Creative writing at university: Setting the Scene

23 May 2018
 Tree in the mist

The University of Winchester runs one of the most successful creative writing programmes of its kind in the UK. Judy Waite, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing and author of Wordtamer (2017) which has a focus on inspiring creative thinking and writing, discusses her experiences of teaching on our undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses.

I have recently been asked to clear the mists on the question ‘how is creative writing taught at university?’ The answer, of course, is novel length, broken into chapters. It includes illustrations and an appendix. Glossary. Bibliography. So my response skirts the landscape of this bigger story. I’m looking for a thinning of the fog, where detail might be easiest to see.

Creative writing in academia, like the plot in a good novel, has been on a journey. We can trace this journey from Iowa, USA, in the 1930’s. Writers’ workshops were established, run by successful authors, and operating under the principle of peer critique. Another important plotline connects creative writing with the Arvon Foundation who ran (and still run) intense, professionally led residencies where small groups again work with established authors in secluded locations (Gross, 2015). These models of teaching began to attract interest in more formalised education and creative writing programmes were born, initially at MA level and later feeding down to undergraduate degrees.

Each institution offering creative writing will take a different slant in terms of programme delivery and outcome. The programme at University of Winchester currently has one of the widest range of module choices in the country, and this includes modules that connect with my own professional experience - Fiction for Children – which I currently teach at both undergraduate and MA level.

The creative writing team at Winchester includes authors, poets, screen writers, non-fiction writers – all professionals who, at some level, have evolved their practice from those early Iowa and Arvon models. However, the creative writing programme at Winchester does not offer a general ‘this is how to write’ surface approach. We teach to our own specialisms, approaches and experiences.  This is standard within academia and is one joyous aspect that sets university teaching apart from school and Further Education. In these, depending on exam boards, the taught material is established and the content is the same across the country. The university model could be likened more to a Russian doll. The programme is titled ‘Creative Writing’ but inside the programme there is a subject that focuses on key aspects of that discipline. Next, there is another doll revealed – the lecturer’s personal expertise. Inside that doll sits individual approaches, quirks and glories. That’s not to say there are no commonalities. Strong characterisation/setting/dialogue/voice are all vital – but the approaches and responses will vary. There are many ‘ways of seeing’ (Berger, 2008).

I should probably, therefore, add a proviso here – as one of these lecturers I have my own matryoshka doll of experiences, styles and approaches. Consequently, a different blog by a different lecturer may reveal a whole new set of dolls - and, other than cluttering up the place with so many brightly painted nesting dolls, that is another cause for celebration.

But, dolls aside, you are with me – and together we are peering through the mist.

Creative writing lecturers maintain a focus on craft skills, but students additionally learn to analyse a range of published works, and interrogate their own outputs. Growth through reflection is key, and students identify empathy and ethic within their writing. The best creative writing courses teach students not merely to know the work intellectually, but to feel it. And from that felt sense (Gendlin, 1982) students can move beyond the mechanics and explore new ideas – ideas that are only theirs – ideas that move themselves, and maybe all of us, somewhere new.

Let me try to thin the fog another way.

Suppose I need to teach setting and suspense to my students.

Suppose I arrive in class with a box of things that make up aspects of setting and suspense. Here is a bag of swirly misty. Here is a stunted, skeletal tree. Look, press this button – the branches sway and it makes a creaking nose. Maybe you need this black raven to sit on that branch – it can be an omen, foreshadowing some great tragedy that will evolve later in your dark tale.

There would be some interactive and kinaesthetic play involved – and play is vital to creativity (James, A. and Brookfield, S.D. 2014) students can build a scene, weave in evocative language and probably write something convincing – but frankly, uninspired. Students need to draw from inner sources to write well, to develop  the ‘uncanny’ (Melrose, 2012)  to draw out not what is obvious – the swirling mist and the mournful call of that crow – but what is unseen, unexpected.

A long ago memory, evolved through hypnotic recall (King, 2001) can enhance the detail of mists and atmosphere. A dredged up argument, a wrong unrighted, gives us mood and motivation – what personal angst might Poe have wrenched the guilt from in The Tell-Tale Heart? (Poe, E. A. 2015).

So – back to my lesson, and it’s moved on a bit. Look, now we have a character, a girl, running through the mist. She’s not scared.  She’s dressed for a party, skipping, and singing. How pretty she looks with those ringlet curls, until she turns and …

The imagination is a funfair of ideas (Waite, 2014) but once all the rides have been ridden the analyses is as important as the experience. What worked and what didn’t in any piece of writing? How could it improve? What theories and practices can students research to underpin their creative decisions? Can they write these theories with an articulate and academic voice? Can they speak them with authority? At some point in the future, could they teach them to someone else?

Creative writing at University of Winchester offers a broad range of ‘writerly options that include poetry, script writing, non-fiction, travel writing, song writing, fiction and short-story writing. Our approaches to triggering and sustaining creativity are often active, engaging and immersive but they are also reflective. Students don’t just write – they research and analyse and rework. They are taught to be aware of process (their creative developments) leading to product (the final outcome). We don’t simply teach how to skip, or even creep, through the mist. We teach when to stop – and look- and wait… and more importantly, we teach students to understand why.

Find out more about our Creative Writing courses on our Courses page.


Berger, J. (2008) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin

Gendlin, E. (1982) Focusing. London and New York: Bantum

Gross, P. (2015) [accessed 5//5/2018]

James, A. and Brookfield, S.D. (2014) Engaging Imagination. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

King, S. (2001) On Writing. London: Hodder and Staughton

Melrose, A. (2012) Monsters Under the Bed. Abingdon: Routledge

Poe, E. A. (2015) The Tell-Tale Heart London: Penguin Classics

Waite, J. (2017) Wordtamer London: Routledge

Waite, J. Wordtaming and the Funfair of Ideas and Creative Writing for the New Generation of Learners [accessed 5/5/2018]

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