Sunday, February 3, 2013

Starting Out #3: Do you need to do a course to be a writer?

When I did year 12, right after the year 11 work experience fiasco, there were only a couple of places a NSW girl could consider going to uni to study journalism. Mitchell College in Bathurst was one, UTS was another.

Over the following decades, Communications courses bred like mice proliferated, but by then it was too late for me. I'd opted instead for the school of hard knocks that is a journalism cadetship, followed by years of on-the-job training across various magazines, with a light flirtation with a Bachelor of Arts when I was about 21. By the time I came to freelance writing at around about the age of 30, I was well and truly immersed in my craft.

Which is not to say that I don't advocate for a course if you're starting out. I've done a lot of short courses in different aspects of fiction - including a memorable one by Sue Woolfe which took me about 12 years to understand (I get it now, Sue, I really do!) - and if there's one thing that my tutoring experience at the Australian Writers' Centre has taught me, it's just how much you can learn in a short time if you're given the right info. But does that mean that a longer course would be even more valuable?

 This week's Starting Out contributor is working that out for herself. I can't even remember how I came across Karen Charlton's blog Rhythm & Method, but I do remember being hooked from the start. Let's just say she has a way with words. Knowing what to do with those words, however, was quite a different matter, and it's something that she's been working out ever since we first 'met' via our blogs.

But I'll let her tell the story.

Starting out, in mid life – is study worth it?

The decision to pursue writing for me was not a conscious one, it was more of a red hot compulsion that overtook me in my early 30s, like the wanderlust that overcomes so many in their 20s. “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Mary Oliver once asked. The answer to me seemed simple: write.

Discovering my writing voice was one thing; knowing how to create larger, publishable works was an entirely different proposition. In order to go pro, I’d need some further training. I began with a short course.

Getting down to business: short courses
Short courses offer a brief overview of the business of writing, and if you’re considering this as a career, it’s a good investment in retooling yourself. I was limited as to where I could study (I had three pre-schoolers to care for) so went with online study with the Australian Writers’ Centre back in March 2011. TAFEs, adult education centres (like CAE in Melbourne) and some community centres also offer short course options in person. To find the right one for you, do some shopping around.

Most writing centres are staffed by industry members with years of writing experience. The freelance features course I did ran over five weeks and gave me enough knowledge to start mulling over pitches and get my head around what kind of stories I might be able to write, and for whom. It wasn’t until I enrolled in the RMIT Professional Writing and Editing* course in early 2012, though, that I really found my stride and starting pitching.

Trade school for word nerds:
TAFE or university writing programs differ to short courses, in that they hone in on writing craft. You will learn all the grammar you didn’t learn in high school, and all you need to know to rightfully call yourself a professional writer. You will work on voice, you will discuss your reader, markets, blurbs, drafts, and pitches. You will talk book marketing and shelf life and remainders. They will make you write – in class and outside of class. Then they make you write some more.

Most courses also offer subjects in a range of writing styles: non-fiction, fiction, writing for magazines, writing for children, YA fiction, and so on, so when you do graduate, you’re skilled in a number of areas.

Writing schools endeavour to create a nurturing learning environment. If you’re in a small cohort of students, and you’re regularly workshopping each other’s work, you’ll soon find clusters of people who you know to turn to for advice or constructive criticism. Having formally graded assignments also ensures that your work is measured against industry standard. Grades, plus detailed written feedback from teachers means you always know where your work sits in the scheme of things, and what you need to work on. It gives you something to work with, rather than the empty feeling you get when the only feedback you’re receiving is “No thanks”.

Writing school will definitely teach you to be a better writer.

The cost:
The downside to study is the cost; it takes time (anywhere between one year fulltime and three years fulltime for a bachelors degree, double if you’re part-time) and money. If you’re studying fulltime, it also means your earning capacity is limited to part-time, so unless you have savings to fall back on, you’re going to be living on tinned tuna and Weetbix for a few more years.

Making it fit in your life can also be a real challenge, particularly if you’re encumbered (like me: mortgage, partner, kids). Committing to a writing course is a gamble, like running away and joining the circus or sailing across the Pacific ocean with a guy you met in a bar. You’re paying to learn a trade that you mightn’t earn much money from (depending on who you write for), and that’s something you need to come to terms with. I think you need to do it for the love of it, or not at all. I often remind myself, if I wanted to have a traditional career, I could go back to being a project manager even though the thought of doing that job again makes me want to poke my own eyes out.

The benefits:
Writing school stretched me beyond my comfort zone. It made me show up to the page and work out exactly what it was I was trying to say. Reading my drafts aloud was a little traumatic for me, a self-confessed backroom girl. Every class I would get up to read, and every class I would walk away hot with embarrassment, my every thought broadcast across my face in varying shades of crimson. Did this particular form of self-torture make my writing better? Absolutely.

