It’s an age-old question: is the ability to write creatively an inherent or learned skill? With the wide availability of writing courses at tertiary level in recent years, the question becomes even more pertinent: are writing degrees worth their salt? Do we really need a degree to be ‘legitimate’ authors?
The answer? Perhaps. It’s not as simple as a definitive yes or no; it depends on the writer’s goals, experience, and needs. Writing degrees can be hugely beneficial but may not be imperative.
Much has been written about whether writing qualifications are necessary or not, and it seems to be an unending debate.
Author and Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Tasmania, Dr Danielle Wood, says that ‘classroom study can only ever be one part of [the whole life experience of writing] (the rest of it is reading, writing, observing, practicing) and a formal course isn't necessarily for everyone.’
What then can writing degrees offer us? And who can they benefit?
1. Writing degrees teach crucial skills
Whether creativity is indeed inherent or learned (and that’s a whole other debate), it's clear that honing critical and practical skills is essential in the author’s journey.
Dallas J Baker, Donna Lee Brien, Jen Webb, and Lynda Hawryluk suggest that the need to refine literary abilities is as equally important as the social aspects of writing:
Creative writing students acquire more than domain-specific knowledge. They also develop graduate attributes: critical thinking, critical reading, research skills and high-level verbal and written communication skills.
As well as these transferable skills, they acquire professional skills associated with writing, such as knowledge of ethical practice, creative thinking and problem solving, as well as valuable editing and publishing skills.
These attributes and skills ensure that creative writing graduates are employed in a wide range of careers.
Of course, writing skills can be acquired from other places such as short courses, trial and error, workshops etc., but the level of focused attention and time to refine writing techniques is unique to a degree. Wood confirms this by suggesting that:
If you have the requisite discipline and desire, you could teach yourself everything you need to know through reading and through trial and error.
However, a university unit might provide some shortcuts. Emerging writers struggle with many of the same issues; creative writing teachers should know what these issues are and be able to provide fresh and inspiring guidance.
Though the development of writing skills is not exclusive to tertiary study, as Wood points out, it can offer vital wisdom and purposeful guidance to writers.
2. Writing degrees promote networking
It’s exciting to connect with other writers who have a similar passion and direction. You grow together and writing workshops offer invaluable collaboration and insights from peers.
I still run work by friends I’ve made through my writing degrees over the years and I trust their insights implicitly. Of course, writing workshops are available in other places, but sharing work with students who are also in the intense environment of tertiary study can refine your writing exponentially.
Wood understands the benefits of workshopping in a writing degree:
Creative writing units can also provide students with an audience of peers. It can be enlightening to see, close up, how people read and respond to your work. The workshopping process isn't perfect, of course. Your readers will be real and imperfect humans, but then, this will still be true of sending your work out for the consideration of editors, publishers, and/or competition judges.
This style of feedback prepares emerging writers for the opinions and expectations of editors and readers in future. It is repeated through the many years of study and so refines a writer’s work significantly.
Annabel Smith references author and academic Natasha Lester ‘point[ing] to the benefits (which last long after the course has ended) of meeting a network of other aspiring writers who can provide encouragement and feedback, as well as sharing information about opportunities’ in her defence of writing courses.
Though this relationship is not entirely exclusive to degrees, the camaraderie amongst students because of the sustained amount of time and intensity of study is unique.
3. Writing degrees promote focus and discipline
Studying creative writing creates an environment where writing is the priority, allowing writers to throw themselves into refining their work.
Though deadlines can be terrifying as they approach, they can often produce great work (in my case, deadlines stop me fluffing around and help me write concise, determined prose). The structure of tertiary courses allows for good habits to be formed that last a lifetime.
Smith confirms the importance of structure when she writes: ‘one writer I interviewed… said that though he was ambivalent about some aspects of the course, the act of going to university made him focus on writing and got him into good habits of writing daily’.
She cites Donna Mazza as ‘agree[ing] that it is the discipline and deadlines that allow talented writers to reach their potential.’
Success in the creative writing industry relies on hard work and consistent practices just as much as talent, so the fact that these skills can be acquired from a writing degree is invaluable.
There is so much that goes into the development of a writer. Social observation, connection to the broader world, and the development of a personal creative voice are hugely important, but the technical skills, discipline, and opportunities that arise from a writing degree can be equally essential.
Whether a writing degree is needed or not is entirely up to the individual writer, but they must weigh up where they’re wanting to go and what tools they need to get there.
Danielle Wood sums up this tension perfectly:
Are there any guarantees? No, none. Will formal study help? Potentially. How will I know if a writing unit is for me, or not for me? Ask yourself if you would like help with deadlines, if you would like people to read your work and comment on it, and if you think you could benefit from the experience of a writing teacher who has seen a lot of work by emerging writers and is accustomed to helping people find their way around the pitfalls.
If none of this sounds helpful to you, then just stay at home and read, and write, and send your work out, learn from your mistakes, and remember that what you're trying to make is art.
And that’s just it: writing is an art form, and there are many ways to craft it. So do you really need a creative writing degree? If you wish to refine skills, network with talented peers, and improve discipline and depth of thought in a finite amount of time, then yes indeed.
What do you think? Share your own insights, opinions and experiences in the comments below...