When I expressed an interest in writing a blog post for Ballarat Writers, I was asked if I would consider writing about tertiary education for writers, and whether it was worth it. As a current student, I focused on my present situation in my initial drafts: the thought of structured study triggers nausea. The thought of endless curricula with a limited number of specified assignments tempted me to concede that tertiary education may not be crucial.
After taking time to gain perspective, I could not deny the benefits of my tertiary education as a writer. I felt this question required consideration of the many qualities needed to develop as a successful working writer. I was given permission to have a crack at writing this blog because I barged my way into it, which highlights something else: audacity – a quality needed to be a professional writer.
After consideration, my answer to the title is ‘yes,’ with one disclaimer: you reduce the effectiveness of a professional course if you are unwilling to network and collaborate. In my first few years, I didn’t do enough networking, but I believe the degree to which I did do it exponentially increased the value of my assignments. Networking is key to any writer’s ability to grow and progress in their work, and courses. Why do I say that?
Writing courses are a great place to meet people with mutual interests and work together ‘whatever the weather’—personality clashes and disappointing work standards do occur, including your own. Writing courses allow you to experience the ups and downs of the publishing process, as I did in my editing (producing three anthologies) and desktop publishing courses. Oh, the joy of finishing a book!
By meeting people in a writing course and interacting meaningfully and productively with them you will have immediate access (in one package) to the following valuable things:
- People who are not annoyed with you for staying at your desk, musing about, and being preoccupied with, your latest piece in progress. This especially applies to fiction writers; the attitude of people disinterested in writing is ‘how dare a writer say they’re working when they sit staring at a single screen or notebook?’
- People who want to talk shop: despite stereotypes most writers are not so introspective that they won’t talk about your work as well as theirs. Allow yourself to discover the enormous amount you get out of listening.
- People who think it’s fun and necessary to get up and read their work out loud. My course forced me to face some of my crippling anxieties. Many people are terrified of public speaking. Exposing your own writing can feel like being naked in front of an audience, but it is crucial to read your work out loud. You should know how it sounds. You should come to appreciate the rhythm of your voice and your work. You should allow yourself to feel when you connect with an audience, and when you do not. Give yourself the experience of staring down fear — it makes you a better writer and a better person.
Most writers know what it is like to look at life from one step removed, to feel like an outsider. Thus, for the most part, they are the type of people who practice accepting others. They are also generally honest. If you ask for honest, constructive feedback (you’ll learn the difference) you will get it.
Tertiary writing classes are effective places of learning. They are a doorway to professional development — an ongoing practice paramount for working writers. Your teachers in writing courses are (surprise) real people, and in general, working writers as well. You can network with them. I know you don’t feel like it when you’ve seen their recognition of the weaknesses in your work, but I found my teachers, lecturers and tutors at Federation University to be approachable.
All the major universities in Victoria have writing courses, full of aspiring writers. If your passionate desire is to be a professional writer, or a serious hobbyist, completing a course is a worthwhile experience. Meeting deadlines, creating the correct tone, unlearning and relearning correct English grammar are important skills that make the professional stand out, but remember to network and workshop.
Most of all, be generous, kind and honest. You will find a wealth of collaborative knowledge beyond your course structure.
Danielle O’Donnell is a 2015 graduate of the double award program Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing/Bachelor of Arts. This program was previously offered by the University of Ballarat TAFE in association with University of Ballarat Higher Education, and Federation University. She is doing further study at Master’s level. She served as Ballarat Writers treasurer and membership coordinator in 2018. She spends a lot of her time exploring the questions of a writing life: How can I get something published to a wider audience? Which A+ gig will allow me the flexibility and financial reward to have time to write?