With one exception, my course was a waste of time. Sometimes it seemed that the only thing I learned (outside of that one exception) was that if you wish to write commercially, don’t go to university.
Because many of university lecturers had no experience outside academia. They had no idea of what was commercial, and by commercial here I mean business writing as well as fiction.
The one exception was the professor who taught screenwriting. He had been a screenwriter for 30 years before he took up teaching, and it showed in what he taught and how he taught it.
I learned more about screenwriting from him in one semester than I did in the rest of the course.
Sadly, he died in my first year (vale Peter, you were fantastic). The new screenwriting professor had spent his life in academia, and it showed.
The individual professors I had were lovely people, but they really needed some practical experience if the real world about what they were teaching.
My experience was not unique, as the Rejecter’s blog shows, but others have done such courses and got real value out of them.
Interestingly enough, the university I originally contacted to do my MA recommended I try elsewhere, as they didn’t have anyone on the faculty who wrote in the genre I like to work in.
So what makes a good writing course?
Different courses suit different people.
First, you need to decide what you want out of the course.
If you simply want to learn to write better your choices are wider, because your options include private schools and community courses.
If you wish to gain a qualification, your options are more limited. Here in Australia it’s then either a university or a TAFE. You can choose a TAFE (college of Technical and Further Education) if you’re happy with a certificate (and in some cases a diploma), otherwise it’s a university you want a full undergraduate or post-graduate degree.
How do you choose which one is right for you?
Talk to the people running the course. Talk to the people you will be working with. Ask them about their experience and the type of writing they do.
If you want to write commercial fiction ask them straight out how they feel about it, and what they think of students who write in your particular genre. If the answer comes back, “We teach our students to write literature,” then steer clear of the course. It won’t suit you.
Even if the answer is a more generous, “Well, I don’t write in that particular genre myself, but I am prepared to look at it,” then understand that they will try to look at it fairly, but you won’t get high marks.
Ask the people who will be teaching you whether they read genre fiction. This is even more important than whether they it.
Obviously, if someone says they never touch the stuff, you know you will be marked low if you write it.
Check out the staff’s background.
If you want to write commercial fiction, then the people who are teaching you should write it too.
This is where the TAFEs and some of the better the fee-paying schools (e.g. AFTRS) do so much better than the universities. You don’t normally get a job at a TAFE (or the AFTRS) because you have studied the subject you are teaching. You get a job because you have worked in the industry and have first-hand experience of what you teach.
Like most jobs, nothing beats practical experience.