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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.

But…

And there’s no application form to fill in to become a writer with a list of ‘desirable qualifications’ and ‘necessary qualifications’.

But…

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’.

But…

*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 –

http://blogs.chi.ac.uk/shortstoryforum/the-debate-are-writing-courses-worth-it/

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.

 

Kerry DreweryKerry Drewery
Website|Facebook|Twitter
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.

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5 comments on “Is a qualification necessary to become a writer? Why/why not? by Kerry Drewery

  1. barbarahenderson
    February 16, 2015

    Great post, Kerry and very balanced. As you suggest, not ‘necessary’ – but those who take on board the lessons in technique are often the ones who go on to succeed. I never understand the resistance to creative writing courses, when there is no such issue around courses in any other creative arts, which are also about technique. My vested interest: a creative writing PhD, which genuinely, literally, changed my life and I don’t believe I would be published today without having done it!

  2. Lucy Daniel Raby
    February 16, 2015

    Hi Kerry, Great post and thanks – very relevant. Actually I think Ian McEwan did do the creative writing course at UEA in Norwich, as did Kasuo Ishiguro. But you are so right when you say you can;t teach creativity but you can train and develop it. I have just finished an MA in Creative Writing at Kingston uni, which I would recommend. I also got a 1st (Hooray for us!) plus two things published and two prizes, one academic and one for fiction. For this I entered an MS I wrote before the course, then edited afterwards, and it won 1st prize and I now have a new book agent in the frame.However – and here’s the irony – I was already an experienced professional writer of 30 years experience. I decided in my teens I was going to earn my living at it, (having written since I was 6) started in advertising as a copywriter, then got into kids TV and wrote countless episodes on animation, puppet and live action shows, working for cbbc, citv, Henson, Aardman, Hit and Disney. I then got into writing kids books, had two published, did a bit more tv, then everything fizzled out. I wrote 4 more kids books and nearly got two of them picked up, but no success. I parted company with my then book agent, since she wasn’t selling any of my work, and I felt I had reached a dead end and should move on into new kinds of writing, As I dropped out of uni and always regretted it, I also wanted to get an academic qualification and it made sense to do it at something I was already experienced in, (these courses weren;t available when I started out), which is when I decided to do the MA. It has turned my life around. It has rebooted my brain, boosted my confidence, revolutionised my writing, restored my self esteem and given me that sense of validation.It has also given me access to a new agent and new opportunities. Having not known where to turn before, I now have a new sense of purpose and lots to work on, plus I have a new film deal with one of my old kids books, which might mean more books in that series. All round it has generated positive energy. I also loved the camaraderie of meeting so many other writers in one place, although I am already a Writers Guild and Society of Authors member and had done lots of networking. Sorry, long story. To conclude I would say I have done it both ways – learnt on the job, and learnt within an academic context, and both are a valuable part of the process. You never stop learning. BTW Hanif caused a storm when he said those things, as he is a KU professor. I sort of know what he meant. A CWMA is not a guarantee and should not be marketed as such, but it helps, and there are other ways it can benefit in terms of transferable skills. Let’s face it, writing is a tough , overcrowded profession, whatever you do. But all power to our elbows and let’s stick together!

  3. Laura Lam
    February 16, 2015

    I’m in the midst of my MA in creative writing, even though I already have 2 books out. For me, it’s worth getting the pieces of paper as one day I’d like to teach. If I had no interest in teaching, I would probably stay away from it. That said, while I’m enjoying my course, it’s not overly genre or YA friendly, which is a bit frustrating. I probably would have been better going to one that is. It’s something I’ll keep in mind if I do my PhD.

  4. Great post Kerry.

    I did an undergraduate and MA in creative writing. For me getting a qualification wasn’t about learning the craft, it was an added bonus sure, but it was what came after. I had those degrees on my CV, shining examples that I could write – at least well enough to pass. And it gave me the chance to get my foot in the door for jobs that paid me to write. Jobs that paid me to fine tune my writing.

    I may not be published yet, but I’m at a stage in my career where I can work freelance, have a steady income and work on a novel or short story without worrying about how I’m going to pay my bills. I know a degree isn’t the only way to land a writing job, but I think it helped me to stand out a little. At the very least it didn’t hurt.

  5. Ros Jackson
    February 16, 2015

    The first thing I’d look at in any writing course is who is doing the teaching, and whether they write in anything like the style or genre I’m trying to excel in. It’s no use getting advice to tone down certain aspects, or to slow down or speed up the pace, if those aren’t the things typical readers of that genre are looking for. And I think everything is affected by genre expectations, from the plot to the vocabulary and style of individual sentences.

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