ASPIRING WRITERS are no longer likely to be found burning books for fuel in a freezing garret as they learn their craft from the real world. Today, it seems, they are far more likely to be signing up for a creative writing course.
In 12 years, the number of universities offering postgraduate degree courses in creative writing has increased from eight to 85.
And there are a total of 11,000 short-term creative writing courses and evening classes in the UK. Last year, an estimated 110,000 people enrolled on some kind of writing course.
It helps that several big-name authors teach the subject in universities. Perhaps the most famous is the creative writing MA at the University of East Anglia (UEA), founded in 1965 by the late Sir Malcolm Bradbury, which has produced a host of best-selling authors, including Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro.
The surge in interest in creative writing courses - in 2002, 40 people applied for 20 places on a course run by Warwick University - mirrors a similar trend in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s.
The novelist Debbie Taylor, whose latest book The Fourth Queen was published in paperback by Penguin in February, has researched the flowering of this new academic discipline for the latest issue of Mslexia, a Newcastle-based magazine for women who write.
Ms Taylor, a graduate of such a course, debunks the myths that creative writing cannot be taught, that people with ability will succeed without help, that the courses create only clones and that it is impossible to assess works of fiction.
She believes there are several factors contributing to the booming numbers of people taking post-graduate and other courses to try to become published writers.
"More people are going to university nowadays," she said. "A lot of creative writing departments have been set up in what used to be the old polytechnics.
"People are prepared to pay to do these courses, which means the English and arts departments are keen to set them up. The universities see them as useful cash cows." Although Ms Taylor admits the universities have financial incentives for establishing such degrees, she is far from cynical, and believes her own work has benefited massively from writing classes.
"If you read very widely you can do it by yourself, but it's so much quicker to get that kick-start, like getting a shot in the arm. You can save so much time that beginning writers often waste."
University courses are also providing a source of income for writers, aside from what they earn from their published work. "The plethora of courses means there is now a career for writers," Ms Taylor said. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Proof that the postgraduate MA courses are turning out successful authors is provided by the number of literary agents who are queuing up to …