Creative Writing Lessons from Oxford Summer Courses
In July 2016, Avantika Singhal arrived in Oxford to undertake a Creative Writing summer course. Keen to further explore her love for the subject, Avantika was excited to delve into some of her favourite works and workshop her own creative writing in open, honest, and progressive academic sessions – which are modelled on the tutorial system used by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
These hour-long sessions (for students aged 16+) offer a chance for you to talk in detail about the subject you’re studying and receive rigorous, individual feedback on your writing drafts and other pieces of work. You’ll attend your classes with your own ideas – as informed by your own work and research – and is your opportunity to discuss them and dissect them with your peers and tutor.
This model of learning has been proven highly effective in helping students to enhance their understanding of their subject, critically analyse work, and reflect on their subject or topic from a whole range of perspectives – something which is highly important for any budding writer. Students will leave sessions with a rounded understanding, a clear direction on how to further develop their work, and make it the best it can be.
To find out more about how the tutorial system affected her development as a writer, we asked Avantika to tell us about her experience at our Creative Writing summer school. Below, she shares the three main lessons she learned during her time with us and how they have continued to enhance her writing skills since finishing her course.
Avantika Singhal, 2016 Oxford Summer Courses student:
When I was in 9th grade, Enid Blyton and her tales found a permanent residence in the warmth of my heart. After that, I started spending a fair share of my day in getting lost in the maze of fictional characters and nefarious situations she would create. The mystery of one disappearing cat, the suspense that it brought in and the conclusion-everything meant more than just an imaginary story or a way to pass the hours.
An undying love and admiration for writing and reading grew within me and before I knew it, I was sifting through works of Thomas Hardy, Jules Verne and Bram Stoker both greedily and dutifully by the time I had reached 12th grade.
Now, every and any experience can be didactic; from a lecture in the classroom, or a speech by an activist or to words of a passing stranger. But there is value to be had from some more than others. Immersing myself in a world-renowned university environment, I thought – obviously – I have to share what I learned from this Creative Writing summer course.
1. My Creative Writing summer course taught me that plot holes are intimidating and can hold you back
While crafting a story and creating interesting characters is a laudatory act, what really proves as a bump in the road is identifying and scrutinising plot holes. If unidentified, they can prove detrimental to a story that could have otherwise been immaculate. Imagine if J.K Rowling had forgotten about one of the seven Horcruxes? No one would be impressed by that and the readers would have given her a stink eye for it.
When our exceptionally brilliant tutor gave us our main assignment for the course, she told us to fabricate ANYTHING that could be of 5,000 words or less. However, she would always quickly and reassuringly add, “quality matters more than quantity.”
Excited and raring to go, I diligently started writing a story about a mentally ill Cinderella (Yes, I know. A tad bit too creative). But when I was amid my story, I launched a new, crooked character and forced him to conflict with Cinderella. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to introduce him and mention how and where they had met and under what circumstances…
That was the first and most obvious area which my tutor picked up on. How did they meet? What made him appear in the story? And why was he such a potent force in the conflict with Cinderella? Without having the answers to these questions myself, how was my reader ever supposed to fully grasp the character’s importance?
LESSON: Plot holes are extant and you may not be able to iron out each one on the first draft, but pay attention to every aspect of your story in order to avoid major issues.
Plotting out a background story for each character and drawing connections between their relationships can really help to secure their reasoning for being in a narrative. Get creative; draw an actual story arc, map out relationship trees, or even create identity personas. The clearer the character in your mind, the less likely it will become that you miss out vital details in the overall plot.
2. My Creative Writing summer course taught me how to give and receive criticism
There’s a grave difference between literary criticism and needless flak. I learned this the hard way.
During my creative writing summer course, we had tutorials alongside small seminar classes, where I was accompanied by four more students who were equally impassioned by writing. In these seminars, we would enthusiastically exchange stories, and skim over the new world the other person had created. Following this, our tutor would then ask us to review our friend’s work and voice what we had liked and what we did not.
Despite being slightly mousy and a reticent person, I took to the task. Praising my friends out loud felt emboldening and invigorating. However, this bliss was short-lived because I, of course, was also required to state bluntly and resolutely what changes I would have liked in their story or poem.
At first, my criticism only stretched to “hmm, maybe this could be expanded a little more” or “the character could come to the surface more by showing one or two of their traits more clearly”. While these comments were adequate, they were not enough. I realized I was running out of subjective rectifications and when that happened, I would resort to saying only positive things.
LESSON: Acknowledge the good and the bad. Doing this not only means you are identifying an issue in a manuscript and you’re giving the writer the chance to remedy it, but accompanying it with a section you thought was really strong – for them to be able to draw the comparison. Be specific, so they can anchor what exactly needs changing, and have a clear understanding of how to grow their work.
3. My Creative Writing summer course taught me the importance of using synonyms
As a writer, I can gladly acquiesce to the fact that when I read a text and spot a difficult word that I had never come across before, I transform into a kid waking up to an early Christmas. It’s tantamount to literary treasure because now, I can absorb this word as part of my own vocabulary and grow as a wordsmith.
But when it came to my creative writing summer school, I really grasped the importance of looking to use synonyms within my writing. In my “Cinderella” story, I constantly tried to use big and archaic words to express things. Incidentally, when I tried to describe water as “stagnant”, I was told quite calmly by my tutor that if I had used the word “tranquil”, it would have been more powerful, more apt and vivid.
It’s such a minor word change, yet the translation for the reader can be insurmountable. “Stagnant” conjures images of being motionless, in an almost lifeless environment, while “tranquil” denotes calm, serenity – peace. See how the two words can make you envisage such different atmospheres in the story?
LESSON: The elementary purpose of a word is to communicate; therefore, it is vital to choose the right word for the right moment to maximize its effect. Use your drafting process as the time to stress the importance of synonyms – constantly looking for ways to enhance the visceral imagery for your readers.
Interestingly, almost every lesson I learnt from my Creative Writing summer course surfaced from mistakes I had made. And it has taught me that mistakes must be made so that we can learn from them. Writing creatively is a journey of development, and the environment fostered at Christ Church College – a college celebrated for its literary significance – was so inspiring.
Sharing and workshopping ideas, segments of writing and story arcs in tutorials and seminars were critical in helping me to identify areas of weakness in my writing, and raise them to the same levels as my strongest passages. My time at the Creative Writing summer school in Oxford played a pivotal role in my journey of becoming a more knowledgeable, practical, and critical writer, and has shaped me forever.
Ready to apply for Oxford Summer Courses?
For a once in a lifetime experience, join us for summer 2023 where you can discover over 40 academic subjects taught by expert tutors. You’ll also meet other like-minded individuals from around the world and make friends for life! Apply today and choose from 3 stunning locations; Oxford, Cambridge and London.
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Avantika Singhal attended Oxford's Creative Writing summer course, learning valuable lessons. Plot holes can hinder a story's success, while giving constructive criticism is crucial. Choosing the right words and using synonyms effectively enhance writing.