Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Get the most from your creative writing degree.

Three years have whizzed by and I’m now a graduate of the University of Winchester. I’m pleased with my results but think that if I’d known a few things before I started the degree I could’ve benefited further. So I thought I’d share a few tips to help new creative writing students get the most from all that money you’re spending. 
     Refresh your grammar. This is something I’m still working on myself. I find the more I read and write the better it gets. Winchester has a great refresher module in the first year and I can also recommend Grammar for Grownups by Katherine Fry which is a fast and informative read. Creative writing courses are strict on grammar when marking so it’s best to double double check before you hand in. 

      Set up an editing group. No matter how many times you check work, you will always miss something. This is because you’ve seen it too often and have become immune to it. Always get someone to check it before you submit. I set up an editing group with three friends and we pass our pieces amongst each other. This isn’t a guarantee that you won’t all miss something but it gives you more of a chance to get the best grade possible.

   Order core texts from your local library. The uni library will have limited copies which will probably be on loan when you need them most. Don’t buy them; my reasoning behind this is that my peers and I became frustrated at having to buy texts that were barely mentioned in class. Having said that, go to seminars prepared because it can lead to an uncomfortable atmosphere if the tutor has planned a class that no one is ready for.

  Vary your reading. People often write because they’ve been inspired by a particular writer/genre. Personally I like women’s fiction but a lot of my peers liked sci-fi and fantasy. I realised that I needed to read other genres so that I could broaden my writing knowledge. It’s important to see what works well and what doesn’t. Last year I undertook a challenge to read 100 books which I was pleased to complete. Why not write a list of the books you’ve always thought you should read and work through it? Holly from Imaginings of a Creative Writer says ‘keep reading for fun even if you’re bogged down with uni reading.’ 

     Don’t be scared of tutors. Have as many tutorials as possible (without making them think you’re stalking them). But seriously, you’re paying for the course and you’re entitled to these meetings. Tell your tutor the grade you’re aiming for as they may not know what you’re capable of. In my first year one tutor wrote, ‘keep up the good work’, and gave me, along with the rest of the class, 54, when I’d been getting 70’s. They will be able to guide you towards the research/improvements you can make to achieve the grade you’d like.

Don’t worry about reading your work out in class. By the end of three years you won’t even think twice. To begin with it can be quite nerve wracking but the feedback you will receive from tutors and peers is invaluable. The feedback others receive can help you to improve your own work or inspire you to think about writing in a way you wouldn’t have before.

     Be wary about group work. Group work was the thing I probably hated most about uni because other people can affect the grade you end up with. So it’s important to consider whether the other students will do their bit. Do you trust them to turn up on time or will you have to wait around for them when you could be doing other work. Do you have a similar outlook on the project? (Some students are happy to scrape a pass – if this isn’t you look out for someone with similar values). Ask your tutor if group work is necessary. I felt more comfortable having complete control over my projects. 
     Plan your essays. I disliked writing rationales and as my uni friends agree, it made them much easier to get through if we discussed them first and outlined them before we started writing. Another good tip is to do your footnotes and bibliography as you go along to save a gruelling few hours at the end (especially if you’ve forgotten what page number all your quotes were on).

    Start thinking about your final year project asap. The more effort you put into this, the greater the reward. In my case the creative project made 40% of my final degree so it really can change your overall grade. Looking back, I wish I’d started planning earlier in the second year and written gradually to reduce stress. I also seemed to get more into the project nearer the end when I was running out of time and wonder if I could have pushed my grade up a tiny bit more (I’m a perfectionist).

     Make your work stand out. In my first year I remember feeling outraged when I got a piece of work back that received what I classed as a disappointing grade. I booked a tutorial (very rare for me at that point) and asked how I could have got a first (in a nice way). The tutor explained the formatting of my piece wasn’t quite right and suggested a cover page with a title and my details on it. From then on this was how I submitted all my work. In my final year another tutor suggested images could be a good addition to our final year projects. Make it look good and they know care and effort went into it. Just stick to the uni guidelines.

I hope this has been helpful rather than daunting. The best tip I can give is to enjoy uni because soon enough it will be graduation and you’ll wonder where the time went. Please feel free to add your own tips to the comments.

“University's like this little world, a bubble of time separate from everything before and everything after.”
  Mhairi McFarlane, You Had Me At Hello

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