In 2012 I graduated from Royal Holloway University of London with a joint honours degree in creative writing and drama. Pretty much ever since, I’ve wondered if it was worth it.
Degrees are expensive. I mean, I was pretty lucky; I finished my degree just before the government hiked up the cap on tuition fees, meaning that I only had to spend £3,000 per year of study rather than £9,000. But I also had to take out a maintenance loan to pay for accommodation and living costs. Basically, I wracked up a debt of somewhere around £25k for 3 years of study. Which is fun.
Was it worth it? I mean, I guess. My degree helped me to get my first full time job as an Assistant Brand Manager for an ecommerce company. However, I’m pretty sure that any humanities degree would have helped me to get the job. In fact, I reckon that my freelance writing experience alone was the main thing that clinched the role for me – a degree was just a bit of a bonus for my employer.
Was my degree in creative writing worth it in terms of my ability to write fiction? I question this all the time. I’ve changed a lot from the person I was at 17, when I was deciding what I wanted to do at university. Back then, I just wanted to study something I enjoyed. I had no idea what type of career I wanted, but the teachers at my Sixth Form consistently told us that having a degree – any degree – would help us to secure better, higher paying jobs. Plus, I always did well at school academically, so it made sense to continue on my education. I just figured out what I enjoyed the most and found a degree that sounded fun.
Cut to me now, and my attitude is totally different. I fell into the whole marketing and content writing thing, and I’ve been stuck here ever since. Having my degree hasn’t necessarily opened more doors for me in terms of career choice and earning potential. I’m fairly certain I could have got to where I am now without a degree.
Honestly, if I could rewind time knowing what I know now, I’d have chosen a science degree. I’d love to have trained to be a vet or veterinary nurse. But when I was 17 (read: young, dumb, and not really thinking about the future) the thought of doing an intense science degree made me yawn. I regret my degree in this respect; my day to day job satisfaction would be totally different had I done a done a degree based on 27-year-old me’s interests and goals.
But at least I’m using my degree by writing fiction, right?
I may not be making money out of writing fiction right now, but my degree is certainly fuelling my hobby and I’m hopeful that eventually I will start to make a bit of a living from writing stories.
The question is, would I have been in the exact same position as I am now with writing as I would have been had I not done a creative writing degree? Did doing a degree in creative writing make me a better writer? Is a creative writing degree worth it in terms of developing writing talent and skill?
I think that, for me personally, it probably was. Here’s why.
It made me excited about writing
I was a lazy writer in my teens. As a kid, I wrote little stories all the time. I loved writing poems and stories in school and took what I learned home to write in my free time. It just kind of came naturally; I wanted to tell stories and I did so without worrying if they were good or if people would laugh at me. When the self-conscious teen years came in, those were things I did start to worry about, and so I stopped writing regularly.
When I learned that a degree in creative writing was an option, I jumped at the opportunity. I always liked the idea of “being a writer” in some kind of capacity, and it was exciting to know that there was a degree out there that could nurture my writing skills. I felt genuinely excited about writing stories again, which was incredible.
It made me get used to the concept of writing when you don’t feel like it
When you’re studying a degree in creative writing, you don’t have the luxury of writing only when inspiration strikes. Deadlines are assigned, and you need to meet them.
Developing the discipline to write when I had to rather than when I wanted to was invaluable. Even now, it helps me to remember that I have no real excuses not to write. If I want to become a professional fiction writer, I need to work at it at any opportunity. I need to write whenever I have the time and I need to force myself to dig for creativity, even when it feels like my imagination has dried up.
It taught me how to constructively critique creative work
A huge part of my creative writing degree was critiquing my own work and that of others. During seminars we’d dig into the nitty gritty of each other’s stories to make them the best they could be. Plus, all of the creative work we submitted as coursework had to be accompanied by a critical essay. This involved justifying the themes, stylistic choices, and influences of our story, script, or poem.
This process helped massively in my ability to edit my own work. It helped me not only to recognise clunky sentence structures, clichés, rubbish plot structure, and other aspects of poor writing, but also to consider the bigger picture of my work. What are its themes, and are these consistent throughout the story? Who else has written stuff like this, and what can I learn from them? What could I do better if I were to start all over again?
It helped me to be kinder to myself
My degree in creative writing also helped me to criticise my own work from a sensible, objective standpoint. I think most writers find themselves, at one point or another, absolutely despising their own work. Usually this is because we spend so long inside the story, building it up from a trashy first draft into something that we hope has some semblance of quality, that we over-analyse every word.
A degree in creative writing helped me to be practical in my self-criticism because it forced me to critique my own work in the same way I would critique someone else’s, i.e. with kindness. When you’re giving feedback on the work of others you feel a stronger urge to point out the good along with the bad. You’re gentler because you don’t want to discourage that other person. Instead, you want to help them reach their full potential.
When it comes to ourselves? Well, we tend to focus more on our negatives than our positives, don’t we? We’re ruthless in our self-criticism. But if you try to look at a story objectively, as though you’re not the one that wrote it, it’s a little easier to pinpoint the bad aspects while acknowledging the good. Then, you only need to focus on making the bad bits better. You’re less compelled to just hit the delete button on an entire story.
It gave me the confidence I needed to share my creative work
Sharing creative work can be scary. I was terrified at the prospect of an entire seminar group reading my stories and offering their criticism. But eventually, as with anything scary, being forced to do it made the fear goes away. Plus, getting positive feedback on my work made me feel like my writing wasn’t as bad as I first thought it was.
These days I love sharing my stories with the internet, and having my work read and enjoyed by others is one of the biggest reasons why I write. Spending 3 years sharing my creative work with fellow students and the published authors who taught me was vital for my self-confidence.
Would I recommend a degree in creative writing?
Yes and no.
I certainly learned a great deal from my creative writing degree which I’m not sure I would have learned without it. It made me more disciplined, made me better at self-critique, and made me more confident. If you think you could do with help in these areas then, sure, a degree in creative writing might be useful for you.
However, I also think a short creative writing workshop, a writer’s retreat, or the joining of a writing group could achieve the same things. Even setting up a little online writing group via WordPress, Twitter, Wattpad, or any other social platform could help you to share and workshop stories in a similar way to that done during a creative writing degree. And it would be a hell of a lot cheaper.
At the end of the day, I don’t think a degree in creative writing is necessary to be a good writer. Although I learned a lot from my degree, I think that the best way to improve your writing skill is to write as often as possible and read as much and as widely as you can. And that stuff comes free.
If you’re considering a degree in creative writing, my advice is to figure out exactly what you want to learn and investigate all the possible ways in which you could learn it. But above all else, do what feels right for you.