In which I wonder whether you can teach someone how to write a novel

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I spent the weekend here:

The Fish Hotel

That’s part of the Farncombe Estate in the Cotswolds where I had the pleasure of leading a tutored novel writing retreat, with the awesome Janet Gover (my co-tutor and photo taker) and the lovely writers pictured hard at work below. It was a fantastic weekend. I love tutoring novel-writing – increasingly I find that I think of myself as a tutor who writes, rather than a writer who teaches. Either way, I’m stonkingly fortunate that I get to do both.

Farncombe 2015 students

And as a writing tutor, it irks me somewhat when I hear people saying ‘Well you can’t teach someone to be a writer’ or other words to that effect.

So that’s my question for the day? Can you teach novel writing?

Well yes. Of course you can.

Hmm… on reflection, this is turning out to be a really short blog post. I’m going to have to expand my thoughts a little, aren’t I?

Right then. Here we go.

The idea that writing is a special ethereal thing that springs forth from the great spiritual well and can not be taught be tawdry human means irks me, as a teacher, because I think it belies a fundamental misunderstanding of what teaching is.

Too often we think of a teacher as somebody who stands at the front of a room and imparts definitive knowledge. There is one right way to wire a plug. There is one right answer to 2+2. Those things can obviously be taught. There isn’t one universal right way to write a novel, so that’s just something people have to work out for themselves. Right? Wrong. Because standing at the front and saying ‘Do this. Do only this and always this,’ is a very tiny slither of what teaching can, and should, be.

Another way of approaching the question ‘Can x be taught?’ is to, instead, ask ‘Can x be learnt?’ Essentially if something involves skill or knowledge then those things have to be be learnt, and a good teacher can help a receptive student learn them more quickly or more effectively, because learning is a process. It’s a process of trying things, recognising successes and failures, revising your approach, and trying again. A large part of teaching is about suggesting what to try, identifying success and failure and helping the student revise their approach. All those things can be done more effectively with somebody, who understands both the process of learning and something about the thing you are trying to learn, holding your metaphorical hand or kicking your metaphorical butt.

What you can’t teach is passion. You can’t make somebody want to write a novel, but if somebody has decided on that path, then a good creative writing tutor can absolutely help them to get there. I was helped massively on my journey to publication by two incredible tutors – Deb Catesby, who is now a visual artist, and Julie Cohen. There are, however, a lot of not so good creative writing tutors out there, so here are my tips for finding a good tutor and the right course for you.

  1. Work out what you want to learn. Are you writing for personal pleasure or for publication? Are you interested in exploring your creativity, or developing a skills to write in a specific form or genre? Different writing courses are different – some focus strongly on writing for publication, some give exercises in lots of different forms and genre to explore different types of writing. If you know what you want, then don’t be afraid to ask whether the course suits your needs.
  2. Ask about the tutor’s writing experience. We’ve all heard stories about tutors running ‘masterclasses’ in genres they’ve never written or published. Find out what the tutor’s experience in the subject they’re teaching is.
  3. Ask about the tutor’s teaching experience. Teaching is a specialist skill. Writing a bestseller or a Booker Prize winner doesn’t necessarily make you a good teacher. If you’re handing over money for a course then there’s nothing wrong with asking the tutor what they’ve taught before, or even asking if they have feedback from past students that you can look at.
  4. Be wary of tutors who promise to impart the secret to writing a novel/play/shopping list or who offer definitive rules on what you must and must not do to get published. There is no secret. The only rules are ‘write the sodding book’ and ‘make the sodding thing work’ and I’ve just given you those for nothing.

So there you go. There are my thoughts on tutoring writing and creativity. If you’re interested in hearing about courses I’ve got in the pipeline, including next year’s tutored retreat, then head over to the Contact Me page and drop me a message with your details to join my courses mailing list.

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7 thoughts on “In which I wonder whether you can teach someone how to write a novel

    lmsprott said:
    October 8, 2015 at 6:46 pm

    Yes you can teach someone but I would say that just because you write a novel doesn’t mean you can teach it. It needs different skills that Alison May clearly has.

    Like

      Alison May responded:
      October 9, 2015 at 5:32 pm

      Thank you. Kind words much appreciated x

      Like

    Jennifer Young (@JYnovelist) said:
    October 8, 2015 at 7:11 pm

    Interesting (and fascinating) post. I think it’s like singing, or photography, or playing rugby, or French, or anything else. Of course you can teach it. To be a real success an individual has to have a natural talent – but that isn’t enough on its own. Writing is a craft. Great post…

    Liked by 1 person

    Liz Ringrose said:
    October 8, 2015 at 11:09 pm

    Excellent post, Alison. The sentence that resonates the most with me is:
    “Are you interested in exploring your creativity, or developing a skills to write in a specific form or genre?”
    Over the years I’ve met very many writers who do the former while thinking they’re doing the latter. Often tension can occur when it’s politely pointed out to them that to achieve their goal they must do things a little differently. They might love their two page (with no white space) stream of consciousness outpourings but a good tutor can listen to their ideas and suggest ways in which to get the information across in a more readable fashion. I’m a huge fan of writing courses and never fail to take away some nugget of writing advice which will inform and improve my work in progress.

    Liked by 1 person

    John Jackson said:
    October 9, 2015 at 1:11 pm

    For those who read this and are wondering whether to go on one of Alison’s courses, I would say GO. Last weekend’s retreat was, for me as a new starter in writing, a real help.

    Highly recommended.

    Like

      Alison May responded:
      October 9, 2015 at 5:31 pm

      Thank you John. Comments from past students are one of my recommended things to look out for! x

      Like

    margaretkajohnson said:
    October 13, 2015 at 3:13 pm

    I also teach creative writing, and, like you, I love inspiring people and passing on my skills and insights. It’s a very special moment when you can see connections being made in their minds from what we’ve been talking about, or the writing exercises we’ve been working on. 🙂

    Like

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