Kerry Drewery
So, I’m sitting here with a cup of coffee and the stew cooking for tea behind me, staring at the title trying to remember why I chose this to write about… Hmmm…
Well, because it’s easy, isn’t it? Is a qualification necessary to become a writer? No, clearly not. Why not? Easy. Shakespeare didn’t have a qualification, nor did Chaucer, not the Brontes, Dickens, Cervantes, Kafka… No. OK. Question answered, there you go.
But hang on, you’ve just quoted a load of dead authors. Probably there weren’t writing qualifications in those days. What about more modern ones?
You mean like Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Harper Lee, Ian McEwan? No, not them either. Argument done.
And there’s no application form to fill in to become a writer with a list of ‘desirable qualifications’ and ‘necessary qualifications’.
And if you’re now going to ask me about children’s authors, I’m going to come back with Roahl Dahl, Philip Pullman and of course, JK Rowling, which are all ‘no’s’.
*Heavy sigh*…OK, OK, maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe I am over-simplifying a little, and the stew is going to take some time, so let’s have a better look.
If these highly successful authors haven’t got qualifications, then why would anyone go about getting one? Maybe necessary isn’t the right word. Maybe useful would be better.
Is a qualification useful in becoming a writer? Ermm…getting the qualification, yes. And I speak from experience. Confession time – I have a degree in Professional Writing (*clears throat* – 1st class honours degree actually).
Yes, I can emphatically say it was useful in becoming a writer. Why? Because it taught me a lot about structure, about the shape of stories, about planning and organising, and the importance of characters and loads of other stuff. I got the chance to study scriptwriting and writing for graphic novels too. It was great. I loved it.
But, here’s the thing. I loved it for the academic element to it, yes, but I loved it more for the social aspect. I’d never spent time with other writers before and it was wonderful to share a love of writing with people. On my first day I thought I’d be rubbish, I was scared and worried, could barely even find the confidence to share my work with other people and I’d be fighting panic when I had to read stuff out, but bit by bit, it got easier and I learnt to take (constructive) criticism.
What it also did was make me feel I could legitimately spend time writing, not just scuttling away when I got the odd half hour here or there – it was a thing I was doing, more than a hobby, and it made me feel I could put writing over stuff like housework.
I was part taught by Rebecca Mascull who was also an aspiring writer at the time, and after the degree, when both of us had left, we stayed friends and the support of a writer friend is invaluable (and we’re now both published now, so WOW!) as I’m sure all writers would agree.
But that’s my experience.
A friend of mine (mentioning no names), did an MA in Creative Writing and said it was a waste of time. They also signed up for a community writing group which they say was fantastic.
Another person I know completed quite an exclusive course somewhere (skirting around specifics), who has unfortunately been unsuccessful (to date), in being published.
As I scan over the internet (stopping in between to stir the stew which is now close to being done), I find this quote on The Guardian website by Hanif Kureishi talking about creative writing courses at Bath Literature Festival in 2014 –
“The fantasy is that all the students will become successful writers – and no one will disabuse them of that.
“When you use the word creative and the word course there is something deceptive about it.”
Yet this from wheelercentrer.com –
“Author Kirsten Krauth is convinced her debut novel JUST A GIRL would not have been published without the framework of her Masters in creative writing, which gave her the confidence and time to write, as well as access to publishers and agents.”
But former creative writing teacher and novelist, Lucy Ellman described creative writing courses as –
“the biggest con-job in academia”,
And the whole debate continues here –
Interestingly the writer of the above post, Gabrielle Kim, says the creative writing course gave her a…
“sense of validation – while I was on the course, I could really begin to think of myself as a writer.”
…which were my feelings while studying too.
And let’s not forget about SJ Watson and his BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP, written while on a Faber Academy Writing a Novel Course.
But what about all the hundreds, if not thousands, of others who’ve been on courses hoping to become a published author but have yet to crack it?
I firmly don’t believe that you can teach someone to be creative – you either are, or you’re not – but I do believe you can help them develop their creativity and teach them about the mechanics of writing. I think the thing here is that there are no guarantees. Going on a course, getting a qualification, doesn’t mean you’ll be published, although it may very well make you a ‘better’ (whatever that is) writer and it may very well help you on your way.
I could go back and forth with this argument for longer than it takes my stew to cook and to stick to the bottom of the pan and burn and fill the house with smoke and set fire to the kitchen and the firemen to come and put the house out and…phew…I don’t think there is a definitive answer…although it would be interesting to know the statistics.
But you know, if you really want to write, and if your dream is to be published, whether you go on a course or don’t go on a course, doesn’t matter. You’ll write because you love it and because you love it you’ll keep doing it, and by keeping doing it, whether in a lesson or at your kitchen table waiting for your tea to cook, you will develop and learn and progress, and so your chances of being published will increase
You know what else I learnt on that course? Determination and perseverance go a long way.
Like so many authors, for as long as I can remember, I’ve made stories up in my head. However, it never seemed an attainable career for ‘normal’ people, so it wasn’t until about the year 2000 when my youngest child was about to start school and the prospect of returning to full-time work loomed that I thought it’s now or never and started taking it seriously. Twelve years, a lot of hard work and loads of rejections later I had an agent (Carolyn Whitaker, London Independent Books) and my first novel – A Brighter Fear – was published.
In those twelve years, as well as many rejections, I was also a finalist in a BBC script-writing competition, and achieved a first class honours degree in Professional Writing.
A Brighter Fear was shortlisted for the Leeds Book Awards and my second novel, A Dream of Lights was nominated for the Carnegie Medal, and awarded ‘Highly Commended’ at the North East Teenage Book Awards.