Learning to Learn
This page will reveal to you the arcane secrets of how to become a world-beating creative writer (or your money back).
If you genuinely engage throughout, this page will take you on an emotional and intellectual journey. Please read the page (map) in the order that it is presented: people can’t jump to the end of a journey unless they have a teleportation device or spell, you see. Even then, arriving at the end at the wrong moment will be a waste of time, since you will have skipped a vital developmental stage of the journey, and will not be equipped with the necessary information to triumph in your quest! [Okay, I’ve royally overworked that organic metaphor, so I’ll leave it there, before bandits intercept me on the road less travelled.]
The stages of your journey are
Best of luck! I wish you a fair wind and following seas!
1. Ask Yourself
Is the way you approach or undertake creative writing the same as other people’s? Have you ever asked other people how they prefer to do it? Why not? Did you assume everyone tended to write the same way? Did you think there was largely only one correct way to go about it?
The questions below might begin to help you think about the issue and your own creative practice.
1. When you are writing creatively, do you prefer to do it alone and undisturbed (in the romantic style of the writer in their garret)? Do you prefer silence or music playing? Or do you prefer to write in a coffee shop, with just a bit of human background noise?
2. Even before you start writing, do you just ponder deeply on your own, percolating ideas (like a coffee filter), marinating (like chicken in teriyaki sauce), or ruminating (chewing over ideas like a sheep or cow)? Do you glance out of the window and consider the world? And then go for a walk in order to ‘clear your mind’ and think freshly/better? Or is that just procrastinating/putting things off, meaning you never get to do the actual writing?
3. Or do you prefer bouncing ideas around with a friend first (two heads are better than one)? Perhaps you like generating ideas in a group (many heads are better than one?), perhaps with a teacher providing guidance. Do you prefer the discipline and support of a creative writing course, or do you believe true genius cannot be taught?
4. Do you like vomiting a draft, then to edit it afterwards? Or are you methodical? Do you need to wait on inspiration, or are you someone who’s never suffered ‘writer’s block’? Is writer’s block a myth or is it specific to the way certain people are neurally wired?
5. Do you find your writing gets better with practice or is your writing never as good as you’d like? Can you even tell if it’s getting better or just staying the same? Do you find feedback useful, or does it sometimes just ruin what you’d written in the first place? Is feedback a waste of time in some ways, since the work then partly becomes someone else’s and you lose interest/ownership/passion?
Yes, the questions above (which you can ask to a friend or two) will begin to suggest that there is no ‘correct’ way to go about creative writing, to learn how to be a creative writer, or to teach creative writing, even.
There is no ‘correct’ way. There is only the way that works for you. If it’s already working, don’t try and fix it. If the way you’re currently using doesn’t work for you, then try a different way! Do you know what ways you should try instead? If not, this page will help you.
Yet, before you go off to try different approaches, do you know whether you prefer to learn by doing, by looking at a model or example on your own, or by someone explaining things as best they can to you?
Do you know what type or learner and creative you are? If you’re not sure, fear not…
2. Know Thyself
First, complete the Creative Types Quiz, available on a separate page of this site.
Then, watch this short video in which best-selling crime author Ian Rankin tells you about the type of creative he now understands that he is, and the methods he therefore uses to help himself as that type of creative.
3. Help Yourself
Here are the main ways of learning to become a better creative writer. Once you know what type of creative and learner you are, you will then know the approach that’s best for you.
1. The Inspired Approach. If you are a Type C creative (see the quiz available on this website), then this approach works well for you. It involves being provided with a writing prompt or stimulus, to ‘fire your imagination’. This approach can be facilitated by a teacher providing clear instructions and a task. Here is an example of one such task, courtesy of Middlesex University’s Dr Ariel Kahn: “The class activity we engaged in was a two-stage live writing challenge. First, we spent five minutes just looking out of the window, before writing for five minutes about what we’d seen, followed by five minutes outside, engaging with what we were looking at with all our senses, in order then to write a different piece. The assignment for next week’s class was to combine these two pieces into something new – either 300-500 words of prose, or a poem of up to 200 words.”
