Are Writing Classes Worth It?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I have to thank Jacqueline Winspear whose post on Naked Authors inspired this post. She was writing about the exponential increase in writing classes and MFA programs and exploring the question of whether creative writing can actually be taught. I want to tackle the thorny issue that accompanies this – what do creative writing classes really teach you and (hmmm…) are they worth doing at all?

My own experience has been decidedly mixed and I have to confess I’ve taken more painting classes than I have creative writing classes so it’s not like I’ve had a wealth of experience (though I do hope my novels are better than my paintings!).

I took a hilarious course in Australia on how to write a romance but soon realized that unless you LOVE Harlequin romances then it’s bloody difficult to write them (no matter how easy it looks to many people!). This class took a lighthearted approach to the genre and all its requirements and foibles, so I actually felt like I did learn something…though not, I’m afraid, how to write well.

In California, I took a class on how to write a novel well before I even attempted Consequences of Sin…now I’m not going to name any names in this blog but my experience in that class was less than inspiring. The teacher found it almost impossible to teach how to actually write a novel and the class had the unfortunately all too common cluster of writers: the bloody awful ones; the arrogant ones who wrote the most boring crap imaginable; the ones who were only there to rip other people’s work to shreds; and the genuine sensitive souls who spent most of the time utterly disheartened by the class. I hope you can tell I was in the last category:)

In this class we each had to present a piece about a novel we had read and most people did bugger all for this (though I did a rather nifty plot chart for Jane Eyre and that helped me far more than the class ever did!); we then critiqued one person’s work for the rest of the time. When it came to my turn the range of feedback was so bizarre as to be completely unusable (from “this is so exquisite I had no comments to make” to “have you ever been in jail? Because I have…” to “This is juvenile, adolescent trash (or was it puerile, I’ve blocked it from memory)”. My teacher was less interested in providing a critique than explaining that there were similarities with her own work (I guess she wanted to make sure I didn’t sue)… After this class I swore off taking another…but then I did a week intensive course only to find it was just as frustrating. By then, I was well and truly turned off writing classes!

I’m not saying that many classes are not genuinely worthwhile or that creative writing isn’t something than can (at least to some extent) be taught – although that is certainly fodder for a whole other blog post! Here’s my take on writing classes:

  • At their best they can help provide the impetus and validation needed for some writers to move forward with their WIP – at their worst they can destroy, demotivate and crush a writer.
  • While some teachers are naturally gifted at helping nurture their students and provide genuine insights into the process of formulating a piece of creative work, many teachers are looking only to boost their own egos, grind their own axes or sell their own work (yes, I’ve had to buy a teacher’s book…)
  • Writing classes seem to work best when focused on the specifics of form: like short story writing, article writing or memoir writing. I think insights into a particular genre or form can be helpful.

A successful writing class for me would have emphasized perseverance, editing, rewriting and more editing as key tools of the trade.

To be honest, I found the most valuable writing techniques I learned were not in a class but arose out of practice – writing a novel myself, editing it, rewriting it, editing further…then doing it all over again (and again). I don’t think any class can ever teach the skills you really need in this respect, because they have to come from within and have to include a determination to write no matter what and a determination to write the very best you can while constantly honing your craft.

So what have your experiences been with writing classes? Worth every penny or not worth a dime (or somewhere in between:))?

Coming up Sunday, June 14, our guest blogger will be New York Times bestselling author Steve Berry. And watch for future Sunday guest blogs from Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Julie Kramer, Grant Blackwood, and more.

10 thoughts on “Are Writing Classes Worth It?

  1. My one writing class was in college–a writer’s roundtable where we all critiqued each other’s work. As one of the requirements, the teacher required us to read this book we were encouraged to buy. It was his self-published book of poetry. I got mine from the college library.

    The teacher just let the critiques happen and might as well have not been there. We had one guy who was a nasty individual–not sure if he even liked reading fiction. He sure didn’t like reading poetry. He hated it and really went after this one woman to the point where she left in tears and never came back. Teacher did nothing to stop it. I didn’t get anything out of the course other than if you don’t like a piece or a genre, don’t critique it.

    Over the years, I’ve occasionally looked at other courses and usually end up passing. They’re not going to help me with the particular problems I’m having, and I’m betting the teacher probably wouldn’t like what I’m writing, either. I’m doing a novel in omniscient viewpoint, and that seems to bring out the worst in comments. Not useful comments, but dire predictions of doom and demands to change it. In a class, either no one would know what to do with it, or I’d get a slew of people telling me to change it. Problematic either way if one’s grade rested on it.

    L.M. Adams

  2. Back when I was taking creative writing classes, I had mostly good luck with them. I’m lucky to live in a metropolitan area that has excellent offerings in terms of adult courses and undergrad courses that can be audited. There were a few “clunker” classes and experiences along the way, but I always wound up learning something. During one class, a few of us formed a writing group that continued for many years afterward, and that was a very valuable experience. I do think it’s critical to have a very good leader/teacher in any type of class. But if you do find yourself in a bad class, cut your losses and don’t take it personally.

  3. The dirty little secret that everyone comprehends at an intuitive level yet few want to say out loud is that to be proficient in any art form–however proficiency can be defined, given its subjective nature–a person must be born with a certain modicum of talent. This applies equally, I think, to painting, sculpture, dancing, stand-up comedy and writing. Where talent exists, I think it can be honed and molded and assisted by a writing class, but at the end of the day, only artist him/herself can make the artwork resonate with the audience.

