Writing Courses Are A Waste Of Time


What?? I know I’m going out on a limb here and this whole post could be a struggle but this is my opinion at the moment. Writing courses are run, in the main, by people that haven’t made it and are populated by people that are waiting in vain for a secret code.
Anyone that has read any of my writing will undoubtedly be shouting at their screens by now. It turns out that after a private education, a bunch of a-levels, a degree and a whole load of professional examinations, I don’t speak that proper. I know I have discovered this flaw and I’m working on it but this post is about those creative writing courses that concentrate on writing stories.

Just to clarify, I have never been on a writing course. My opinion would hold more gravity if I had, I’m positive, or if I was world famous and hadn’t. Instead I’m a wannabe writer so take the following words in that vein.
A chap I know called Stephen King, yep… that Stephen King, wrote me a letter. Well, it was a book, and it was published, it was called On Writing and was probably a Bestseller but still. In this book he claims that writing courses are a waste of time and because I’ve never been on one and, occasionally people tell me I should, I’ve latched on to it.
King talks about his toolbox when it comes to being a writer. You have your grammar, your vocabulary and all of the nitty gritty language stuff. In order to write English you have to know how, but at the end of the day writers have editors as a safety net for this stuff. Great writers have never been those at school that knew what a possessive form was, or when it was best to use a semi-colon.
The toolbox is the foundations but after that there’s no rules. People have written great books that have taken on all sorts of different styles. A writers style is incredibly personal so how can that be taught?
I will argue that the best way for a new writer to learn how to craft a perfect book is to read perfect books, the likes of which the writer wants to write. That’s not rocket science.
My problem with writing courses is the same as my problem with a lot of these lessons in art. When you’re in a rock n’ roll band, people never ask which music academy you went to but you still have to learn how to play an instrument. This is because it’s not about virtuosity it’s about expression. People seem to get it in that context.
But it’s different when you look at the highbrow art world, it’s nearly all about which school you studied at. Pretension often gets in the way of great art, and a good education can often give credence to a load of tosh.
The same principle goes for writing. It’s all about expression and if that’s the case then how on earth can someone tell you how best to express your soul. You do that yourself by opening your eyes and being influenced by that which is around you. I can understand how people can gain confidence by being around other writers but wouldn’t it be better to gain confidence by selling books.
There’s always going to be the high brow literary folk and that’s great because it gives variety but you don’t have to be pushed through the same machine to be a success. I believe the simple formula to becoming a better writer is reading as much as you can, writing every day and committing yourself to constant improvement. If you’re the type of person that is looking for an excuse to delay writing your book then get yourself on one of those courses, or even better a retreat, but if you’re not looking for an excuse then just start writing it.
Please let me know if you think I’m talking out of the back of my pencil case.


19 responses to “Writing Courses Are A Waste Of Time

  1. For me the ‘secret’ is being able to tell a story. I agree all the other ‘stuff’ can and should be learnt (and will with practice and editing etc), but having a semi colon in the right place a great story does not make. Read, write, watch movies, play video games – anything which puts you in a good story. Then if you’re still looking for something to kick start your best selling career, don’t bother – you’ve probably not got that story telling ability.

  2. Michael other readers may think your are talking out of an inappropriate orifice, to me another wannabe you make good sense despite the location of the vocalisation. Those who can do, those who can’t …. teach!

  3. I find your perspective interesting. I have attended some writing courses, but only small ones, certainly none of the highly lauded ones in the US. I read a lot of genre fiction, so I’m not sure if that meets your criteria for perfect books. Probably not. (I font think most meet my criteria either.)

    When I went to my first writing course, a two-day event, I received a education on writing craft that has served me well. A lot of the writing advice wasn’t online ten years ago, or at least I couldn’t find it. I only had a few books like Stephen King or Orson Scott Card’s to point me in the right direction. In the current day and age, I might not have needed to attend that writing course, but it helped.

    The other course was much smaller and focused on editing, publishing, and self publishing in the 21st century. The industry is in the middle of great changes. This course helped me understand the industry better. Armed with that information, I will try my hand at self publishing this year.

    Did I need to take those writing courses? No, I could probably do okay without them. Some of the relationships I have made continue to serve me well, and I think the courses were valuable for networking even if I didn’t learn anything.

  4. I don’t know whether they are a waste of time but all I can say is that I’ve managed to win story competitions, then get my novel published, without ever being on one. My gut instinct is that all you really need to be a writer is to read and to live – then to write, and work hard on it. Having said that, I wouldn’t dismiss writing courses out of hand, they seem to be more popular in the USA than in the UK, but they are certainly gaining traction over here. At the bottom level I suppose writing can be a lonely business and having people around who are kindred spirits might help. Also, some of the techniques I’ve learned over years of practice I might have learned much more quickly if someone had taught them too me I supppose.