Anna Funder once wrote “creative writing ... requires a slip state of being, not unlike love”. For some, trying to get into this slip-state while listening to the nose whistle of the dude sitting next to you will be impossible. For me, this meant writing drafts on the train on the way home, my headphones whiting out the world and allowing me to nestle down into that place where stories are made.

The biggest thing writing school has taught me is to trust the creative process. There’s something to be gained in watching other people’s stories shaping up, from a wandering blob of prose to a sexy, sharp piece of writing. It gives you faith to keep going, knowing that all creative work (not just your own) ‘swings between the wild and the tame’, to use Mark Tredinnick’s phrase.

Despite my various writing school adventures, the writing business still confounds me. As Elizabeth Gilbert says, “becoming a published writer is sort of like trying to find a cheap apartment in New York City: it’s impossible. And yet…every single day, somebody manages to find a cheap apartment in New York City.” (For the best advice I’ve ever read on becoming a writer, read this).

The answer? Keep going. Read, Write, Repeat.

*I’m currently on leave from this program.

Karen Jane Charlton is a freelance writer who has contributed to The Sydney Morning Herald, Daily Life and Mamamia. She is also a Kidspot Village Voice. In real life she lives on the Mornington Peninsula with Mr Karen, their three young sons and a chicken named Peggy Olson. 

If you enjoyed this post, you'll also love Starting Out #1 (So you want to be a freelance writer) and Starting Out #2 (What kind of writer will you be?)

So have you done a writing course? Which one? Would you recommend it for someone starting out?


  1. A creative writing course is something that I've always wanted to do. I did 'Writing for Children' and 'The Creative Writing Process" as subjects at Uni while doing English Literature, but that's about it. My early writing career was cut short when a short story I wrote was selected for an anthology and published in 1995... but they edited the piece and LEFT OUT THE PUNCHLINE (accidentally, apparently) and I was so devastated that I didn't ever submit another thing again. Ever. x

    1. I can see that would be traumatic. It might be time to get back on the horse??? Or the bicycle??? Or whatever.

  2. Loved this post and love Karen:) I've done a course in writing for children and loved it but it made me realise that fiction was not my thing. Then I enrolled in a journalism course, which I'm still enrolled in, but have only done the first 2 assignments. That was about 18 months ago and I've not done anything with it since. I must get back into it and finish but it's a bit bland for me. I've done 2 blogging courses recently and absolutely loved those. so much more fun and practical. i've paid for that course so I need to finish it but it's made me reevaluate what sort of writing I really want to do. Again! Anyway, thanks, both of you, for your cool writing and persistance. Helps me keep on keeping on:) x

  3. Thanks Karen. It is good to know this. I often wonder if I should enrol to study...but I just don't know if I can face it. I feel like I have been studying for 10 years straight. We'll see! Zanni @ Heart Mama

    1. Oh, I did study some creative writing subjects whilst at Melbourne Uni - playwriting and writing long fiction. It was good. But it all sort of ended there. I needed blogging to give me motivation to write.

  4. I'm part way through one of those prolific Communications degrees and I can appreciate that feeling of being encumbered. Starting a degree after starting a family was probably not the greatest idea but the thought of finance - urgh!

    I've started looking into one of the Australian Writers' Centre courses, the degree's feeling very laborious and I wonder whether I would benefit from something more condensed in the short term. Loving these posts, keep 'em coming x

  5. I am loving these posts. I did a degree in Professional Writing & Literature at Deakin University, but then went on to forge a career in marketing and events. Whilst the degree was useful, it seems like a long time ago now! I have three children under the age of four and so I am exploring creative options at the moment. I am blogging and submitting work for publication and I am also enrolled to do a course at the Australian Writers' Centre (more as a refresher as my uni days seem like a lifetime ago). I have had some 'wins' with publication in Daily Life and Web Child and iVillage, but I've also had plenty of rejections. I am still learning how best to manage the disappointment that comes with this creative gig!

  6. Thanks for having me Al. It was great to be part of this awesome series.

  7. Makes me want to sign up for a course. Know a good tutor? x

  8. Totally awesome posts Allison - thank you so much for sharing.
    I did the Magazine writing course at the Australian Writing Centre - and you were my online tutor. I learnt a lot from you and am hoping to put it into practice very soon.

  9. I would love nothing more than doing a "proper" writing course through university but having those same commitments as Karen (mortgage/husband/family) have thwarted me.

    Sadly my husband is of the opinion that you don't need a degree, you just need the right talent and determination to succeed at this game (though funnily enough he has a degree and its gotten him far in the publishing world!) and that the hardest part is just getting a start.

    That being said though, the AWC short course was a valuable insight and I would so love to do their chick lit one next!

  10. It's six months since I started blogging and I've realised that writing is what I love. Then it was a question of doing a course or not. I was struggling with this dilemma, but after reading this I'm sure that I waant to do a writing course. Thank you so very much Karen for blowing away the cobwebs in my mind :)


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