Someone asked me this question recently on YouTube:
Where do authors go to learn more about story craft? How do we know when we’ve found a reputable teacher? Is it a college degree in English and literature? What is the best way to learn how to piece together a readable story?
I’ve gotten similar questions before, and they all start with this:
“I want to write a book. I’ve started, but… I don’t know what to write, I always get stuck in the middle, I’m not sure if it’s good enough.”
The pain point and disconnect is that people who consider themselves good writers who SHOULD write a book, have trouble actually doing it – it gets put off, for months and years, and becomes an emotional drain. There may be guilt involved, like “Why can’t I just DO this?”
If you want to “make it” as a career, full-time writer, you might be thinking about investing in a course or program so you can get some help and “learn how to write.”
I think that would be a mistake, and I’ll try to explain why in this post.
Firstly, improving your writing won’t help if you have nothing to say. According to someone who left their teaching position of an MFA creative-writing program, “The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it.”
In his article, he reveals some hard truths like an MFA won’t help you get published:
Anyone who claims to have useful information about the publishing industry is lying to you, because nobody knows what the hell is happening.
But also says, if you don’t have the talent; if you haven’t already been writing for years; if you aren’t a serious writer or can’t find time to do the work, nobody is going to care about your problems.
According to assistant professor Seth Abramson, an MFA credential can’t get you a real job, but that’s OK because most students don’t want one anyway…
“The MFA is, at base, a non-professional, largely-unmarketable art-school degree that can’t get anyone a full-time teaching job (at least not in the absence of significant in-genre publications) and is not designed to “network” graduates into magazine or book publications.”
The myth that poets and writers attend MFA programs to “professionalize” themselves — to get “credentialed” — has been proven false. According to 2009 polling, less than 30% of applicants reported that they sought an MFA for the credential. (Six myths about getting a creative writing degree)
So what are they paying for?
That polling data is super out-dated, but I’d guess it holds true enough: people are interested in an MFA because they want to become a writer, and improve their skills enough to get published – either for the prestige and accolades, the external validation, or *maybe* for a chance to make real, life-changing wealth (sure it’s improbable, but there are enough moonshot-crazy stories about famous writers getting another six-figure advance that it kindles a spark of hope).
Here’s the problem: publishing income will always depend on the books, not the writing style. Most full-time authors have an average of 5 or 10 books before they start making big money. Most MFA programs take time, you’ll be practice talking about and criticizing writing, not actually writing.
Stephanie Vanderslice takes a softer approach: while you don’t *need* an MFA to become a writer, it’s “helpful”:
“There will always be those who say that creative writing can’t or shouldn’t be taught, that the programs are rife with teachers who promote generic McStories and McPoems and who lack an understanding of the publishing world, and that the classes themselves are filled with mawkish students interested only in the therapeutic value of self-expression.”
The program provides an enabling balance and progression of both practice and study in the literary arts in order to prepare the student for a life of letters and to equip the student with the skills needed for writing an original book-length creative work. (So you want to get an MFA? an open letter)
Neither of these things say anything about a JOB or actually earning money from your writing.
Will it help you write a good book? No, it’ll help you write a “creative” book – one that fits the formula of literary greatness: the hardest kind of book to sell or market or get a deal from. The hardest to read and enjoy. For every one of these books that sell well, there are ten thousand that don’t.
If you want to express yourself and your story in a way that doesn’t totally suck, you *might* learn how to do it – but will anybody else actual care? MFA professors might even steer you away from anything popular or commercial, sneering and turning up their nose and million-copy bestsellers like Twilight or Harry Potter.
Which means, you won’t learn, most likely, how to write enjoyable, addicting fiction with tight drama and compelling twists that readers binge and devour and tell their friends about.
An MFA and massive student debt?
A two-year master’s degree program would run $27,600-$72,600; a three-year program would be $41,300-$108,900.
People are slowly starting to realize that college is a scam, and that (good) jobs are scarce and hard to come by, but a degree in creative writing is definitely one of the least applicable in terms of earning power. Yesterday I saw a massive rant on Reddit, from a dissatisfied student.
The post got deleted within 12 hours. Why? Because it criticized the point of getting an MFA. Unfortunately, there was a lot of good comments I didn’t save but had planned to repost here, but I’ll try to summarize what I remember:
1. MFA’s in creative writing don’t teach you the rules. They teach you examples of famous writers and how they broke or defied the rules; something that is never applicable to your own writing, except the vague/general notion that you can/should break all the rules to be a great writer.
2. This means, you’re never actually learning anything you can use for real, and there’s an aversion to any kind of formularized process you can follow. How do you improve when there’s no roadmap, nothing you should do or strive towards?
As NovelConcepts writes (in the comments):
“It just seems how the field of creative writing went from one side of the craft is important to craft isn’t needed at all. And I think it’s because we’ve had a full generation and a half of instructors who could write engaging fiction without learning the basics. So obviously, they teach that the basics don’t need to be learned because it was true for them.”
“But the average learner doesn’t think they need to learn it either because no one sees themselves as an average learner. Writers are a smart bunch of people but there’s an average somewhere and most people are just at it, below it or over it.”
Two great points are made here:
1. that great writers can skip rules, probably because they *actually* already knew them, intuitively or through years of practice and study, and *then* broke the rules. Focusing only on the former and latter is helpful to nobody; and also disingenuous. This is why, actually, I’d much rather learn from a mediocre writer with a lot of knowledge than a gifted writer with no process or self-awareness.
2. that if there are NO rules, no system of best practices or structure or narrative story-telling, if *anything* goes and *will not* be judged, then every author can just assume they’re already amazing, because they’re doing the *one thing* they were taught to do – be *creative* and strive not to conform to any rules.
Why was the post banned from Reddit?
First, it was criticized for style, not content: “with platonic affection as a fellow writer, your post is almost unreadably full of run ons.” Secondly, it was banned for being an aggressive call-out post.
I get it, Reddit/r/writing is a group with 2 million writers. It’s not about publishing or marketing it’s about “writing” only; and the mods have a tough job managing all the posts. An angry rant or tirade against the value of an MFA in creative writing probably didn’t particularly useful… but it was!
Because an MFA is probably not the degree you’re looking for. While you might enjoy it in terms of socializing with other would-be authors (you probably won’t), and you’ll probably get better at recognizing and avoiding bad writing (there are much easier ways!) and you might need the structure and discipline of deadlines and due dates (do you though?) the truth is it’s an outdated money-grab for most universities that has no practical application: self-publishing is easier than ever and while competitive, you’ll probably enjoy bring a smile to a bored housewife with your mermaid fantasy than off-based criticism from a bespectacled literary asshole who is too focused on the word choice to embrace the adventure of your story.
PS – I had the idea of making a free “MFA in commercial writing” self-study program, listing all the tools and resources with a syllabus and timeline. If you’d be into that, make sure to subscribe or follow me. And of course, you can instantly boost your writing abilities with all my free guides, videos and tutorials.
UPDATE: the original poster republished her comments online:
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.