    I took afiction writing class in college. It was a complete disaster. The structure of the class was built around the roundtable critique. Those who are old enough will remember that in the ’70s, if fiction contained a plot that actually made sense, it was largely dismissed by the literati as commercial garbage. Well, I was an aspiring garbage man in a class of literati wannabes. The professor proclaimed at the end of the two semester course, “John, stop writing. You have no talent for it.”

    Even then, I recognized that he was being intentionally cruel, and I dismissed his words and everything about him. In retrospect, he was a desperately sad man who’d attained reasonable success in a genre that he loathed.

    I never took another class, but I’ve since taught several. The very first slide the students see on the screen reads, “I cannot teach you to write.” I then go on to explain about honing and developing, closing that final segment by telling them that the real learning will come from planting their asses in a chair and writing.

    Garridon, it’s inexcusable, I think, for a teacher to allow cruelty in class. Blunt honesty, yes, but the honesty must always focus on the work alone. In too many of these roundtable critiques, teacher and fellow students alike judge works through the filter of “this is how I would have done it.” That’s destructive at its face, because it’s not helping the artists develop their own voice; which at the end of the day, is what we’re all trying to do.

  4. Looks like I’m not alone in having some bad experiences – Kathryn you have indeed been lucky. I thinkg writing is one of those tricky areas like any art – what’s good is often very subjective though there are objective ways of formulating craft and technique. I wonder why some teachers allow destructive feedback to go on – does it make their egos feel better? I also wonder why a teacher has to disparage a student’s work – though, as John said, it’s often all about the teacher’s own thwarted goals. Sigh….

  5. I am on record as stating that the craft of fiction writing can be taught, and students who have a modicum of talent can apply these tools to make themselves better. I believe this because that’s how I learned, and that’s how I teach. Throwing modesty aside for a moment, the comments on amazon about Plot & Structure are a testimony to this. I also have a decade of teaching face-to-face, and have seen many students go on to publication, and hundreds more sending emails about problems fixed, or a light coming on, etc.

    A sample testimonial from a recent NPR broadcast can be found here

    The problem is teaching is also an art. You have to have the ability to translate concepts that are like a foreign language at first into something that is understandable and usable, that can be applied. I’m able to do that and I like doing it. I’m asked why I would want to train my own competition. I don’t have any answer except that I teach because I want to give something back, because it was a particular writing book that first gave me an epiphany about what I was doing wrong and how I could fix it, after which I began to sell. And if there’s more competition, that means I have to keep punching. I’m good with that motivation.

    But there are undoubtedly many, many more bad teachers than there are good teachers. There are frustrated writers who don’t really care about teaching but just want to make some extra money, or try to build a bit of a following for their own books. There are also some people who do want to teach but don’t know how. Then there is the whole workshop concept, which allows egos on parade to clash with one another and take over classroom time. I had an experience similar to John’s in college, and believed for years I didn’t “have it” and that writing couldn’t be taught. When I finally realized I would never be able to shake the writing bug, I determined to try to learn, even if I never sold anything. I learned.

    By the way, there are also a number of unpublished writers who teach or write books about writing. Some people think this is fraudulent. I am actually okay with it if a person knows how to teach. Lee Strasburg, for example, wasn’t a great actor in his day, but knew how to teach acting greatness. The proof was in his students. All that matters is results. If your students are starting to produce better work because of your teaching, you’re a good teacher. But such teachers are rare, in any field.

  6. Thanks James – and I think that when a writer finds a great teacher he/she can produce terrific work. I’m also impressed with your dedication to both the craft of writing and teaching it – but as you say many teachers, sadly, are in it for totally the wrong reasons and can put off many a would-be writer. Thankfully, I’m not easily put off:)

  7. When asked about writing classes I tell the querent (how’s that for a writerly word?) to take a literature class or a photography class instead. Read and analyze good writing and then sit down and write. And start to look at details and photography makes you do that. That will be two cents please….

  8. The only time my ability to entertain was stomped upon and humiliated to the point that I felt incapable of telling a children’s illustrated story to two year olds was after having been critiqued by a creative writing professor. Dude was bad juju all over.

    I am of the camp of you have it or you don’t, if you have it hone it and don’t worry about what other folks say unless they are your agent, your editor, or your publisher. Read and Write until you figure it out.

  9. Good points Mark and Basil – a writer needs to first be a reader in my view. I’ve found analyzing what makes a book a page turner for me has helped my own writing tremendously.

  10. I happen to think the class I took in High School may have set me back a lot. At 17, being told I’ll never write anything worth publishing is daunting when you (don’t ask me why) respect the authority figure saying it. I have to agree with James. It’s less about the writing and more about the teacher.

    Ego aside, I think I’m a very good teacher. My Brit Lit kids and my Creative Writing Kids consistently improve. But the first thing i tell them is that genre writing is more than okay, it’s great. I’m lucky in that I don’t have a lot of 15 year-old aspiring Austens. I have kids who want to be the next King, Connelly, Brennan, Meyer, Matheson, or Libba Bray. And I try to teach them everything I wished I’d known about how to write (and possibly get published) fiction.

    But if all I cared about was having those kids worship me, or my writing, then they wouldn’t be learning because I wouldn’t be teaching anything but how to be an ass. It’s a real shame that, in all disciplines, there are too many rotten apples that give good, hard-working, caring teachers a bad name. And the ones who suffer the most are the students, who don’t neccessarily deserve any of it.

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