2. The Technical Approach. If you are a Type A creative, then this approach will work extremely well for you. It will also work fairly well for Type Bs. It is typified by an almost mechanical understanding of how to organise plot effectively, of how to create character effectively, of how to use metaphor correctly, of how to use a range of appropriate literary devices and techniques (e.g. enactment and defamiliarization), of how to avoid shifting narrative perspective, of how to use Latinate and Anglo-Saxon-based language well (written style), for impact, of how to write immersive description, and more. You will tick off each of these areas of understanding via a ferocious capacity for critical thinking, and will then practice each of the areas quite deliberately, until you have fully mastered them. You will then be entirely equipped to distinguish ‘good’ creative writing from ‘bad’, because you fundamentally believe that there is such a thing as good and bad writing. Tasks and worksheets to help you practise this approach are provided for free courtesy of Middlesex University’s Dr Adam Dalton, on his website, on the page titled ‘Mini-lessons’.
3. The Vomit Approach. If you are a Type B or C, then this approach might work for you. Many writers struggle to write at all. Some call it Writer’s Block (Type A creatives don’t believe such a thing exists, by the way), some call it a lack of inspiration and others call it a lack of self-confidence. Essentially, the Vomit Approach permits you (if not pressurises you) to take the clutch off, to release your creativity from prison, to take risks, etc (choose whatever metaphor works for you, quite honestly). The approach classically separates creativity and fluency from editorial criticality and accuracy. An example of this approach is provided by the world famous NaNoWriMo scheme. What’s it about and how’s it organised? Check it out for yourself – I’m a Type A, myself, so have no interest writing a torturous/tortured description of it.
4. The Reflective Approach. If you are a Type A, B or C, then this approach might work for you. If you read a lot, over time (years, for example), you will begin to absorb (by osmosis, by rote, via critical reflection, or by a combination of those) what commercial and literary writing looks, feels, sounds and reads like. Your understanding will become such that you will then be able to make a pretty good stab at writing quite well yourself, particularly when you then find the courage to show it to peers or those suited to comment, for feedback. Sometimes, that feedback will help you improve… sometimes you’ll decide to stick by your guns (artistically speaking, without shooting anyone, you understand). This approach tends to work for more mature, well-read learners and creatives. However, it can work for less experienced individuals, too. For example, you might read something and think ‘Hmm. That wasn’t very good. I’d have preferred it if this thing had happened instead. Oo. That’s a good idea! Maybe I should write that!’ You see? It’s like creating a photo-negative of something, something that you could then adapt, colour differently or improve. To be clear, the Reflective Approach is the method used by a majority of university Creative Writing courses. (Middlesex University does it a bit differently, however.)
5. The All-Else-Fails Approach. If you’ve tried all of the above and none of them has worked for you, then what on Earth is wrong with you? Ah, you’re such a unique and special sort of creative that you cannot be categorised, except via your own name and individuality. I see. Well, maybe you need to get over yourself? How? Well, you know yourself best, so you should know better than anyone else, right? Therefore, talk to yourself, using a mirror if it helps. Or record yourself complaining and then listen back to it. Then record your answer to yourself and listen back to that. Then record another response (anyway, you get the idea). Ask yourself for help. If you don’t get any help, you know who to blame. Okay, I’ll leave you alone now, now that I’ve laid down that challenge…
4. Challenge Yourself
Now read this article by A J Dalton, who’s picked up a thing or two along the way (well, he’s a prize-winning author, global learning manager for the British Council, and academic in the field of creative writing, anyway). Then reflect, and you should have all the answers you’ve ever needed to understand our mysterious universe and existence.
Can Creative Writing be successfully taught?
Remarkably, in a Guardian article of 2014, the prize-winning British author Hanif Kureishi, then a Professor of Creative Writing at Kingston University, was reported as stating that Creative Writing courses were ‘a waste of time’ and that he wouldn’t pay money to do an MA in Creative Writing himself (Flood, 2014). He then explained, ‘A lot of my students just can't tell a story. They 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. It's a difficult thing to do and it's a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don't think you can.’ Also, ‘[N]o one's going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.’
It is perhaps the belief that such ‘a great skill’ cannot be taught that saw the novelist and Creative Writing teacher Lucy Ellman, although disagreeing that prose style was unimportant, describe Creative Writing courses as ‘the biggest con-job in academia’ (Flood, 2014). For similar reasons, the poet August Kleinzahler had previously asserted in the Guardian that ‘It’s terrible to lie to young people. And that’s what it’s about’ (Campbell, 2009).
