To begin with, I can’t actually decide whether the title of this post should say “learned” or “learnt”. Apparently learned is more common, but I’m swaying towards learnt more and more as I write this post, because it’s what I would naturally say. But the point of this post is to divulge some of the things I’ve learned (still can’t decide which one!) whilst studying Creative Writing at university. For those of you who don’t know, I completed my second year of university in June and will be starting my third and final year in September. I’ve chosen modules that don’t have exams (not intentionally, but it is a bonus!) so I should be done with university and ready to start my life by April next year! Yaay, I’m so excited!
Here are some of my tips/just some knowledge that I’ve gained whilst studying my course at university. Enjoy!
Know what options are available to you
When I started university, I was enrolled on a four year course that included a year abroad. To cut a long story short, I was very very excited about this and it was one of the largest factors that drew me towards by course. But as a very career driven person, I realised that studying abroad wasn’t really going to do anything to help me get into publishing, because I wouldn’t be gaining any experience within the publishing field. So, about halfway through first year, I opted for a year in industry instead. And then later on I had reached breaking point with all my essays and decided I needed to finish university asap, so I scrapped my year in industry and lessened my course to three years instead.
Whilst I don’t necessarily regret the decisions I made, I do regret that I wasn’t as informed as I could have been about the options that were open to me. I would recommend finding out if your university offers a term instead of a year abroad. The closer I got to making a decision about my year abroad, the more worried I felt about leaving my family for a whole year. During my first year at university, I would get these waves where I felt really low and really, really missed home – which is amusing now because every time I go home I can’t wait to leave again! But of course, being only 2 hours away from home, it was very easy for me to get on a coach and see my family. Whereas if I was abroad, I imagined that I would feel even more isolated and upset and I just wasn’t too keen on putting myself through that for a whole year. However, I would have loved to do a term abroad, it was just something that I didn’t look into at the time and now I really regret it.
In terms of my year in industry, it really would have put me in such an advantageous position to work in a publishing house for a whole year. If you’ve ever tried to contact a publishing house then you will know that sometimes they don’t reply to your emails. That’s okay! If one email doesn’t get you there, then spend your time on Google searching for more publishing companies. Keep trying and don’t give up, because somewhere down the line somebody will reply. It takes time but you’ll get there eventually! Having a year of experience to whack onto your CV before you graduate is excellent, because a lot of full-time jobs advertised for editorial positions within publishing houses require you to have at least a years experience before you can apply anyway.
Avoid writing “purple prose”
In terms of my actual course, there are a few key things that I have learnt about my writing. During my first year, I was told that I write “purple prose”. I immediately took offence to this, which I’m sure I rambled about in a blog post on here once before, so I’ll link that here for you. Purple prose is basically just writing that is over-done; and after reading Oscar Wilde and F. Scott Fitzgerald, I have to say it is difficult to not want to over-do it with your writing. But what I have learned since then is that simplicity is really key to the telling of any story. If you go over the top with your description, not only do you hinder the movement of your story, but you’re distracting away from the story itself. Yes, your character might be sitting in the most beautiful room he has ever seen, but how relevant is a whole long paragraph of description about that wonderful room, to your actual story?
Another thing I would recommend, is not to bolt on a whole load of “he said”, “he shouted”, “she sobbed”. I used to think that these were really good ways of describing how my speech is being said by each character, but they kind of stunt the movement of conversation between the characters. Generally, your readers will be able to follow your speech more easily without a whole host of those added on, so try and use them sparingly.
Perfect your character voice
The second thing I’ve learned is in relation to character voice and person. In the past I’ve always been inclined to write in the third person. It has a lot of benefits because it’s omniscient and it allows you to get into the minds of several different characters rather than just one. But I have since found that my writing is easier to connect with when I write in the first person and can really nail that character voice. A good narrative voice is something that I feel really draws the reader in, so it’s a good idea to try and get this right this with a few practice paragraphs or something before you even start writing.
Don’t stop writing
Something else worth pointing out is that you should try to never stop writing. This sounds like an obvious one, but its so easy to feel un-inspired when studying Creative Writing at university. Firstly, if you have a really boring seminar leader then you have absolutely no motivation to be creative because all you’re doing during class is scrolling through Facebook, Whatsapp or trying not to fall asleep. Secondly, I study Creative Writing alongside American and English literature. So with all the essays I have to write and all the analysing I have to do of different texts, it’s not uncommon that my brain just goes into overload and I get writers block. Which is so annoying because it makes you feel like you’re not even good enough to be a writer anymore!
What you have to do is find a book that really grips you. Or a situation that really inspires you to write about something new. For me that would either have to be Gone Girl (seriously, I am so sorry for mentioning this in every post, I’ve really got to stop now!) or Julie Kagawa’s The Immortal Rules series. I found book one sitting on my shelf yesterday and it’s really well written! Once you find something that inspires you, keep writing! Because a skill has to be exercised for it to develop.
Read and keep up to date with new releases
If you find a genre that you love (for me it was YA and paranormal fiction and now it’s crime and thrillers) then keep up to date with new releases for that particular genre. You need to know what’s out there so that you know what to write. Don’t write something that’s already been done a hundred times; and if you do, do it differently. The only way you’ll know how, is by reading lots and knowing what other stories and writers you’ll be up against.
Sometimes, just step away from your laptop
Ever sat in front of your laptop for hours, writing, deleting and re-writing paragraphs? Yeah I think we all have. Staring at a computer screen for prolonged periods of time can really hinder your creativity. You get lazy, your eyes start to hurt and you probably don’t even know what you’re writing anymore. So my advice is to get a really nice notebook from somewhere and use that instead. There’s nothing wrong with pen and paper!
Be confident and read out your work
You will get asked to read your work out to the class during a Creative Writing degree. Some people are already really excited about this and some of us (like me) get a bit shy and timid. But why shouldn’t you read out your work? This is something you’ve taken time on and it deserves to be shared. Plus, the feedback you get will really help you to develop your writing and to discuss possible opportunities for improvement.
Go to meetings with your seminar leader
Getting one-on-one time with a seminar leader can be difficult when you’re in a class of 12 or so people. Whilst you have workshops (where you read your work out to the class and everybody shares their thoughts on it), it really isn’t the same as going to a meeting and discussing your work one on one. Seminar leaders love it when you book them in outside of hours! They usually have an office hour where they are available to chat with you about any concerns and this is a weekly thing. If nobody books them in, then they’re just sitting alone at a desk for an hour feeling bored. So do yourself a favour (and them) and book in sessions to discuss your work, as this will help you to develop your ideas throughout the term.
I hope this post has helped anyone who is in their first year of a Creative Writing degree or has even provided any insight to those of you thinking about taking a Creative Writing degree. They are really fun, but I would just say that you get out of them what you put in, so make sure you give it your all.
I know that this was a long post (oh well, I enjoy writing) so thank you so much for reading it all and getting to the end!