You know what? Creative writing courses are the asylum seekers of the literary world. They pop up everywhere. Now I’ll readily admit to not knowing too much about world politics, but what I do know about creative writing courses is that majority of them are a complete waste of time, and a huge drain on your hard earned finances.  Indeed if they were a requisite to becoming a successful novelist they would surely have been around to launch the stellar careers of Steinbeck, Salinger, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wilde, Dickens even JKR, and all of the other writing stars that light up the literary firmament.  Years ago the great American author Upton Sinclair  opined that a creative writing course was akin to attending a cookery class to learn how to change the oil in your car. Indeed.

Now I don’t blame the plethora of Universities, colleges and other private quick profit seeking establishments that set up these courses in order to fleece the unsuspecting Ernest Hemmingway’s and Lee Child’s, but literature flourished and blossomed for hundreds of years without them. And I would go so far as to suggest that if racing hamsters led to a fruitful career you can bet your testicles that the nation’s universities would be falling over themselves to offer a BA in it?

Personally I blame the public who are swayed by the alluring blurb of how to become a writer. Convinced by the small print baloney that creative writing is a skill which can only be taught. Nowadays the promise offered by these courses is the selling of hope, most of it false. All you need to do is find the prerequisite thousands it will cost you to enroll. But teaching someone the skill to make a story go from simple sentences to one which will enthrall and captivate the reader isn’t something which can be taught no more than you could teach Lionel Messi to do a rabona. It reminds me of those fitness magazines where you see some photograph of a fat bloke, and then the picture of him six weeks later looking like a rippling, brick shithouse. It’s all nonsense of course because believe me, it ain’t possible. 

Now, I’ll grant you, you do need structure in any book, and it goes without saying that punctuation or the lack thereof can signal the death knell of any manuscript. There are writers out there who think that a semi-colon is what’s left of your anal passage after surgery! But the greatest stories are not about structure, but about the writer’s imagination. Readers don’t give a toss about the structure, and so many courses focus on this to the detriment of emphasising that it’s the story stupid. That people will read a story not because it is well structured, but to find out what happens to the hero next. And let me add that no writing course can substitute the dedication and hours which you have to put in to succeed because, as Hemingway himself succinctly put it. ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ Yet this hasn’t stopped an entire industry from building up to extract money out of people’s desire to be Pulitzer Prize winners. We live in impatient times. We all want what we want as soon as we can get it, and the promise of getting to be a writer via the shortcut of a fruitless ten week writing course for a few hundred quid is attractive to our sense of urgency. But you’re wasting your time.  Great novels and great writers are rarely the product of a classroom. They are the product of an unbounded imagination, and the ability to translate that imagination into a language that pulls us in to a story, and leaves us wanting more at the end of every page. There will never be a course that can achieve that. But if you insist on stumping up a grand to learn where to put a comma, how to kill your adverbs, and cut out empty phrases, well, it’s your dosh. 


14th September 2016.



  1. If a course involves actually analysing the mechanics of writing, imagery, structure, etc, then it’s worth the time and money. If not, you’re really better off just reading as much as you can and writing wherever possible.

  2. Have to agree. I did a creative writing undergrad course – a ‘renowned’ one too – but it was a joke. It mostly involved taking turns handing round copies of your work to the other students to critique while the seminar leader, a published writer himself, slumped down on the desk nursing his hangover. Any development tended to happen by accident or through collaborations outside the course rather than having anything to do with the course itself.

  3. a good creative writing course is likely to turn out a lot of technically clever but ultimately shallow stylists, who will probably find themselves unemployable. The money is in things like cookbooks and ghostwritten autobiographies, which require discipline more than anything, and the Great American Novel will be half-book, half-interesting backstory.

  4. To be honest, I don’t regret studying creative writing there because I met some fantastic people on the course. But I also learnt a lot of bad habits. I might have learnt them on my own’

  5. I’m of the opinion that someone who has a good story inside them, who has been places and met people and done interesting things – slept with interesting people, wrestled tigers, driven an ambulance through Bolivia etc – can more easily train himself or herself to write a good novel than a terrific literary stylist who went on a gap year holiday but otherwise has never been outside London could do the same

  6. good blog. Although I agree only a minority of people are going to be very good story tellers. Saying that creative writing courses are a waste of time seems to be missing the point.

  7. Surely the idea of a creative writing course is to make writers (good or bad) better writers. So if a good writer takes the course they could become a great writer and so on????

  8. As long as students’ expectations are kept realistic and they improve their writing, then it’s a good thing. There’s nothing wrong with writing for your own enjoyment, and if you can get some help with this, all the better. Perhaps some of the individual courses are bad, but there’s nothing wrong with the general principle. The analogy to guitar lessons seems very apt to me.