The above will cause a certain consternation and concern to all those interested in the field of Creative Writing, be they potential students, aspiring writers, teachers, academics, responsible universities, funding bodies (including the UK government), publishers, tax-payers or otherwise. The UK produces some of the biggest-selling international authors in the world (E.L. James, J.K. Rowling, Lee Child, and so on), authors who are worth many millions to the UK economy ever year, so surely the UK has the capability to develop a ‘pipeline’ of young talent to write best-selling books for future generations, doesn’t it? Not if Creative Writing cannot be taught effectively, it doesn’t.
We need to examine the problem more closely, then. The ‘great skill’ which Kureishi believes cannot be taught is ‘story-telling’. Surely, though, all skills can be taught, with enough time and practice, can’t they? What’s the problem, then? Is Professor Kureishi perhaps admitting he is not a skilled enough teacher to develop such a skill in his students? After all, traditionally, the large majority of university academics do not possess qualifications specifically in teaching, and do not have training in developing teaching and learning materials. No, it is more likely that Professor Kureishi is alluding to the issue that, intuitively, ‘creativity’, ‘talent’ and ‘genius’ (concepts about which particular cultures have quite romantic, essentialist and even pseudo-religious notions) cannot be taught via some systematic or pseudo-scientific formula or method: ‘[I]t's probably 99.9 per cent [of students] who are not talented and the little bit that is left is talent’.
As we have already seen, there are other authors and teachers of creative writing who basically or fundamentally agree with Professor Kureishi. Does that mean, then, the UK should stop offering all Creative Writing courses? Does that mean that once an aspiring author has been rejected by a number of publishers, they should stop aspiring towards becoming published, since they are clearly in the 99.9% of those who ‘are not talented’? Famously, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) was rejected by twenty publishers before being accepted, that novel helping him to win the Nobel Prize, Anne Frank’s diary was rejected by sixteen publishers, with one of them declaring ‘The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level’, John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold saw one publisher reply that ‘he hasn’t got any future’, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter was rejected by a dozen publishers before the eight-year-old daughter of Bloomsbury’s CEO begged for the title to be taken on (Schuler, 2009). Who, then, is the best judge of those with and without talent? Perhaps ‘talent’ is not something you are simply born with (where others are born without it): rather, it may simply be a skill and a set of ‘tricks’ that everyone can be taught over time (even if full mastery ultimately eludes some). We are talking here, of course, about the ‘nature v. nurture debate’, a debate which is still current and evolving.
Professor Kureishi may well be correct that true genius can never be taught. By such a token, students cannot be taught to be ‘great’ writers, writers whose work is read, enjoyed and studied centuries after their death. Yet, is it actually the endeavour of Creative Writing courses to create or just develop true writing genius? If so, then such courses are pretty much always going to fail in their endeavour, for the nature of genius is as elusive as it is difficult to measure (as the rejected authors in the paragraph directly above demonstrate). Perhaps that is why Professor Kureishi terms such courses ‘a waste of time’. Perhaps he would be better off focussing on a different aim for such courses, since surely most aspiring writers will initially be content with being helped to write a book that meets ‘commercial standard’ in terms of minimum prose quality and reader engagement, then to have a very reasonable chance of being successfully published.
Perhaps such courses should resist trying to identify and focus on the 0.1%, and instead seek to help the 99.9%. Otherwise, such courses will only be for some sort of genius elite (identified by non-transparent means) and will look to exclude (during the student-recruitment phase) the vast majority, including particular social classes, racial groups, and minorities. As a modern, multicultural democracy which believes in equality of opportunity, surely we should turn our attention more towards the 99.9%, particularly as the 0.1% already have the talent or genius which means they probably do not need to go on much of a course anyway (just as Professor Kureishi avers he would never do an MA in Creative Writing himself).
