'I am 37, and I want to take time out to do a creative writing MA. But my partner says that talented people don't need these courses, which are only put on as money-spinners. Is he right?'

Hilary's Advice

Hilary's Advice

No one has put it more succinctly than Susan Fletcher, the 2004 Whitbread first novel award winner, who said that no one questioned why artists needed to go to art school to learn their trade: why is it different for writers?

A writing course won't turn you into Virginia Woolf if you only have the writing talents of Vicky Pollard, but it can teach basic techniques and help you to side-step common problems. It can also offer the stimulation of fellow writers and useful critiques of your work.

However, if the tutors are mediocre (which they can be; good writers don't always make good teachers) or you feel crowded by the other wannabes, such courses can be dispiriting. And standards vary hugely, often from year to year, depending on who's been persuaded to teach on the course. You need to ask about the success of previous students; who will be teaching you; and how much teaching you will actually get. You also need to remember that even a top course, such as the one at the University of East Anglia that Susan Fletcher went on, can't guarantee success.

After that, only you can decide whether it will be worth your while - and that is true for anyone thinking about taking any course, particularly in mid-life when the investment in time and lost earnings can be significant. Listen to advice, but don't let anyone else sway your final decision.

Remember that people like your partner always have their own reasons for wanting to shape what you do. And while he's right that cash-strapped universities know that writing programmes will bring in the punters, since when has putting on popular courses (provided they are good ones) been a crime?

Readers' Advice

On any postgraduate course, most of the benefit comes not from the course itself but from the framework it creates - a space to think about issues, a chance to explore new areas and to be inspired by like-minded people, students or tutors. Of course, the more you put into the course, the more you'll get out. Good luck!
Janet Fraser, Twickenham

Presumably, you want to become a published writer. A good course that's recognised by the profession might just make an editor look twice when he picks your manuscript out of the slush-pile, but it's still only your writing you'll be judged on. How good do you really think you are? Most people who take these courses never end up as published writers, just as most people who study to be rock stars, film directors and actors don't make it. If you have doubts, an evening class would make more sense.
Naomi Cranitch, London NW4

Anyone considering a career change without first undertaking proper training would be somewhat reckless. When the new profession is as competitive and as largely financially unrewarding as creative writing, it is downright foolish. That taken into account, it is vital to research the quality of courses on offer. This is not always straightforward, because universities have been adept at avoiding the kind of scrutiny that other education institutions are subject to. But there are always opportunities to learn from other writers' experiences. Local groups, literary festivals, and the large selection of magazines and books available on creative writing are all places to start.
Jonathan Fairclough, Essex

This person says her partner is a college lecturer. I would suggest her response to him should be: "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach!"
Alasdair Macinnes, Cheshire

Next week's quandary

I am a divorced father with a daughter aged 10 and a son aged seven. They live with their mother in the week, so I never hear anything about what goes on at school. My daughter seems to be OK, but my son is getting into trouble. I want to help them, but there seems to be no role for me. How do fathers like me get involved with school?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 31 January, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to h.wilce@btinternet.com. Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser