Five things a creative writing degree can teach you

By   Hannah Bickerton 5 min read

I’m a creative writer, by which I mean only that I have written creatively in excess for years now. Is there any way in which to qualify oneself for that title? Is a creative writing degree the answer to the problem? Are you going to feel like a writer if you have a piece of paper saying you’re qualified in it?

Entering my final year of an English literature and creative writing degree, I find myself questioning why I started it to begin with and wondering what I hoped to gain from an academic endeavour into the creative field. It has taken a lot of processing to define what I have gained from the experience, and what others might hope to as well.

Here are the five things a person should know before they embark on a creative writing degree:

You are going to read a lot, and it won’t all be that good.

Creative writing as a degree subject is almost entirely based around workshopping, and just as that means others must read your work, it means you must read theirs. In my experience, the balance is about fifty–fifty between workshopping in-class, and workshopping assigned texts, but either way, you will encounter a lot of work that you don’t enjoy. If you want to work with like-minded people and read authors you love, join a writing group. Studying forced me to learn things from writers I didn’t respect and books I didn’t enjoy, but I learned from them all the same.

People are going to tell you that you aren’t worth your salt and that you’ll never be successful. But you’ll also receive a lot of compliments.

Imagine the reviews section on Goodreads, except all of those people are in a room with you; that’s workshopping. People who aren’t qualified to say anything will talk an awful lot and, in my experience, a lot of it will be kind, but the negativity is what sticks with you. Your ego will take a beating, and it will get a lot tougher, because everyone you meet will tell you that to succeed as a writer, you have to think a bit too highly of yourself. I’ve learned to listen to the feedback and keep what I agree with: it’s not their book so their opinions are superfluous.

It doesn’t feel like you’re learning anything.

If you start a creative writing degree with any basic knowledge of the industry at all, you’ll feel like a PhD student in a nursery. The tutors will begin with the simplest of things: formatting and the importance of spelling and how to write a good prologue. It will feel like they’re telling you things you already know, and they are, but there’s a subtext. Going into a creative writing degree, I expected them to tell me exactly what I needed to do to become the next J.K. Rowling, and two years in, I’m still waiting for that particular revelation. It’s not a step-by-step guide to becoming successful. All a degree can do is equip you to handle the industry a little better, and it’s hard to accept that the talent of writing isn’t something that can really be taught.

Almost £30K feels like a lot of money to invest in a pipedream.

You’re taking this degree and hoping you’ll come out of the other end of it with a bestseller. That’s just a simple fact. Nobody goes into a creative degree with hopes of being mediocre. The realisation that any course, no matter how costly, will fail to teach you the unteachable, is more fiscally troubling than existentially. A writer’s life is a humble one and starting out into that sort of life with three years of student debt behind you is a risk. Before you set out to invest three years of your life, and a lot of money, into a degree you’re never going to need, make sure you really want it.

You will have an existential crisis, and it will last a dreadfully long time.

There is nothing more stressful than the realisation you hate using your passion as a job. I’ve watched the realisation strike more than one course mate and it’s not fun. Being a full-time creative writer means loving it so much that you can’t get sick of it, or that when you do, you’ll carry on anyway. I’ve done commissioned work on subjects that bored me, and I’ve written entire novels that I ended up despising. The structure of a degree and the pressure of deadlines will give you a taste of a writer’s life, and you will soon learn whether it will make or break you. People think they love writing until they actually start doing it for money, and a dependency on food and shelter means that you have to write even when you don’t want to. Realising that you don’t want to start hating the thing that brings you joy is rather emotionally draining, but it’s a lesson.

There’s a lot that a creative writing degree can teach you, but how to be a good writer isn’t on any syllabus I’ve seen. It can give you a piece of paper saying that you’re good, but it has no bearing on how you’re received: publishers and readers don’t care whether your university professor liked your novel, it’s all a matter of opinion and that can make a degree feel redundant.

Figure out what you want to gain, before you even consider investing yourself in something so rigid. The experience has a lot to offer but it’s a refined taste.

In the end, a creative writing degree will teach you a fair bit about your practice as a writer. You’ll learn what people like and don’t like and you’ll learn what you like as well. More than that, you’ll write: that’s what a creative writing degree does more than anything else. It forces you to write more than you ever have before, and to write in all forms and all formats.

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.