  9. I’ve tried many times to write fiction and found that the idea I had gradually dissolved into a morass of confusion. What I learned, from these modules, and then from just continuing to write, is how to stick with the idea, develop it and let it grow the way it wants. Then there are all the technicalities about point of view, getting rid of the tedious detail, and so on. I’m now completing a novel which I think is working…

    • You didn’t need a writing course to achieve any of that, IMO

  10. Thanks Derek. No doubt some ‘craft’ tricks can be taught, but only at the risk of everyone sounding the same. An awful lot of books get published nowadays – some are barely literate, whereas others are absurdly pretentious. The number of authors who manage to write well – unpretentiously – is rather small. To some extent, academics and critics are to blame for this!

  11. I’d rather read the latest Lee Child any day than some long-winded novel full of superfluous description. Fortunately, once in a while a really good writer comes along – I’m looking forward to reading Adichie’s ‘Americanah’ (just bought today) – a real talent in a fairly barren landscape.

  12. So, does anyone know what proportion of creative writing graduates go on to become successful authors?

    • Great question and the answer is ….not bloody many. Which basically proves Derek’s point???

  13. I suppose what we should take away from this is that Creative Writing courses can work for some people, but not others, and ultimately, if you don’t have an aptitude for it, you probably can’t be taught that.

  14. Most of the students can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between??

  15. About 40 years ago, my mum (a teacher) told me of the best short story ever written. It consisted of just 5 words, and must have been powerful, as it has stuck with me to this day, and still causes me to ponder:
    For Sale: baby shoes, unworn.

    • Love it Phil!!! hahahaha

  16. Perhaps you remember this “story” because words are easy to memorise. There’s nothing about the sentence itself that is intrinsically memorable.
    The sentence is not an example of powerful writing; it’s a cheap trick.

    • I’ve heard this example many times and I don’t think it’s useful to aspiring writers. It makes one point, and one point only, and it’s a very banal one at that: that life can be cruel. What else is there to “ponder” in this 5-word sentence? The meaning of this sentence is fixed and static; powerful writing, by contrast, yields new meanings with each re-reading.

  17. Story telling? Kureishi, my arse. Has anyone tried to read The Last Word without going into an acute depression? With lines like “You are a succulent woman, juicy as a dolphin” I felt like gouging my eyes out. Absolute drivel.

  18. Unfortunately, it was comments like those that left me wondering if my Literature course was acutely profound or just utter bollocks. I’m still wondering. I enjoyed it, anyway. And what work of Winterson’s I studied, too

  19. You can either tell a story or you can’t. I wrote a film script and even though the first version was crap in all technical respects, it was immediately optioned because people couldn’t wait to keep turning the page – they wanted to know what happened next.

  20. I always thought creative writing should be taught in art schools rather than academic universities. Writing an essay about writing an essay doesn’t sound right somehow?

    • Writing a story and then writing an ‘essay’ examining that process is very much the right thing. That’s how OU creative writing assignments work. Do it, and then analyse the doing of it.

  21. We used to write lots of fiction when we were at school, I remember many of the stories revolved around a hungry dog and some homework! hahaha

  22. Here’a a good story, for those lacking ideas.
    Greedy Thatcherite Asian writer enrolls himself in pension tax scam and ends up losing everything to venture capitalists. He then spends his twilight years impersonating Alf Garnett.

  23. Music lessons are a waste of time! Journalism is a waste of time! This blog is a waste of time! The Guardian is a waste of time!..You cant teach nihilism
    No offence Derek!

  24. I find that if I’m reading something unpublished, I can very often tell when it’s by someone who’s done some kind of creative writing course, because they stick very closely to what they’ve been taught is ‘good’ writing. The most obvious example is an over-eager attempt at an attention-grabbing opening sentence or paragraph.

  25. Thank you Derek. The paradox is you need to go on courses like this to realise you don’t need to go on courses like this?

  26. F**k the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next

  27. Style emerges out of content: it isn’t applied like spray paint. You can spray an old clunker in bright metallic colours, but anyone who tries to drive it will quickly discover what’s underneath????

  28. There are no rules. Yet people want them so desperately. And of course there are tips here and there, but my god, look at some of the best sellers! Not exactly masters of prose. Look at some of the novels that have constantly been rejected – Paul Harding’s amazing and brilliant Tinkers, which went on to win the Pulitzer, springs to mind!

    • Well, there’s one rule, and it’s the rule that many aspiring writers either forget or lack the insight to know they’re breaking – keep the reader reading.