  5. This is a bold and different take, and it’s given me lots to consider. I’ve taken a few online workshops over the past few years; your post has forced me to evaluate how much they’ve helped. Maybe in a small sense, but nothing more. As the previous commenter stated, the real lasting effects have been the writers I connected with in these courses, some of whom I still rely upon as critique partners.

    I suppose if I get down to brass tacks, the only thing that’s really helped me improve is reading and putting in the time. Continued practice on my own, and a desire to refine my skills are what’s making me a better writer. One day at a time.
    Great, thought-provoking piece.

  6. Interesting point of view…

    I have been on a Writers Conference (check out my blog http://www.festivalofwriting2012.blogspot.com) and thought the experience was fantastic! To actually hear from agents & publishers, listen to best selling authors, go to workshops where we discussed not just writing but obtained tips on how to make it better, and to talk to other writers was brilliant.

    It was expensive, granted, but it was worth it. I did wonder when I arrived what I had let myself in for but if you are going to be a writer then you have to be prepared to listen to others and learn.

    There are a lot of courses offered out there which might not offer value for money, but I believe as people we are always leaning, refining and aiming for the best. As you write more you get better, but you do need to get an idea of what you shoud be aiming for by studying the market. Be that via a course, by reading self help books, reading guidelines online, reading other books and seeing how other authors present their work.

    So much to learn, so little time. I learnt more in a weekend than I would have learnt in months or years, or not at all.

    As a Teacher I do think we should listen to opinions of others, just make sure you check their credentials.

    Hope my ramblings make sense,

  7. Michael, I totally agree with you that the only real education comes from reading writers that did it for you. Of course you can go to a class and hear that from someone else; but that’s just someone bringing it to you from the kitchen. The point is to get into the kitchen yourself, where the heat is and where you have to find it out yourself. That’s probably tougher to do but has greater impact.

  8. I completely agree when you say the best education is reading great authors. You can go to a class but that’s still listening to someone who brings you stuff from the kitchen. The real challenge is to be in the kitchen yourself, where the heat is.

  9. I’m not a writer, and I can imagine that many writing classes are a waste of time. On the other hand, I don’t see how writing is different from any other endeavor, and so I’ll compare it to sports. Great players practice their skills continuously and work to improve those skills, but they also have a coach (an excellent one at the professional level) that can see what they’re doing and help them reach higher levels. So, if I were to take a writing class, I would take one with an instructor who was known to help writers improve their skills and reach higher levels.

    • I’m loving some of the comments in response to this post. I put it out there as an extreme view of writing courses just to see what people thought. There’s obviously many shades of grey in the middle and some courses will add more value than others. I agree with all points of view that state that you should listen to experience and continue learning and developing. However, you can find this education from all sorts of different sources.

      Thank you for your comments though, they’ve fuelled a good debate.

  10. I’ve only just read this post as I took your example and had a week off! Actually the sun’s been shining and it’s dry weather and therefore the gardening season has commenced for me.
    But my only Writers group experience is anecdotal and, in a way, supports your position.
    Our local town has a writers group, two readers groups, endless artists’ groups etc etc. The writers group meets, sets itself work such as the production of a short story on an agreed theme and then they read their work out loud to each other, critiiquing along the way. Some evenings ending with at least one person in tears……..having found themselves or lost themselves, I know not which.
    My friend said it was like watching paint dry only more painful.
    So………….I think that creative writing doesn’t benefit from a structured ‘do a course’ approach. Writing is a alone (rather than lonely) pursuit if it is a serious business for you. If the writing is for fun then off to the writers group you go and enjoy a good bawl or laugh and use your interest as a means to win friends??
    …………..or am I missing the point yet again?

  11. Katherine C. Mead-Brewer

    I agree with your perspective on this, Michael, and thank you for posting! I took one writing class when I was a freshman in undergraduate and was dumbfounded by just how pointless it ended up being. Of course, since then I’ve also met plenty of aspiring writers who argue that they prefer those courses because they don’t have time to read or don’t like reading other authors while they write and all that ever told me was that they liked the idea of the “Writer” but weren’t ever going to do any serious *writing.* Writers read and write. Period. Plus, it’s hard enough to get by on a writing career, so why waste precious resources paying to participate in a glorified book club or yes-man session? If you want that network of critics and writers, then find someone you trust but don’t let them become a distraction or an excuse to simply not do your work.

  12. what about professional critiques? I know there are revision seminars where a prop novelist will read the first 150 pages of your novel and help you to understand where you went wrong. I think this sort of thing could be helpful after you have been writing a while and want to take your craft to the next level. For instance David wolverton is a New York Times bestseller and has written fifty books but also has workshops on revision and outlining. I have never spent the money because its expensive, and I am not at the right level.

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