A few years ago, I completed a masters’ degree in creative writing from Royal Holloway, University of London. It was a fantastic experience, but an expensive one, too. Here’s my take on the main benefits of the MA, and alternative ways you might go about achieving them.
The simple and obvious truth is that you do not need a creative writing MA (or MFA, as it’s generally known in the States) to be a writer. However, they can be very beneficial to many people. The key to knowing whether it’s the right move for you is understanding your own personal reasons for wanting to do a postgraduate degree. Ask yourself what you want to achieve and whether or not you can achieve those goals in some other way. If you want all the benefits of a creative writing MA, but don’t actually want to do one, there are some alternatives that you could consider …
BENEFIT #1: Legitimising your writing
One of the major advantages of embarking on a creative writing MA is that you literally buy yourself some time to write. You pay your university fees and you can officially say ‘I am studying creative writing’, legitimising the time you spend focusing on your craft. I know this was one of the main draws for me. Psychologically, many people find it hard to be accepted as a developing writer. A lot of people will assume that you’re not really working, or judge you as a dreamer and not a realist. This can be tough to deal with. By embarking on an MA, you help overcome this stigma. Whether this is a fair reason to embark on a creative writing MA is up to you.
Create your own schedule for setting aside time to write, read and embark on developmental activities for your writing. Stretch it over a time period that suits you. Be extremely disciplined in ‘showing up’ to your ‘classes’. Call yourself a writer – to yourself and other people. Stick to your guns.
BENEFIT #2: Learning from professionals
All university creative writing tutors must be established in their field of writing. University offers a unique environment in which you get to mix with numerous writing professionals and learn from their knowledge and success. Depending on the writers who work in your university and how much you ‘click’ with them, this can be one of the biggest perks of doing a creative writing MA. Though I had some great tutors on my course, I wish I had more carefully considered who would be teaching me! The thought hadn’t much occurred to me at the time, and it might have been more beneficial for me to find tutors who wrote in the same genre as me.
Some writers offer private coaching services. Some literary consultancies offer mentorships. You can also get professional feedback on a manuscript you’ve already written from a freelance editor. Unfortunately, these options can be expensive – but MAs are very expensive, so consider how much you would spend on university fees and how much contact time you might get with a professional writer/mentor vs. this alternative. You might be restricted by location, but a lot of professionals use Skype for remote coaching. It could be difficult finding the right mentor for you, but it is likely to be worth it as a substitute for this part of the creative writing MA.
BENEFIT #3: Learning and support from your peers
One of the major benefits of studying on a creative writing MA is that you will immerse yourself in a creative environment with other writers. You’ll discover that you can learn as much from your fellow students as you can from your tutors. The emotional support and comradely felt between you will be invaluable, and you may well make some life-long writing buddies. For me, both giving and receiving feedback from my peers was one of the most useful, illuminating things about my MA.
Join a local writing group. Join an online writing group. Find a select few writers who want to get the same thing as you out of the group – being as strict or as flexible as you decide. Set yourself writing theory books to read and discuss. Set up a workshop environment and a rota of work to be submitted and developed. The main drawback is that you won’t have a professional writing tutor to chair the group, but if your group is thoughtful and committed, you’ll still find it an invaluable resource. Just because you are not on an MA, it doesn’t mean you don’t have valuable insight to share.
BENEFIT #4: Resources
Your university will have a library full of books, articles, audio archives, etc. (I had access to the British Library in London! Which was pretty cool.) You’ll have access to computer and other technical resources. The university is also likely to host literary events and lectures that you could attend, and your course might offer guest speakers (industry experts, famous writers …) and special field trips.
Join your local library – they might not have as many relevant resources, but they can order books for you from all the other libraries within the county. Second-hand books can also be found incredibly cheaply online on sites like eBay or Amazon Marketplace. Ebooks can also be cheaper, sometimes. If you’re in a writing group, pool some money together to create a shared library. Keep in touch with your local library, book stores, university and art centre to get information on up-and-coming literary events open to the public. If you have a writing group, get in touch with local authors and industry professionals and ask whether they would guest speak at your workshop – offer to pay for expenses and whatever fee your group can afford.
BENEFIT #5: Teaching
Some MAs offer the opportunity to teach undergraduate classes. This experience could be invaluable to those wishing to become creative writing teachers or tutors in the future. Realistically, most writers don’t earn a living from their writing alone and teaching is one of the main sources of income for working writers, so having access to this kind of experience is extremely useful.
Enrol on a PTLLS course (Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector) to develop basic teaching skills – this is what I did. This costs around £300-£350. Set up your own free creative writing class in a local venue, or even your own living room, to gain experience. Your lack of educational qualifications may be a barrier to teaching so make sure you have a developing publication record to endorse your course.
All these things work together to improve your writing craft and knowledge. A creative writing MA is not for everyone and they are extremely expensive. However, the creative writing MA wraps up all these experiences in a tidy package for you, one that’s much easier to follow through with since you put yourself in the hands of the system, and it might be that you’re the kind of writer who would benefit from such an environment. However, if you want a more flexible development scheme with similar benefits to an MA, these alternatives are a good place to start.