Such a refocussing is no trivial shift in attitude, either, since it also calls for a very different teaching methodology when it comes to Creative Writing. Ascribing to the (out-dated) idea of an inherent genius in a precious few younger or less experienced authors which is to be nurtured, inspired and facilitated (rather than taught) implicitly leads to the establishment of Creative Writing courses which use a ‘reflective methodology’, where the writing of course-participants is ‘workshopped’ via discussion, questioning, often impressionistic responses, and suggestion-based or implicit feedback. Such an approach has been the established approach and norm in the UK since the development of the Creative Writing programme at East Anglia University in 1970, under the renowned authors Malcolm Bradbury and Ian Wilson (Holeywell, 2009). Undoubtedly, this approach has been very successful with particular types of student, yet that might also explain why the East Anglia programme has always been very selective with the students it accepts onto courses. For, at the same time, as will be discussed further below, this approach sometimes does little for, frustrates, actively excludes or potentially damages certain other types of learner, especially those looking to practise and develop basic competences in extended creative writing, as well as to learn about the different (often genre-specific) approaches to plot-shape, characterisation, use of metaphor and connotation, use of literary devices, control of narrative perspective, control of written style, production of vivid or immersive description, effective reader engagement, and so on.
How far does a reflective approach towards Creative Writing accommodate different types of learner?
When young or less experienced writers are asked to ‘workshop’ a peer’s writing (via the reflective approach used by 99.9% of Creative Writing courses), and asked to provide constructive feedback, a good number are somewhat stymied about what they can or should offer. Firstly, they will often lack the technical knowledge of the English language even to identify where their peer’s writing is faulty. Sometimes, they will not have read particularly widely, so they will struggle to draw on exemplars which might be taken from ‘great’ English literature. They will then usually lack the technical (meta)language with which to describe clearly how the writing might be improved. As a result, they will sometimes end up giving a half-hearted description of things they sort of liked about the writing, and things they sort of did not like so much, but then struggle to describe why they did and did not like certain aspects of the writing. The peer receiving the feedback will sometimes receive contradictory impressions from the feedback group, and will be left scratching their head about 1. whether they should be changing anything in their writing at all (after all, you can’t please all of the people all of the time) and 2. the best writing solutions available to resolve any negative feedback.
The above (awkward and painful) scenario must be familiar to nearly every Creative Writing teacher. It makes certain types of students feel inadequate, confused or demotivated. Some are left wondering why they’re ‘doing the teacher’s job for them’. As Professor Kureishi previously described, it leaves many thinking their course is ‘a waste of time’… and money.
What I have described above is how a reflective methodology, approach, practice or process (when used on Creative Writing courses) commonly fails in its customer experience, understanding of learner needs, and pedagogical responsibility. What I am saying is that a reflective approach should not be used as the default ‘one size fits all’ approach on Creative Writing courses.
To be sure, as already stated, reflective methodologies can be hugely valuable with learners who are have a good (subject) knowledge base, are well read, have a wealth of life experience, have advanced critical thinking and ‘great’ self-awareness, but such learners are all but capable of teaching themselves independently – they are using their course, therefore, simply as a foil and as the discipline of a set of deadlines (plus, they receive a qualification at the end). Such learners are not actually being taught.
Therefore, I am not dismissing the (clear) value of a reflective approach being used to facilitate Creative Writing courses. However, I am saying that a reflective approach should not be universally applied. Learners with a non-traditional or less privileged educational, social, cultural or financial background (for the reasons already described above) may, at best, be left none-the-wiser by such a reflective approach, and they may, at worst, be left feeling alienated, full of self-loathing, hopeless or upset. And the numbers of learners falling into these latter categories are increasing, in this era of globalisation and international education.
When considering such learners, and how we might best improve their customer experience and academic achievement, by making the teaching methodology and learning experience more tailored to their needs, and therefore more engaging and impactful, the scenario described in the first two paragraphs of this section begin to suggest insights and solutions. The disaffected students above wonder why they are having to do the teacher’s job for them. If the teacher isn’t doing their job, then just what is it that they’re doing? Clearly, our teacher using the reflective approach has a very different idea of what constitutes their job compared to the students who want increased input from the teacher concerning how to improve their creative writing. Put simply, with such a group of learners, the teacher needs to start being more (rather than entirely) directive, specific, concrete and pedagogical than merely facilitative, discursive, contemplative and non-judgemental.
