Thursday, 29 September 2011

How Much Writing Success Should Your Writing Tutor Have Had?

This was raised on another blog, and I thought it was an interesting question.  I don't have any answers, but these are my thoughts, in no particular order.

1.  I'm a better teacher now than when I started teaching, but it's not my personal writing success that's made me so, it's my experience as a creative writing teacher plus lots and lots and lots of thinking and reading about creative writing.

2.  When I started going to writing classes, I wanted someone who'd had some success with their writing.  I didn't have confidence in someone who hadn't achieved publication in some form.  I still feel that way, and cringe when I hear of someone teaching who hasn't actually been published (unless they've got other professional publishing experience, such as having been an editor).

3.  When I was on my MA some of the feedback the other students gave was excellent, some was not.  There was no correlation between the quality of the feedback and the student's previous success or experience.  However, those people who gave good feedback went on to have publishing success while those who didn't, didn't.

4.  There is publishing success and publishing success.  Self publishing a book, however you dress it up, means you have sidestepped the quality question.  I'm not saying all self published books are bad, just they haven't been through an external quality assessment process and backed by someone else's money.  I've seen people announce that they are published, when actually they mean self published, or published by a vanity press.  

5.  I am successfully published by most people's standards, but I could no more give useful advice on poetry than I could run a marathon.  If poetry was your thing, you'd do better with an unpublished but knowledgeable tutor than you would with published but ignorant me.

6.  I have high standards and want my students to set themselves high standards too.  Even if I'm teaching a leisure course I want them to work hard.  That's not for everyone.  Some people are happy for their writing to be way down their list of priorities, and that's fine - but I may not be the best person for them.

7.  Similarly, I'm not a great person for touchy-feely navel gazing, although I hope I'm sensitive to people's vulnerabilities and encouraging to the tentative.  Some tutors are touchy-feely and like navel gazing, and if that's what you want, why not? In other words, the personality of the tutor may be more important than their publishing history.

8.  If you were writing to go through a lot of personal stuff then you'd be better working with someone who has experience of this.  There are courses around of writing for therapeutic purposes, and there are people trained in this area.  Their experience would count far more than their publishing history.

9.  Some tutors are very sniffy about some forms of writing - I've heard of students on MA courses in particular having their work dismissed as not worthy, simply because of the genre they wanted to write in.  It would be more important to have someone as a tutor who was open to what you wanted to write but was perhaps not a super successful writer themselves, than someone who was a starry literary name, but dismissed your work and undermined your confidence.  

10.  Related to the above, you may be sniffy about what the tutor writes, in which case you won't have confidence in what they say.  You may be right, you may be wrong, but if you don't have confidence in them, they are the wrong tutor for you.

OK, so that's my thinking.  What do you reckon?


Clare Kirkpatrick said...

I think your final sentence is the absolute key.

Thank you for writing this post - it's very helpful.

Sarah Duncan said...

Thanks Clare. I think, as in most things, you have to decide what you want and then go out and find it. Of course, that's the ideal - you may not know what you want, or have a limited choice where you live.

Catherine Miller said...

Hi Sarah,

I found this blog really interesting. In a rather foolhardy decision I decided to not go back to University and attempt self-directed study in my career change. It was mostly down to finances and as a result I'm heavily reliant on the library and the internet (and wonderful blogs like yours.) I've linked up with local groups and go to writing lectures when I can.

It amazes me the amount of writing courses that charge an extraordinary amount with no real credentials. Some, of course, are well worthwhile with excellent tutors but without recommendations it can be difficult to know. I’ve also found an increasing amount of people dressing themselves up as published authors and giving expert advice when they’ve only ever been self-published.
I always research before anything now as websites and covers along with credits can be so convincing it makes it (course/author) sound more qualified than they actually are.


Penny said...

Much good sense here! Teaching is as different from Instruction or Training as it is from being a published writer,I think. 'Drawing out' is the true meaning of education, not 'imposition.'

On the other hand, I think that [adult] students should expect to meet the tutor half-way by putting in the hard work needed.

Susan Elliot Wright said...

What an interesting post! My blog last week also addressed this subject ( - don't know if it was the 'other blog' you refer to?) but you've raised some really good points. I agree with everything you've said, but in particular your first point about how we become better teachers through teaching experience and reading/thinking about creative writing rather than through publication. Your later points are also spot on - the writer needs to choose the tutor that's right for them. I've had a few students over the years who've really wanted therapeutic writing, which is a specialist area and one I don't feel qualified to teach in. And above all, as Clare (1st comment) says, the last line is key - the tutor MUST inspire confidence in the novice writer. Thanks for a great post.

Sarah Duncan said...

Catherine - I think you're very wise to do some research before you get too involved, and not to take publishing credits at face value. Good luck with your writing.

Penny - I didn't know that that was the correct definition of 'education'. I think that's brilliant, and just what I try to do when I'm teaching.

BTW I gave a hollow laugh when you said Adult students should meet the tutor half way re hard work - wish some undergrads categorised themselves as 'adult'...

Susan - no, it wasn't your blog, it was someone called Helena something (I'd give a link but completely forgot where Helena's blog is - Helena, if you read this, get in touch and I'll do the link).

So much about teaching is about confidence, both on the tutor's part, and from the student's POV. And next up is trust.