MA Degrees in Creative Writing: waste of time or wonderful opportunity?

I recently posted a set of concerns about MA creative writing courses . In particular, I argued that they had far too little connection with the publishing market as it is today.

Since writing that I’ve taken a look at some course prospectuses. Here, for example, is the blurb from UEA:

The MA does not function through exercises but by considering fiction as a form of aesthetic, psychological and cultural enquiry. Neither the poetry nor prose fiction strand is primarily commercial in direction and neither teaches conventional genre forms or, in the conventional sense, marketability.

Eh? What does that mean? Marketability ‘in the conventional sense‘? Call me an idiot, but something is marketable if you can sell it. It’s highly marketable, if you can sell it for a lot. And if you want to be a writer – you know, the sort who writes books that are sold in bookshops – then considering marketability in a conventional sense seems like a damn good idea to me.

Here is the blurb from Goldsmiths:

The inter-relationship between theory, scholarship and the creative process is key to the Goldsmiths MPhil/PhD in Creative Writing … Doctoral students for the PhD in Creative Writing are expected to combine their own creative writing with research into the genre or area of literature in which they are working, to gain insight into its history, development and contemporary practices. … They are also expected to engage with relevant contemporary debates about theory and practice.

Blimey! I’ve no idea what the inter-relationships between theory, scholarship and the creative process is for my work. I don’t even really know what that means. I doubt if my publishers do. Or if they care. They’re probably just happy publishing my books.

But – and here, really, is the point of this post – I’ve realised that the best courses do indeed do a stunning job for a proportion of their students. UEA can boast of the following alumni: Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Anne Enright, Tracy Chevalier, and plenty of others. Bath Spa says, ‘Two [of our recent students] were long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, three for the Orange Prize, one for the Costa Prize and one for the Guardian First Book Award.’

Those are strikingly good achievements. Genuinely impressive. On the other hand, my previous post concluded by questioning whether those courses did well by a majority of their students. And I’m still sceptical. A minority of talented writers may bloom to a wonderful degree. A large majority will, I think, end up being rejected by the industry … having never been properly equipped with the skills that would have allowed them to thrive.

So the conclusion remains the same. Don’t assume these courses will launch you as a writer. Research them carefully. Know what you want to write and what they want to teach. Check out your tutors. Check out the teaching method. Talk to past students (and not only those who ended with a book deal.) And if you go for it – then have a wonderful time.

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  • This is a great post. I’ve been looking at MA and MFAs for the past 2 years and I can’t find one that I like. I have taken a close look and their courses and how the teach. Each one has a downside and not teaching the author about genre writing and marketing are two of my top reasons for not applying.

    So I’ve started my own self-study on my blog, which I’ve called Writers’ Uni-Verse-City. its not a university program, but a study of the current trends and latest books on the craft of writing as well as the business side (publishing). Maybe after I learn what I want to learn on my own, I will think about applying for a MA or MFA.

  • Harry

    Hi Nicole – interesting comment. My views come on the (comfortable) side of the fence where I already have book contracts and don’t need to worry about learning. It’s nice to know that my comments strike a chord with you too. You should definitely think about Daren King’s novel writing course as a possible alternative to the MA / MFA. But the more you’ve done before he gets his paws on you, the better you’ll get on.

  • Susan

    I think the commercial value of such a degree would be in the academic world. If you just intend to write and try to publish, I doubt that the degree would make any difference to your acceptance.


    Susan, writer of Como Quitar la Celulitis de las Piernas