Competition, Envy And Very Expensive Writing Courses

Competition has been a theme here recently : as creative writers how important is it to enter competitions? how do we balance it with collaboration? and can it eat you up and turn malignant?

Those of you who are writing students get my courses and these blog posts because of a competition. Several years ago when Udemy was in its infancy, 2016, they held a competition to find ten most inventive courses, and spurred on by a fellow tutor I entered a course which was lucky enough to be chosen. Thanks, Anneke. Udemy then encouraged me to make the Complete Freelance Writing Course, which thanks to you lovely writers, has brought great joy…

This was an instance where competition brought opportunity, but since the inception of the web, I’d always secretly fancied teaching online. So mission met chance. And that’s a useful guideline, I reckon, for all of us in deciding where and how hard we compete – does the competition advance why we want to write and who we want to write for?

Winning competitions gets us noticed, shows peer approval and proves that you’re a contendor, and as Matthew Syed described in a recent fine article in The Times ( behind paywall), competition acts as an engine of progress. It can help build relationships , develop respect for excellence and help us become better writers and human beings.

He describes extraordinarily competitive and supportive relationships between great tennis players. When Roger Federer announced his retirement, his long term sparring partner Rafael Nadal sat beside him, holding Federer’s hand, and both wept. Chris Evert has recently shown huge support to her former nemesis, Martina Navratoliva, receiving cancer treatment, sending the Bill Withers track, ‘Lean On Me’ to her bedside. These two former tennis queens are close friends.


So competition with excellent others can help us all up our game. But what about envy, jealousy and feelings of ‘life’s not fair?’ (which is isn’t, but that’s not to say good government should not focus on equality of opportunity for all…). One way of channeling feelings of ‘I’m jealous as hell of that other writer’ is to think about what makes you distinctively different from them, and then to analyse the route they’ve taken to get their success. Are there any pointers for you here in their journey?

Now I decided to do this at the weekend, when listening to the literary writer Tessa Hadley, and commercially successful Bonnie Garmus at the terrific Laugharne Weekend streaming sessions.

Both writers are hugely impressive, tall, elegant, handsome and old. Despite just having the old aspect in common here, I investigated their career routes. Tessa Hadley is the most commissioned short story writer on the New Yorker, and has an imposing list of ace reviewed literary titles, plus she’s taught at universities. Bonnie Garmus has been a copywriter and worked her bestseller, Lessons In Chemistry, through a Curtis Brown writing course like this one.

This course is £3190 and takes place in London – but there are online versions available at £1800. You can take a course with Tessa at £185, which I’ve done and it was interesting, reviews of work done by juniors at the agency and peers on course, with pre-recorded videos from Tessa. Curtis Brown, who are big literary agents in UK, also have cheaper options, like a thirty day Writing Bootcamp for only £30, so you can dip your toes in, without losing that shirt…

Very Expensive Courses

While on this quest, I remember a pal had recently mentioned the most posh Faber Academy. Wow, some of these courses are £4350 ‘with access to the biggest names in publishing’. Mind you, they do last six months, and I suppose if you own a small shed in London then you might be wealthy enough to afford it…

But all this made me think : am I just feeling envious here or is something else going on? As my friend Witty Daniel said the other day, ‘you teach at the DFS of online training’, meaning Udemy. For those of you who don’t know, DFS is a constantly discounting sofa retailer in the UK.

Of course it must make agents and publishers lives easier, if instead of wading through slush piles, they get well heeled and well educated writers signing up to courses with books and ideas they are desperate to get published. But what about the rest of us? And could this trend limit the worlds we see depicted in novels?

I suppose it’s about choosing a route, whether you choose to travel via gatekeepers, like agents and publishers, or maybe go off in a totally different direction towards readers via something like Royal Road or Book Tok? (Thanks LindaAnn LoSchiavo for this vox book tok article link). Your choices will be determined to an extent by what you write – literary fiction might be a great challenge to advance on Royal Road or Book Tok, but fantasy could be a whole different game.

As an online course junkie, my favourite workshops tend to be reasonably priced ones like those of Jane Friedman for book writing, and Wendy Pratt for poetry, where the ethos seems to be as much about network and community, as it is gatekeeping. Longer courses with reliance on other students for feedback, can, in my experience be risky – you sometimes find the most voluble feedback giver may not have the biggest brain…

Anway, to sum up this post here are some useful questions, regarding competition, envy and very expensive writing courses:

-Does your writing mission – why you write and who for – support your decision to enter a competition?

-If the green mist of envy descends, what are the key differences between you and the target of your envy? Can you put these differences to good use? Can you learn anything from your target’s chosen route and activity?

-If you’re thinking of splurging on a writing course, is the leader of the course most close-in to a position you’d like to be in as a writer? If they’re writing in a totally different genre, they may be limited in how they can help you…

Finally, and this is a note to self, too… are you opting to do a course INSTEAD of writing? If so, lock yourself down, grab some writing apparatus and fill a blank page… maybe you need writing action rather than tuition… in which case please get those words on the move and good luck with it!