When browsing through creative writing classes online one is immediately struck by the variety of what’s on offer. Courses differ in duration, subject matter and tutor, and each one comes with a slightly different price tag. I’ve attended many writing programmes over the last twelve years, from year-long postgraduate classes to six-week introductions, and although some were excellent and well worth the money, others, unfortunately, were not. The following is intended as a guide to the uninitiated concerning the prices of creative writing courses – what’s good value for money, and more importantly, what isn’t.
Lets begin with a simple observation. What you’re essentially purchasing when you sign up for a creative writing class is the tutor’s time. This purchase should come in two parts: the time the tutor spends preparing and delivering a class, and the time the tutor might spend outside the classroom reading, editing and commenting on a student’s work. It’s this second consideration that tends to vary from class to class, and how it plays out can seriously affect the value you recieve for your money.
In larger schools the price of a class is split between the tutor and the school administration. Who gets what will vary from tutor to tutor according to their percieved value in the field. Such divisions often result in some tutors feeling they are not being paid enough to take on work outside the classroom, and they will design a creative writing class with that limitation in mind. The commonest tactic to avoid taking work home is simply to give in-class writing exercises, get students to read out what they’ve written and then give on the spot advice. An added advantage of this approach is you needn’t spend hours preparing a lesson plan. In fact, apart from a few set exercises, you barely need one at all.
For example I once attended a six week creative writing class at a local university, which for present purposes shall remain nameless. The course was given by the writer in residence at the college, was open to the public and attendees was selected by the quality of their submissions. For the writer who was giving the class, the course was one of their contractual obligations, indeed it was their final one, for it took place in June, after the final college semester.
From the beginning it was obvious the tutor had little enthusiasm. There was no lesson plan or general strategy outlined in the first session, and from the second class on each person was asked to read a story aloud, and then the others were asked to comment. The students were all in a Google group and could easily have shared their work in the days before class. That would have enabled them to think about what they’d read before giving an opinion, which is generally considered a good idea. But it wouldn’t have eaten up the minutes as effectively. To make matters worse it was obvious that the tutor hadn’t read any of the work. They simply listened to it in the classroom, and then to the comments of the other students, at the end of which they would slyly rephrase the most astute.
I don’t mean for this anecdote to be interpreted ad hominen. In the tutor’s defence, this wasn’t a writing class they’d organised or even wanted, it was simply a hangnail contractual requirement that, from their point of view, was to be endured as painlessly as possible. However their failure to conceal this mindset from the class was unfortunate. Shoddy instruction in creative pursuits isn’t just poor value for money. Far worse is its potential to disencourage someone’s interest in the activity.
A good creative writing class should include the following; a definite lesson plan; circulated readings by established authors in the chosen field; the chance to submit to, and have work edited by, the tutor; the chance to have your work workshopped by the other students in the class. These are all programmatic elements you should confirm, before you pay anything. If a writing course contains all these components it is likely that it’s price will be at the higher end of the scale. If it doesn’t, the price should reflect that.
A final word on one day or weekend seminars. I’ve noticed over the last few years the increasing frequency of these events where rather large sums of money are being paid for very limited access to writers to hear them speak. Of course, if the writer in question is a personal favourite then perhaps it’s worth the cost, but if not, save your money. Just buy one of their books for a fraction of the price and read it carefully. Writing has a relatively steep learning curve. Listening to other people’s advice is fine, but one really learns by practise and mistakes. It can be a long torturous process, and anyone promising huge improvements in a short amount of time is probably trying to sell you snake oil.