Margaret explores the pros, the cons, and the alternatives to a Creative Writing post-grad.
Say you enjoyed creative writing in school, so much so that you wished to become a writer. The thought “pick something sensible” leads you to English Literature, but after four years of studying it, you still feel that there’s more to learn before you try to make a living this way. If so, you may face this question: “Is an MA in Creative Writing worth it?” Well, with the University of Glasgow charging over £9,000 for the privilege, you better be damn sure.
For some, the community the course offers will be invaluable; being surrounded by like-minded students, all similarly dedicated to writing, who can share and discuss ideas at length, and whose differing styles and tastes offer influence and evolution. It’s also the rare kind of social circle that can provide meaningful feedback and critique, which you need, without varnish. If your story is dull, you pay the heaviest price. Not all the feedback will be useful, but there’ll be that little gem that makes you go “huh”. And this is not to mention the feedback from the seasoned lecturers whose counsel you are paying for.
For good or ill, networking is a vital asset in and beyond your course, and the relationships you form during your course may be invaluable: should the course be good and well-attended, your colleagues will go on to become the writers, editors, and agents you may work with in the future.
And if that sounds a bit slimy as a benefit, perhaps the biggest one is this: your course will involve a lot of writing and a lot of reading, and through both, you get to refine your style and approach in a way that a vacuum never could. Not all of it will be fun, obviously, but nothing teaches you what doesn’t work better than reading it in another’s bad writing.
You may hate the phrase “transferable skills”, but not everyone can win a Pulitzer, and courses like these can be a jump start in fields like publishing. Ellie Pike, a Penguin HR adviser, maintains that the skills you learn can help set applications apart: “For positions in marketing and publicity as well as to some extent, editorial, the skills that come from creative writing degrees can be very valuable.” That £9,000 is a lot less painful if it gets you a higher paying job.
But don’t give up hope that you can’t make a career in writing: MA programmes have produced Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro, the latter a Nobel Prize for Literature winner. Then again, others have reached literary stardom without so much as an English degree: J.K. Rowling studied French & Classics.
Returning to the original question then: is the MA worth it? The answer is entirely dependent upon the kind of person you are. For some, it could be a great career boost. For others, it may be terrible. Those who hate the university approach to creative subjects - with its set assignments, eye-watering fees (£15,600 for the MA at Cambridge), and peers who begrudgingly give half-hearted feedback – are paying for little more than demotivation.
Writing is always best when informed by experience and life lived, and a classroom can’t supplement that. Perhaps then, pocket the fees, join a local creative writing group for the feedback without the pressure and cost, get a job suited to your skills, read in your spare time, and use your savings for informative experiences. A rented beachside cabin may produce better work than a course, and will be a lot more pleasant. Or it might not, and the structure and feedback could really sharpen your tools.
A great MA course may illuminate what you really needed to grow, or help you discover what you really want to do. The more free-spirited may be ready to kick the academic dust off their heels and venture into the world. Just write and do whatever is right for you.
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