top of page

Brain Strain or Artistic Enrichment? A Creative Writing Degree: is it Worth the Effort?

Moniack Mhor - The Scottish Writing Centre

By Geoff King (Guest blog by Geoff, third year student BA Honours degree in Creative Writing, who is in work experience at Luna, from the Highlands and Islands University.

Some early-career writers might be asking whether it is worth the time and effort studying for a creative writing degree. Three or four years of full-time education (or longer if part-time) is quite a commitment. Like me, you might know writers who have been successfully published without following this route and think, ‘if they can do it, so can I’. You may well be right, but in an increasingly competitive field with an ever-growing body of writers, your chances are diminishing continually unless you get a lucky break (and they are rare).

You might think that a shorter writing course is sufficient. Certainly, the fiction writing week I attended at Moniack Mhor, the Scottish Writing Centre, was invaluable. The tutors, Nadifa Mohammed (now Booker shortlisted) and Alex Wheatle, both award-winning authors, taught us many useful elements of the craft. But that introduction, in the nurturing and supportive atmosphere of a comfortable haven perched on the side of a hill in an inspiring landscape, convinced me I wanted to go further.

As a self-published author, writing in limited spare time, my incentive for enrolling on the degree was to improve and develop my writing and thus increase my chances of getting traditionally published. I had only resorted to self-publication after a string of rejections left me frustrated with the time it took to tailor every submission to each particular agent’s or publisher’s specifications and research which of them would consider the sort of things I wrote. Pernickety so-and-sos...

Now, nearing the end of my third year (of four), I feel my writing has improved enormously, and I have a greater appreciation of how and why stories work. In an honours degree, there will be elements that don’t feel particularly creative. To be a successful author, is it really necessary to understand textual and thematic analysis, literary critical theory, topological and ethnographic contexts, or the principles of academic research? I don’t think so, but despite my resistance to analytical and interpretive approaches (hear my screams!), these areas of study can help anchor and temper the creative psyche; the knowledge gained provides insights into what makes good writing and why it works. My imagination can be like an undisciplined monkey skittering through the dendrites of my brain and, although it often finds creative fruit amongst the branches, it needs to bring them down to earth to be served up on the literary dinner table.

Essay Writing, by Geoff King

Thankfully, the degree contains much more than academic mind-squeeze and has opened my eyes to avenues of writing I didn’t know existed or had previously given little thought to. As a long fiction addict, I never imagined I would enjoy Creative Non-fiction, blogging, writing for children, screenplay, or the ruthlessness required to ‘kill your darlings’ (it hurts!) in short stories and flash fiction. Guided in a range of techniques, practising creative writing exercises and peer review, I have learnt the fundamentals of editing, structure, creating characters, world-building, dialogue, effective use of imagery, using poetic methods in prose, and pacing.

I can’t say it’s been without its challenges. I admit to having a particular dislike of academic essays, scholarly jargon, theoretical thinking and the university’s insistence on the precise requirements of its adopted form of Harvard referencing. But, there are always going to be things in life you don’t want to do and by facing these struggles you learn something, grow as a person, and possibly discover that if you change your attitude you can reduce the stress involved. For example, a lot of people are daunted by working to deadlines; I started calling them ‘lifelines’, which gave me greater motivation to reach for them and avoid drowning in last-minute panic.

You’ll be shown other sources of writerly income capable of supporting you whilst working on your novel. Once you’ve got your foot in the door with a few pieces accepted, there is earning potential in submitting short stories and creative non-fiction to journals and magazines. Guest blogs and web content can also bring in revenue, as can editing, proofreading, and ghost-writing.

I can only speak from personal experience on my particular course. The BA honours degree in Creative Writing in the Highlands and Islands, offered by the University of the Highlands and Islands, does have a partial focus on highlighting how the area’s topography and culture can affect the way in which we write and the subjects we choose to write about. Of course, everyone’s situation is unique and you have to judge what is appropriate for you in your specific circumstances.

I believe writers of school-leaving age, with or without gap years, if dedicated and determined, could benefit enormously from a degree in Creative Writing and massively improve their chances of employment or publication. In an overcrowded arena awash with growing numbers of writers, the better your work and the better you know the sector, the more chance you’ll have of success.

Speaking for myself as a mature student, it was quite a shock returning to full-time education after thirty-eight gap years. It’s hard work! And time-consuming. I have had to face many challenges, but through them I have gained not just new skills but self-confidence.

Part of the degree is work experience. I was fortunate to get a placement with Luna Press. Francesca has taught me about all stages of the publishing process from submission to publication, not just in the context of a small indie press, but in the sector as a whole. Proofreading a novel, writing a guest blog, interviewing an author, and contributing to has all been useful practice, and the whole thing is a great experience.

I am extremely grateful to be living in a country (Scotland) that supports ‘life-long learning’. Tuition fees are paid by the government (taxpayer), and student loans are available to anyone who successfully enrols before their sixtieth birthday. Given this valuable opportunity, I have wholeheartedly embraced it, and I am determined to give my fellow citizens value for money. Hopefully, I will emerge from the other end of the academic tunnel to discover that the light shining there is a warm welcome from the literary world.

To return to the original question, ‘A Creative Writing Degree – is it Worth the Effort?’, I will say, yes, I recommend it, though I also have to add that with one year to go, I am looking forward to getting my life back. But it will be a different life – the life of a writer – because I am intent on making full use of the degree, all the skills and knowledge I’ve learnt and the opportunities that have opened up for me.

Geoff King is a self-published writer and irregular blogger currently studying for an honours degree in Creative Writing at the University of the Highlands and Islands.


Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page