  29. most creative writing courses are shit, and most of the people teaching on them are shit. The people who should be teaching them are precisely the ones who have no financial need to do so, because they’re good and successful at what they do, and the people like Jeanette Winterson, who have no pressing financial need to do anything of the sort, but who do it anyway

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So you fancy yourself as a writer eh? You’re another one of the ‘I have a book inside me dying to get out’ brigade? Not only that but you’ve just finished your ten week creative writing course at the Academy of Wherever, that cost you twenty thousand pounds! You know all there is to know about paragraphs, quotation marks and abbreviated sentences. So naturally the next step is to show off your skills to an unsuspecting panel of writing experts ……and I use the term ‘experts’ extremely lightly.

But before you send your amazing  short story off to the panel of judges one thing you have to appreciate about most panels, as most sensible adults know, is that ninety-nine per cent of any panel is populated by the clueless.

Unfortunately such panels get things ninety-nine percent of the time. There are too many examples to mention here but let’s just take one. The Oscars. Oh yes, the panel of all panels where talent has feck all to do with the eventual winner. Did you know that the following acting giants have NEVER received a gong for some of the greatest performances ever committed to celluloid: Edward G Robinson, Cincinatti Kid, Steve McQueen, Papillion, Martin Sheen, Apocalypse Now, Gary Oldman, Syd & Nancy. The list is endless. By the way. Sylvester Stallone has an Oscar which basically fecking sums it all up for me. I won’t even mention the Mercury Music Prize, but you get the picture.

Anyway, similar to creative writing courses, see my blog, savvy educational establishments have long been aware that far more money can be made out of people who want to write novels than out of people who want to read them. And an astonishing number of individuals who want to do the former will confess to never doing the latter.  Once I told people that I had just had my first novel published I was met with a steady stream of people would come up to me at the bar or wherever who would say to me that they’ve been thinking of writing a book for years and ‘tell me what you think of this idea’ etc. But as soon as I asked them what they liked to read I was invariably met with the following reply. ‘I don’t have time to read. I’m just concentrating on my writing.’

Personally I have never had the inclination to enter a writing competition ever since I managed to prove to myself and a few friends how pointless they were. To prove my point I actually submitted a short story entitled ’The Swimmer’ by Pulitzer Prize winner John Cheevers. This short story is rightly regarded as a masterpiece.  I changed the name of the characters and the title to the ‘The Long Swim Home.’ Laughably, my entry, or should I say John’s, didn’t get anywhere. I didn’t receive any feedback but wrote a very pleasant letter to the panel requesting same. Two weeks later I received a feedback note stating that while the story had its merits the premise of the narrative wasn’t believable and not relevant to what readers were looking for today. It remains a sad regret that I didn’t keep that note but then again the lady who signed it is sadly no longer with us.  The eventual winner of this particular competition was won by a very nice lady who penned a short story about a day in the life of an anorexic! Needless to say I have heard neither sight nor sound of her since.

The point of all of this of course is that to try and scrutinize the actions of any member of a panel of a writing contest is impossible. All writing is subjective. A judge attempts to say, “This story is good,” or, “This story is bad,” but really, they are just choosing based on their own idiosyncratic taste. Winning comes down to luck. Or God. Or whatever the judge ate for lunch that day. Just like the Oscars. In addition to the legitimacy of a literary contest, there’s another question you may want to consider, namely is it actually worth your while to enter? Many writers think that entering and winning contests is a way to build a writing CV and in some very limited cases this may be true, particularly if the contest is prestigious which, I have to tell you, 99% of them are not.  And this is before we get to the plethora of fake competitions that charge you for the privilege of entering. Winning a writing contest run by an obscure magazine or a local writers’ group or an Internet contest mill won’t cut any ice with agents, editors, or readers–not just because they probably won’t have heard of the contest, but because they may will be aware that such contests are much less likely to have professional judging standards.  And if you do win you’ll get a cheque for a few hundred quid and a grainy photograph in the local gazette but little else. Many judges on these panels hardly ever request to see more work from the winner. If there was a real prize, then entering just might be worthwhile. Next time you’re scanning the internet’s twelve thousand pages of literary contests, count how many of them come with a publishing contract for the winner. I’ll tell you now that you’ll probably need only one finger.

Moreover, not winning could cause you to assume that there’s something wrong with your writing, which may be untrue. Not much wrong with the writing of John Cheevers? Anyway, you wouldn’t be any the wiser because these contests rarely, if ever, offer the writer any feedback. You may have come close to winning or being long/shortlisted or thrown into the waste-paper basket and never know. On top this there is the fact that some of these competitions are little more than popularity contests, as the entrants get their friends and family and work colleagues etc to vote for them. So even if you are still committed to entering a writing contest at the very least you should pay attention to the scoring system or ask about it if it’s not published.

And if you’re entering contests for unpublished work, consider whether your time and energy might not be better spent actually submitting for publication. After all if you’re a serious writer, then isn’t getting your work published the real prize??


20th September 2016