Students in many disciplines benefit from the help of established writers, thanks to a Royal Literary Fund scheme.
For many years the Royal Literary Fund was an impoverished charity scrabbling around to find funds to support struggling writers. Then royalties from the estate of the novelist W Somerset Maugham and the works of A A Milne and Disney's subsequent exploitation of the Pooh characters dramatically increased its income. Founded in 1790 for the relief of poor and distressed authors, the fund suddenly found itself awash with money. At first the trustees were at a loss to know what to do with it until one trustee, Hilary Spurling, biographer of Paul Scott and Henri Matisse, had an idea. The fund's charter defined its secondary purpose as the advancement of public education.
Why not use the money to support a number of university and college-based fellows who could spend half their working week writing poetry, novels and plays and the other half helping students to improve their essay-writing skills? Without fanfare a pilot scheme was launched three years ago. This year the fund is spending nearly £1m supporting 55 writing fellows in 38 universities and colleges. It is a remarkable success story. "We thought of this scheme as a way of putting writers in universities, which would benefit writers because they would have a year of secure income and at the same time it would further public education because they would be there to help people to write," Spurling said.
There were plenty of creative writers in the universities and colleges already, so the idea was that these new writing fellows would help undergraduates, postgraduates and academics to express themselves better in their essays and academic work. She explained: "Medical students need to be able to compose a letter to a medical journal, landscape gardeners need to be able to know how to describe their landscapes and museum curators need to know how to be able to write labels.
"There are lots of good jobbing writers who are not necessarily high-fliers who are maybe finding it harder and harder to earn a living. But every single writer in the country of whatever kind, even if he or she has only written knitting catalogue texts, knows how to write a sentence and knows what a verb is."
Each fellow is paid £14,000 during the year-long fellowship and all their expenses are met by the fund. They are given a room on campus with the use of a telephone, computer and photocopier. If the fellow chooses to live on campus the host college will also provide living accommodation. The fellow must make him or herself available to students two days a week. They can offer one-to-one tuition, workshops, seminars or group work. Whatever teaching arrangements are made, the fund is clear that the writer should be left with ample time to pursue his or her own work with out distraction.
It is hoped that students from all disciplines will feel free to consult the fellow on anything from writing an essay or thesis to setting out an argument, making a proposal, writing a letter or composing a job application. The fellowship scheme is open to poets, playwrights, novelists, scientific and technical writers, historians, biographers, translators and jobbing writers of all varieties.
"We have been astounded. What the writers have found they are doing is not saying, 'This is a noun, this a verb, that is how you write a sentence' but saying 'Yes you can write, everybody can write, tell me about this.' When you get someone who thought they could not write to write something that is lively, clear and readable, that is tremendously satisfying.
"What students do find difficult is to get over the inhibitions which prevent them from expressing ideas clearly. And since writers struggle on a daily basis with precisely those blockages, that has been very mutually stimulating and reassuring for both writers and students."
Sally Cline, biographer of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and writing fellow at Anglia Polytechnic University in Cambridge, said students book four or five weeks ahead to see her. "There is never a spare slot on my list. They often arrive fretful about either their academic or creative writing abilities and after an hour in my home-from-home room (plants, coffee, biscuits) they go away refreshed, eager to learn and improve the writing skills they hardly knew they had. "The scheme has improved the writer's lot in the UK out of all recognition. Some of us may miss the solitude and space of working from home but none of us miss grubbing around for part-time, ill-paid jobs to support our writing," she said.
Dr Rebecca Stott, head of the English department where Sally Cline is based, said students were going to Cline for advice on essays. "Students who have been able to work with her have been able to raise their average grades by between 5% and 10%, which has sometimes taken them over a class from 2:2 to 2:1 and higher."
Steven Matthews, chair of the English department at Oxford Brookes University, which has two poets, Mario Petrucci and Neil Rollinson, as fellows, said the impact was not limited to English students. Petrucci, he added, had worked with students in geography on their notebook journals and people in the school of health care about presentation and writing essays. "Students are often not able to develop their ideas in the coherent and expanded form that is necessary at a university level. They have real problems with sentence structure and structuring essays."
David Morley, director of the writing programme at Warwick University where Carole Angier, the biographer of Primo Levi, and Simon Rae, the poet, are fellows, described the Royal Literary Fund scheme as "tremendous".
"A lot of student scientists are largely thrown to the dogs when it comes to writing up [their research projects]. It's assumed that we know how to do it and we don't." The presence of these fellows was helping to address this overlooked problem, he said.