The Unexpected Joy in Distance Learning

Rachel Sargeant

Dr Rachel Sargeant talks of the fellowship she found at Lancaster from studying a Distance Learning course in 2013.

" I enrolled on the Distance Learning MA in Creative Writing in 2013. What I hoped to get out of the course was a portfolio of work and an improvement in my writing technique. I thought I’d achieve these aims through the discipline of completing assignments and from expert tuition.

Although coursework and tutors played a big part in developing my writing, it was the third component of the course that changed the game. We were allocated to syndicates and had to submit 5000 words every month for discussion. The students in my syndicate transformed my writing life.

Never shying away from giving constructive criticism, we also remained encouraging. It was a privilege to read their submissions in genres and styles I hadn’t encountered before. By editing their work, I began to take a more objective view of my own writing.

The summer school at the end of the first year was an unexpected joy. Meeting the whole cohort in person cemented our fellowship and, thanks to the raft of talks and workshops, the campus-based week stimulated our creativity.

In the second year, the criticism from our tutors intensified and some of us were challenged to rewrite parts of our portfolios (all of it in my case). In hindsight, this is to be expected from an academically rigorous master’s course, but at the time it was crushing. What kept me going was the balanced perspective of my syndicate. These people weren’t tutors, but they were writers and they were readers, and after a year of giving feedback on each other’s projects, we had a vested interest in helping each other do well.

After the course, with their ongoing feedback, I rewrote my MA portfolio as a commercial thriller and secured an agent. The book was published by HarperCollins and became a top-ten kindle bestseller in the UK and top fifty in the US, with paperbacks sold nationwide in supermarkets and bookshops. It was translated into other languages and achieved sales of over 100,000 copies. I was able to become a full-time author and have had two more novels published with HarperCollins.

I’m delighted to say I still exchange work with three of my Lancaster syndicate. We continue to be writing buddies and cheerleaders for each other. Equipped with the skills I learned editing their work, I have become a critique writer and judge for the quarterly, international Henshaw Press Short Story Competitions. In recent years, I have provided critiques on hundreds of stories.

The Lancaster distance learning MA also taught me how to keep several plates spinning – course load, paid employment, family time – and this gave me the confidence to return to academic study. In 2023, I obtained a doctorate in Creative Writing from the University of Birmingham. Two novels I wrote in the margins during my PhD studies are published this year by Hobeck Books. Her Deadly Friend and Her Charming Man are the first two books in my Gloucestershire Crime Series."

For more about Rachel, visit

Back to News