What I Learned From My Creative Writing Courses

blank notebook, writing, editing, creative writing

As an editor I’m trained to edit. I can take an author’s book and polish it. I can address the grammar, spelling and flow along with all the other editory type things that us editors do. I can tell an author what’s working and what isn’t and I can take a jargon filled piece of writing and make it readable.

I love my job.

But I love writing too.

That’s why three years ago I embarked on a creative writing course. It wasn’t to write the kind of stuff I already write (non-fiction writing for clients), it was to write creatively. I wanted to write stories. But I also knew it would help with my day job – an editor who writes can have more empathy with an author than one who doesn’t.

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Just Do It

That first year I took a free FutureLearn course produced by the Open University. The course leader was (and still is) Derek Neale, who also wrote and edited the course books for the ‘real’ OU courses. It’s an eight-week course so I thought I’d give it a go. It was scary – I knew other people might read my stories, but I never actually realised just what that meant. Strangers reading something you’ve written with an eye to picking it apart, then telling you just what they thought. Urgh!

Despite my reservations (I would be rubbish, I wouldn’t write anything decent, I’d cry a lot) I thoroughly enjoyed it and realised that I should have done it years ago. I started in October and as soon as the course finished I signed up for the OU A215 Creative Writing course. I then spent the next six months wondering what I’d signed up for.

 laptop, writing, editing, creative writing

Then Do Some More

When October 2015 came around I received my course books, took one look at the size of them and the timetable and realised that I had a busy year ahead of me. I had to fit the module around work and my theatre commitments. Let’s just say that since then I haven’t had a spare moment!

But the course was a joy. I was lucky to be part of a very active forum (where a group of students bounce off each other and comment on each other’s work) and had an active tutor. As another academic year went by I honed my writing skills and became less scared of what others thought. I gained a thick skin and began to appreciate every critique and observation. I also gained a distinction at the end of it.

And so I signed up for the Advanced Creative Writing course A363.

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Keep Calm and Carry On

When October 2016 came around I received my course books and again realised I was going to be busy. Very busy. And again I loved every minute of it. I have spent the last eight months with stories in my head and characters vying for attention. I wrote stories and two plays (ok, one was only ten minutes and the last one is a 30 minutes one-act play, but they are still plays). My ten minute play may be extended in the future as I can’t get it out of my head.

pencils, writing, write

Never Stop Writing

After three years I have reached the end of my creative writing courses. I’m waiting for my final results (another nail-biting month to go before I get them) but I’m confident of a decent mark and I’m already missing the camaraderie and creativity. I have to continue. I must. So I’m saving up to do the Creative Writing MA. There are a few to choose from (I have my eye on a Crime Writing and Forensic Investigation MLitt from Dundee, but there seems to be no distance learning option) but rather than go down the student loan option I want to have some cash behind me before I start.

For now I have to go in another direction, but my goal, after years of denying it, is to get that MA and write creatively and well. And the last three years have helped me professionally. I have learnt so much that now I not only see things from an editor’s perspective, I see things as an author.

So with both my editor and author hats on I thought I’d share with you what I have learned over those last, wonderful three years.

coffee, notebook, notepad, writing

What I Learned From My Creative Writing Courses:

 

One pair of eyes is never enough.

Just as you can’t edit your own work, your writing will benefit from being read by more than one person. The OU course relies heavily on peer review, and the more of us that commented on each other’s work, the better our work became. Different people pick up on different things. One person may be particularly good at picking up on grammar and spelling mistakes, while another may be better at the big picture.

That’s why I always recommend that you get more than one person to look at your book. Before you hire an editor, get as many people as possible to read it. Get their honest feedback. Listen to what they say and either take or leave their comments, but take on board what they tell you. That way when you approach your editor you know that your book already works (of course the editor will pick up on things as that’s what we’re trained for, but the less work we have to do, the cheaper your edit will be).

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Writing in different genres requires different skills.

I can’t write poetry, well, not very well. I can practice and I’ll get better but it doesn’t come naturally or easily to me. I can, however, write short stories, plays and screenplays. I can also write non-fiction, but that involves different brain cells.

Just because you are great at one type of writing, don’t expect it all to come easily. Be honest with yourself. If you find that you are slogging over your writing, take a step back and ask yourself why. Do you need more training? Do you need someone to critique your work and really delve deep into where the problems lie? Should you change direction? As a writer being honest with yourself is the first step towards finding what you are really, really good at.

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You have to listen to feedback and not take it personally.

One of the most gut-wrenching things is to have others read your work. You are laying your soul bare. You’ve put hours of work into your writing and it becomes personal, it shows you for who you are. You ARE your work.

But it’s essential that you listen to any feedback that you are given. Don’t take things personally. The reader isn’t attacking you or your work by pointing out where it could be better. They’re just being honest.

As a writer I kind of dread the feedback, but know it’s essential and worth it all in the end. As an editor I try to be kind in my comments. I know that with my writing I value a straightforward, non-emotional, kind approach to feedback, and that’s how I try to give it when working. I think of how I would feel if I got the comments back that I give out.

When you get feedback, try to distance yourself from it. Look at the words and not the hours of hard work. Look at the final result that is getting nearer. Always keep in mind the finished product and the readers you hope to delight.

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Sometimes you have to start again.

Sometimes it just doesn’t work. It’s not because you’ve failed, it’s just that it doesn’t, and will never, work. Even the best laid plans sometimes come unstuck.

That’s why our notebooks are full of half-formed ideas.

Accept the failed starts, put them away, perhaps for another time, and start again. It can be a lot less painful than plodding on just for the sake of it. If you think it doesn’t work, it probably doesn’t. If you aren’t sure ask someone you can trust.

stack of documents, books, writing

As a professional editor I knew these things already, but as a writer I now feel them more than ever. I can sympathise and empathise with an author on their own level. I think that it’s made me a kinder editor in that I’ve felt what the authors have felt, and can approach their writing from both sides.

But what I have really learned from my OU creative writing courses is that once you start writing you can’t stop. You see the world with new eyes and every drop of rain or missed bus is a new story waiting to unfold.

 

If you are an author looking for an editor who knows what it’s like to write, get in touch. Your book deserves a little TLC before you send it out into the world.

 

6 thoughts on “What I Learned From My Creative Writing Courses

  1. Fair play to you for broadening your horizons with writing classes! It takes serious guts, because of the whole “you have to listen to feedback” thing. But it sounds like the vulnerability has been well worth it for you — both in helping you grow as a writer, and in broadening your perspective as an editor. Money well spent, I’d say! Pity they don’t offer that “crime and forensic writing” class online, though … sounds very interesting, doesn’t it? Well. Cheers to you, and thank you for passing along your lessons!

    • You know, before I did the courses I thought I dealt with writers fairly and professionally (which I did). Since though, I’ve realised just how even professional feedback can bring up a writer’s defences. It’s definitely made me a more empathic editor 😊

  2. Good post and the course sounds interesting as well. I’m always looking to learn more tips and tricks about writing, so a free course is irresistible. 🙂

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