Toby Litt's Starting to Write Course - A Review (5min read)

From a time I used to sit in cafes and write to my heart's content.

This review could be summed up in one word: fantastic. But that doesn't really help anyone know why Toby Litt's writing course is worth attention. So here's the details with some of my thoughts as I followed this university lecturer's advice.

The Basics

Toby Litt is a writer and reader at Birkbeck, University of London. On his website, he offers advice and insight into different areas of creative writing: fiction writing and considering the academic aspects. There are interesting articles regarding his lectures and the writing process, including a writing course.

The Starting to Write Course: 10 classes in total, each on a different element of writing.

Two versions are available online now, one from 2019 and an edited lock-down version from 2020. (When I started, the lockdown version was only about half released, so I impatiently chose 2019. It's been a while since I completed this.)

The Details

The structure of each class takes the reader through a topic of writing, suggests a few exercises and then gives reading links. 

As the course progressed, Toby felt it necessary to draw attention to the readings a few times. It seemed that statistics proved that not many were clicking on the reading links. To be fair, as Litt says, "if you don’t do the reading, you won’t learn as quickly. If you don’t read at all, I doubt you’ll ever become a writer worth reading." So note the warning before you start. Don't be fearful of it, but appreciate the opportunity to expand your library of short stories.

Speaking of the readings, they're a great mix of modern and classic, from various authors. 

Without giving too much away, you end up with a completed short story at the end. It'll be a rough draft, but at least you'll have something you didn't have before.

The course is called Starting to Write and the point is to go through the process and understand how to get started. It's for beginners and experienced writers.

My Experience

I've written short stories in the past, was in the process of completing drafts when I did this course and have continued with more stories since. The main thing I got out of doing this course was the structure of having something to follow, with, somewhat arbitrary, deadlines, and the stimulus to write more freely again. This is invaluable! 

I also got to read a whole lot of short stories that I knew would be worth my time because they were recommended by someone I could trust. In researching literary magazines and just loving writing (plus teaching a creative writing course) I've had a little too much experience of feeling my time has been wasted by starting a short story that ended up frustrating me. While my students are supposed to do this with their in-progress work, so that I can help them, I don't expect to roll my eyes or screw up my face in confusion/despair when I read something already published. But this has happened a lot. (Partially due to preference, but it's surprising how much objectively poor writing can get through to publication.)

The readings were all thought provoking and great to analyse. Even those that I didn't enjoy as a reader gave me plenty to consider as a writer. Part of me was a little proud if I had actually read any of the stories previously, but it was even better to read new stories that I felt I should have known long before. Even if you don't write anything, it would be interesting to take the reading list and enjoy the stories.

Plus, I wrote a new story! And truly, I had no intentions of what this story should be going into this course. As I already said, getting the freedom to just write and enjoy that process was greatly needed at the time I did this course. If you're a beginner, this is essential, as you can focus on the simple act of learning through practice. If you're already a writer, you know how easy it is to get stuck in the pressure of knowing how to write and expecting something perfect to appear in the first try. I needed a re-set, and I got one that felt worthwhile. 

It has been a while since I completed the course and my story. Still, as soon as I think of Litt's name, I can hear the voice I imagined from his writing. It feels personal and as though you're in the class with him because he knows how to guide students and care for their experience. My own story and characters also pop into my mind vividly when I think of this course. Sure, I wrote them, but I didn't plan to write them. They came out of the process and exercises in ways I did not expect. Perhaps that makes them memorable to me, but it also encourages me that perhaps the way they have affected me could transfer on the page to others as well.

I don't want to give away any of the great moments from the course or affect your own story, in case you wish to try it out for yourself, so I won't publish my completed rough draft here. But perhaps I will in another post some time. 

A Note To Toby

Thank you! In your course, I could easily feel the care you have for others to write and develop. As a teacher myself, I appreciate that you want that for me and I am inspired to work. I'm not a beginner, but I got so much out of your course, partially through confirmation/reminders of certain aspects, but also being allowed the freedom to learn more and write without pressure. Thank you for offering that opportunity and making it a worthwhile endeavour. 

A Note to Writers/Anyone

Please do try it out! Even if you don't want to become a writer, you will learn more about how to engage with others and how to improve any type of writing. You may even surprise yourself with the story that comes out of you that you didn't know you needed to tell.

Here are those links again: the original 2019 course and the edited lock-down version from 2020.