How to make the most of your creative writing degree course
If you're considering creative writing as a degree or module at university, or already committed to one, read our valuable tips from a student who's been there, done that, on how to make the most of it.
Jack Walker is currently a student at Derby University studying a Joint Honours degree with English and Creative Writing. For this piece, he's focusing more on the creative writing side of the course, outlining his five top tips on doing a university degree, and what you can do to make the most of your time at university.
1: Wake up, turn up!
It may sound like an obvious piece of advice, but in order to do well, the first thing you need to do is wake up and go to class. While I'm sure we'd all love a lie in (myself included), you can't do well if you don't turn up and do what's been asked. A creative writing degree isn't just writing on a weekly basis, it’s a close analysis of multiple published works, as well as assessments. For example, a typical lesson involves looking at a piece of writing, be it a short story, poetry, or an article, writing based on a prompt, going home to edit, then bringing it in next week for a workshop so you can add it to your assessment portfolio. Even if you don't like the exercises (and trust me, I've had some I've hated), everything is a learning experience. You are an artist after all, and how is an artist supposed to perfect their craft if they don't learn new techniques and learn from different people?
That being said, you'll need to be aware of the writing style that suits you. For example, during my English lectures, I need a microphone because I can't make notes fast enough and I get anxious I've missed some information. There are many ways to get info besides traditional note taking: I've seen a few students use an iPad and stylus to create mind maps. Lecturers often post the material and discussions from class onto an online page so you can review what you did, and they are more than accommodating. If you need your phone to record the lessons, then you can talk to your lecturer and they will be more than happy to sort something out. Another thing to do is ask and answer questions. Engaging in debates and sharing your opinion is a quick way to improve your writing. This is your own personal writing group (for £9,000, no less!) so make sure you use that to your advantage. Whatever you do, make sure you're engaging with the exercises and classes with everything you have.
2: Learn to take criticism and give feedback
Talking about writing groups, be prepared to workshop. For those who have never done this, workshopping involves printing off, or having access to, a piece of work you have done over the week. Depending on the class size, you may have groups of 3-5, or have a whole class workshop. Everyone marks a piece of work so you all get feedback. Depending on how confident you are, this can be a very hurtful process. If you're not confident, any negative feedback can knock your self-esteem further. However, no criticism is personal. We all have our preferences and styles, so feel free to disregard any criticism you don't agree with. On the other hand, you can't assume all your work will be perfect all the time. We're only human and we make mistakes all the time. Unlike some workshops, however, the criticism given by my peers has normally been very light and supportive. I’ve never had anyone tear my work to shreds, so even though workshops can seem daunting, the ones on this course are very forgiving.
3: Find your voice
Of course, if you have an established style in your creative writing, defend it. One of my friends has a distinctive style where they like to put everything into lines, like dialogue. The longest line I've seen of theirs is 3 sentences long. I no longer bring this up in workshopping because they have spent 10 years developing their style. So if you do have a unique style, then don't be afraid to explain that to people. If you don't think you have a style (although you probably do to some extent), don’t worry – it will develop naturally as you study, learn and, most importantly, write more.
University offers lots of workshops, societies and reading opportunities throughout the course. A book we read for our course was Writing Down the Bones, an absolute treasure trove of valuable knowledge. This is where university differs from ‘real’ life, however. In your everyday life, you can choose which books to read, when to read them and how much you read. In university, if you don’t read what’s been asked on time, you’ll spend more energy clawing back the progress you lost than actually engaging with the work. In short, make sure you read as much as you can. You’ll find being able to label and understand techniques helps you to not only be critical of your own work, but everything you read. If you want a better insight into why a line works, or why an author has used a specific layout for a poem, there’s no better place to find this insight than university.
4: Find your environment
Speaking of the library, there will be many places on the campus that suit you best. Maybe you prefer to be in a more open space, with bustling crowds and lots of sensory input. Or maybe you like the smell of coffee and you visit the local café to write. Whatever environment you work best in, find that environment. It would also be a good idea to keep something at hand to write on, be it notebook, phone or laptop. You never know when an idea will pop into your head, so the best writers are always prepared.
5: Make friends
It's all well and good telling you these things, but if you only take one thing away from this article, it should be this: make friends! Life is full of amazing, intense, inspiring people. It is your greatest teacher. Use it. The friends I have made on this course have taught me so much, outside of writing: love, compassion and acceptance of oneself. It’s easy to forget that a writing course isn’t just about writing. It’s a journey, an experience, a character arc, if you will.
These are the things that are helping me get through the course, but this is only what works for me. We all learn/study/write/live differently, and only you know for sure what works for you. Learn from my experience but forge your own path too. After all, you know you better than I can ever know, so only you know what works for you. Commit yourself wholeheartedly and the one thing that is certain is that you’ll learn more about yourself and your writing in the process. With all that being said, I wish you luck on your course, and your wider life. Happy writing!
If you want to study creative writing but can't make it to a classroom-based course, have a look at Writers Online's distance learning Creative Writing Courses. We have tutors in every genre and discipline, who will tailor the course to your needs.