Can Creative Writing be Taught?

I was telling a writing friend of mine about my PTLLS (Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector) course, she made various encouraging noises and supportive comments but then she asked that awkward question, “But do you think creative writing can be taught or is it a natural talent?”

That made me think. There’s no doubt that some people have a natural flair for grabbing ideas out of nowhere and turning them into wonderful finished pieces. Others put in hours at the PC but have very little success. But that’s true of many creative skills, such as playing a musical instrument, painting or drama.

Lots of us do believe that at least certain aspects of creative writing can be taught – just think of all the courses advertised in the writing magazines and the many, many more advertised only in their own locality.

Personally, I believe that it is possible to teach someone how to structure a story, how to edit their work and write ‘tighter’, how to pitch an article to an editor, how to give that article an arresting opening, the mechanics of writing a haiku or a limerick and much more. I believe this because these are all skills that I’ve learned over the years.

Maybe it’s not possible to teach someone to see the poetic value of a sunset or imagine themselves into a character’s head. Or maybe it is, if you give them enough practice and constructive feedback.

Perhaps I’m biased because one day in the future I hope to teach Creative Writing. What do the rest of you think?


  1. #1 by Robert Crompton on February 17, 2015 - 8:21 pm

    I would say it’s much like any other form of artistic expression. It takes natural aptitude – and that aptitude needs to be developed, so the rolel of the top flight creative writing teacher is much the same as the role of the music teacher for a musician. Or, put the skeptic’s point a different way – if someone has a natural gift for writing, do they have no need of a teacher/coach/mentor?

    So keep at it, Sally, and go for both the teaching and the writing!

    • #2 by Sally Jenkins on February 17, 2015 - 8:37 pm

      Thanks for dropping by, Robert. I think you’re right, even the gifted benefit from some sort of mentor/teacher to guide and encourage. In fact they may not even realise they have a gift until they sign up for lessons and have a go.

  2. #3 by blogaboutwriting on February 18, 2015 - 10:03 am

    I think, as you say, many elements can be taught and learned – there are tips and techniques that you can teach anyone who’s willing to learn and to practice. However, I do think there are some people without an artistic or imaginative bone in their body (?) who you could never turn into a writer and some people are more natural writers. Being interested in other people, how they think and what makes them tick, is, I think, a good sign if someone wants to write (also, apparently, having a good memory!). To be honest, as a Creative Writing tutor, I don’t want my students to be too good! Yes, it’s very encouraging if they get better – as most of them do – and if I see them having some success but if I had someone join my class who was really good (better than me!!!) I would probably feel a bit insecure…

    • #4 by Sally Jenkins on February 18, 2015 - 4:42 pm

      Thanks, Helen. You’ve made some good points and I think if any learner realised they were better than you, then they wouldn’t stay in the class very long…

  3. #5 by Patsy on February 18, 2015 - 11:11 am

    I think you’re right that some elements can be taught. I also think we need to learn them in order to be good writers – there’s no point in having wonderful ideas for example if our spelling, punctuation and grammar are so bad no one can understand what we’re trying to say.

  4. #7 by Keith Havers on February 18, 2015 - 8:08 pm

    I don’t think I have any natural talent for writing. My degree is in engineering and I’ve had to learn how to create stories just as I had to apply myself to maths and physics. Don’t think I’ll win a Booker Prize but I get by.

    • #8 by Sally Jenkins on February 19, 2015 - 12:41 pm

      Judging by your successes, Keith, I think you do more than ‘get by’. But you obviously think that it’s possible to learn to create stories – which is good!

  5. #9 by hilarycustancegreen on February 18, 2015 - 9:24 pm

    Put it the other way round. Would you ever say to someone, I don’t think you could/can learn to write? Wherever you start from in writing (or anything else) good teaching will lead to improvement. World stars in any subject are rare, the rest of us are in between anyway.

    • #10 by Sally Jenkins on February 19, 2015 - 12:43 pm

      No, Hilary, I wouldn’t say that. And when people are determined it’s amazing what they can achieve.

  6. #11 by blogaboutwriting on February 19, 2015 - 9:23 am

    Yes, absolutely! And I would probably encourage them.. very gently, to leave! Although having said that, I do have a very capable lady in my class at the moment – she’s writing novels, she wins short story competitions and has been published in the womags and I don’t find her intimidating. In fact, she’s great because she makes intelligent points and gives good feedback, without taking over the class! She says she enjoys it too and it’s kick-started her writing again which is what she wanted. But I don’t suppose she will stay for ever!