Many might find my last statement quite challenging. Implicitly, the statement suggests that the teacher should begin to exemplify writing and to judge student writing in terms of whether it is better or worse, or good or bad, with concrete explanations of how and why certain pieces of writing are more successful than others. In an era when teachers are generally trained to be more ‘student-centred’, democratically inclusive and appreciative in their pedagogy than in the past (when education was highly ‘teacher-centred’ if not dictatorial), it is quite counter-culture to assert that a new, more (rather than entirely) teacher-centred methodology is required to complement (rather than replace) existing approaches. Yet, for all that, even Creative Writing courses which use a reflective approach reach a moment of assessment at the end, when students are scored, and those scores need to be justified, explained and evidenced in concrete terms. Why deny the students such concrete explanations and evidence during the course, only then to use it against them at the end? It seems inconsistent and unfair, and to evidence either a flaw in the existing reflective methodology or an implicit conflict of interest. Similarly, every aspiring author submitting to an agent or publisher reaches a moment when their writing will be assessed against particular quality and market measures. Surely it is the responsibility of the Creative Writing course to make it concretely clear to the students on the course what types of measures agents and publishers (not to mention other readers, including reviewers and critics) will use to assess their submission, then to use those measures to inform how writing is potentially shaped, practised and taught during the course.
So what's the alternative?
Based on all of the above, Creative Writing teachers should also be provided with lessons containing exercises, examples, explanations and learning points to help develop and improve the creative writing knowledge and competences of students, and to help polish the writing of experienced writers as well. Students can use such lessons independently if they prefer, completing exercises and requesting feedback from beta-readers, or the lessons can be delivered in class by a Creative Writing teacher, the teacher expanding upon the lessons using their own knowledge, insights and literary references.
Such lessons would start by addressing sentence-level or localised features of creative writing control and literary effect, but these features will need to be mastered and employed by a student throughout their writing, of course. Then lessons should look at ways you can use yourself as a key resource for ideas, insights and inspiration – methods for accessing the possible ‘content’ you will use for your piece of writing. After that, the lessons would start to look at less localised tactics and features of writing, including characterisation, how to make your writing compelling, and ways to ensure reader engagement. Moving on, there would be a study of more ‘macro’ aspects of extended creative writing, including the plot-shape and nature of ongoing conflict expected by particular genres. The lessons would end unashamedly by looking at the process of editing and accuracy in your prose, and would guide you through producing a professionally persuasive pitch and submission for agents, publishers and a popular readership.
Using lessons as those described above, you will implicitly begin to judge the quality of creative writing more critically/analytically. You will begin to perceive what concretely makes certain pieces of writing more successful than others. You will learn the ‘mechanics’ of particular literary devices and styles. You will implicitly learn a metalanguage for what makes writing better or worse, good or bad, effective or less effective, successful or unsuccessful. You will be able to evidence and explain why a piece of writing is successful or not (useful when looking to persuade an agent or publisher). Put simply, you will learn the ‘big bag of tricks’ that is required to produce writing of ‘commercial standard’. For, rest assured, you can learn to be a better writer (or commercial writer even) through hard work and practice. Sometimes, writers just need to be told how the tricks work, and then they are ready to write independently, and are able to tell if what they are writing is good enough or not.
I have used such lessons, in one form or another, with students of Creative Writing at both BA and MA levels in a number of UK universities. Those students have included young people without a privileged educational background, mature students without much subject knowledge of Creative Writing, and high-achieving students as well. I have even used key lessons with internationally successful authors who have problems with ‘shifting narrative perspective’, ‘making a narrative compelling’ and producing ‘immersive description’. These lessons, and the approach they embody, have regularly received feedback in the following vein: ‘This is the first Creative Writing course where I feel I’ve actually learnt something and seen my writing improve.’ And I have seen numerous students becoming published even before the course was completed. So why not just give it a try, if you’ve found the reflective approach really doesn’t work that well for you?
Such an approach looks to make the field (and ‘secrets’) of Creative Writing more widely accessible. It understands that high quality writing consists of features and styles which can be analysed in terms of their technical aspects and their literary effects, practised and successfully learnt. It provides you with the toolkit you need to be a competent and, hopefully, successful author. It shares with you, as mentioned before, ‘the bag of tricks’, and explains how to perform each trick, so you can put on a show to thrill and enchant your audience.
And where can you find examples of such lessons? Here.