  7. #12 by P. Douglas Hammond on February 21, 2015 - 1:34 pm

    Perhaps it isn’t a case of ‘can anybody be taught to write?’, but more a case of ‘can anybody be motivated to write?’.
    The amount of time involved in getting a few lines of writing on a piece of paper would be considered a complete waste of time to some people (for example, my wife), who would perhaps consider time better spent in getting a ‘proper’ job. Mind you, those same people probably enjoy reading a good book.

    • #13 by Sally Jenkins on February 21, 2015 - 7:41 pm

      Good point, Douglas. Talent is no use if the person is not motivated to spend long hours getting the words down but writing classes (and groups) can be very motivating and good at encouraging discipline. And I’m sure you’re not the only one with a partner who thinks your time could be better spent on something other than writing! (but we know better don’t we?)

  8. #14 by Shellie on February 22, 2015 - 6:48 pm

    Sally! You’ve been nominated for a Very Inspiring Blogger award. If you want to accept your nomination visit my blog where you’ll find the details and the award picture to copy.

    • #15 by Sally Jenkins on February 23, 2015 - 9:11 am

      Thank you, Shellie! I feel very honoured and hope you continue to enjoy the blog.

  9. #16 by Linda on February 23, 2015 - 3:23 pm

    I think learning to write is a bit like learning to drive a car. When you start, it really helps if someone more experienced explains what the different controls are for, shows you how to switch the engine on and change gear, and warns you when you’re about to make a mistake. Once you’ve got the hang of it (and passed your test!), you can happily drive off on your own in whatever direction you choose.
    When I started writing, I enjoyed making up stories but I didn’t know anything about how to get them published so I did a Writers’ Bureau course. It taught me all the basic things I needed to know and, best of all, the tutor encouraged me to submit some of my work to a publisher. I’m not sure if I would have ever got to that stage on my own.

    • #17 by Sally Jenkins on February 23, 2015 - 5:21 pm

      I did the Writers’ Bureau course too, Linda (but I didn’t complete it). It taught me about analysing markets and about submission requirements, double spacing, title pages etc. – things that you might not know, however much talent you have.

      • #18 by Linda on February 23, 2015 - 8:01 pm

        One of the comments I received on my first assignment was ‘Why have you used so many exclamation marks?’. It was only then that I saw I’d ended almost every sentence with a ‘!’ I understood straight away that this made my writing seem very amateurish but until the tutor pointed it out I just hadn’t noticed.

      • #19 by Sally Jenkins on February 24, 2015 - 6:34 pm

        We all have habits like that, Linda, and need them pointing out. I use ‘just’ a lot and have to make sure I edit them all out.

  10. #20 by charliebritten on February 23, 2015 - 10:37 pm

    I agree with what you said in your post, Sally. You can only tidy up and improve what’s already there. If a writer has nothing in the first place – no character, no ideas – all the technique in the world, there’s nothing to improve and nothing to apply the technique to. Pretty much the same for teaching, actually. You can rattle through Bloom’s Taxonomy (and all the other cant) but, if you haven’t got any knowledge or skills, you can’t transfer them.

    • #21 by Sally Jenkins on February 24, 2015 - 6:38 pm

      Agreed, Charlie. Maybe those with no ideas wouldn’t consider a Creative Writing class anyway. But a class can provide writing ideas and prompts, I think. Although in the long term, budding writers have to develop their own ways of generating ideas.

  11. #22 by Geoff Jones on June 5, 2015 - 5:49 am

    I’ve taught creative writing to people of all ages and abilities from secondary schools through community courses and to adult education level at universities. I would agree with what most of what has been said here but I would add two very important points.
    The teacher should ensure he/she believes anything is possible and not prejudge ability.
    The student needs to be made aware of the same factor.
    Quite obvious from the comments here that some of us do not have confidence of what’s possible. How do we get to think like that? I would suggest we have been socialised into a way of thinking that debases our abilities.
    When I begin a creative writing session or course I ask my students to tell me a little bit about themselves – the results nearly always confirm a lack of what’s possible – we all place limits on ourselves due to the influences of life and schooling plays a vital part.
    Was your experience enlightening or not?
    We are the results of our past – unless we want to change!

    • #23 by Sally Jenkins on June 6, 2015 - 4:27 pm

      Thanks for a very insightful comment, Geoff. I agree we all place unnecessary limits on ourselves, and that can apply to anything not just creative writing. Perhaps part of the tutor’s role is to enable us to get rid of those limits.

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