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Should I do a Creative Writing MA?

I've blogged about whether, and when, a course in Creative Writing might be a good idea, and about how to choose the right one for you. And if you're wondering whether, and how, Creative Writing can be taught, this unpicks that hardy perennial of a question. But a quick search on the UCAS website shows 459 Masters-level courses in Creative Writing. True, part-time and full-time versions of the same course are being listed separately, but the darned things cost a fortune these days (though student loans are these days available for both part- and full-time study). So, assuming you're thinking seriously about taking a postgraduate-level course, where on earth do you start?

Obviously I don't know about all courses, and nothing I post here can be a substitute for you, yourself, digging into the UCAS website, producing a longlist, getting stuck into the individual universities and courses' websites, and then asking as many email questions as you need, to be sure you've made the best decision you can. And, in what follows, forgive me if I say that a course "will" do something which yours clearly doesn't, and forgive me too if I use "MA" as shorthand for different degrees - more about the differences later.

What does a Creative Writing Master's degree actually look like?

Generally speaking, MAs are one-year full-time (Taught from October to May, then you have till September to complete your portfolio) or two-year part-time courses. The course itself is usually structured as a series of modules - part-timers just tackle the same modules across the longer time - and the basic unit of teaching is the workshop. A group of writers meet, under the guidance of a teacher/facilitator, to explore, in a (loosely) structured way an aspect of craft, form, genre or process. Either they do some writing there and then, and share it for discussion, or they share work done earlier: they may also look at others' writing, and maybe write in response to it. You will be doing a lot of writing during the rest of the week, and often stuff for workshopping will be circulated beforehand, which allows for a more considered response. The idea is to get you writing, and help you to develop your craft, technique and process, as well as your art.

But do understand that the purpose and goal of an MA is not, fundamentally, to teach you to run "a profitable writing business" as one MA sceptic puts it. This is a practice-led academic course, and the goal is that you should develop into a good and even innovative writer. But there's something more; the definition of academic creative writing is "The study of the work in progress". So it's not enough just to learn to write better: you will also be expected to reflect and analyse your process of learning to write creatively. Many courses will suggest or insist that you keep a journal, since it will help a lot with the other part of what you submit for the degree: what's usually called a commentary. Many students hate writing them, but if you're about to give up on an MA and go back to surfing the net for cute baby animals, remember my student who said at the end of the course, "I hated writing every single commentary, and I'm so glad I had to write them. They've made me a much better writer." It was true, too.

There may be seminar presentations to do, about particular writers or genres, but on the whole, you'll get grades by submitting short pieces, and sections of longer ones. Your final "exam" will not be a sit-down exam, but a portfolio of such work, which you'll work on after the end of teaching in April or May, and submit by September. You'll then either pass, or pass with Distinction - roughly equivalent to getting a First - or fail (though, if the latter, some courses would offer some kind of option to have another go).

Do I have to be terribly clever and have a First from somewhere famous?

No. The university will probably have a regulation that do a Masters degree you have to have a reasonable class in a first (BA or similar) degree, but it absolutely doesn't have to be an "obvious" ones like English. And they recognise that people come to writing from a million different places; in my experience, a university will always find a way to through the regulations if they really want you and think you can cope with the course. It helps if you have some A Levels, and other real life evidence of being intelligent and committed, but don't be put off if you have dyslexia or another learning difficulty: universities these days try incredibly hard to support you, and prevent it being a disadvantage.

Having said that, you will be expected to work to normal postgraduate academic standards, in everything from reading lists and referencing, to the language of your commentaries, to general self-propellingness. You're expected to be a grown-up, educationally speaking, and the academic component may be quite substantial: the MPhil at the University of Wales asks for a 10,000 word essay on a literary topic related to your creative work. All in all, it's a biggish step up from undergraduate work, and if you've never tangled with a university course at all, this post of mine, about academic writing, might give you the flavour. 

Do I need an MA to get published?

No. Absolutely not. Totally, absolutely and completely not. All you need to get published is a terrific manuscript, a copy of the Writers' And Artists' Yearbook borrowed from the library, and an internet connection. And I get very cross with the University marketing machines whose advertising gets distastefully close to saying "Do our course and get published", because our industry doesn't work like that. On the other hand ...

Will an MA help me to get published?

Quite possibly, but by no means certainly. MAs can help with a lot of the things that it takes to get published: they "give permission" to spend time on your writing; help you to learn your job properly; expose you to a wider range of writers and creative possibilities than you would have found on your own; challenge your defaults and decisions about your own writing; give you "conditional validation"; create writerly friendships that will sustain you for decades. A good course will bringing in agents and publishers to talk to the course and who then will, at the very least, read a bit of what you send them. An MA on your CV will show potential agents and publishers that you're serious and know at least the basics of your trade.

Having said that, good creative writing and saleable creative writing are not the same thing. And, since the definition of academic CW is "the study of the work-in-progress", it's always likely to privilege writing which is exciting to write and read and therefore to study. If you have a good reason for doing something a certain way, then it's justified. The book industry privileges work which sells; you may have had a good reason for doing something, but that's no real answer to your editor saying, "Yes, but it doesn't work". Of course, since readers also want excitement, there is an overlap between "good" and "saleable", but finding it isn't always easy. When MAs were rarer, for each slush-reading agent who thought, "Oh, good, an MA novel: it'll be decently presented and competently written," another agent was likely to think, "Oh, ugh, an MA novel: it'll be full of beautiful sensory description and have no bloody story"; but these days the proliferation of MAs means that the prejudice against them is less, but so is the advantage of them. And, yes, when you look at prize shortlists an awful lot of the writers will have MAs, but that's just because there are so many courses, and it's so much become a normal way for serious and literary writers to develop themselves. It's never the only way.

Will an MA help me get other work?

Very possibly. Those are transferable skills you'll be learning: accuracy and versatility in writing, professional presentation, experience of workshops and reflective processes, experience in researching. Certainly, if you want to teach CW and don't already have a lot of experience and/or publishing track-record, or a Masters in something else, it's pretty much obligatory; if you want to do other kinds of teaching and related work it will still tick the "I have a postgraduate qualification" box. In the wider world, just having something on your CV that says you could work hard and seriously at a respected institution and get a degree from them is never a bad thing, although you may still meet people who think it's airy-fairy nonsense, at least until you explain what's actually involved.

Will they make me do lots of kinds of writing I'm not interested in?

You may well be expected to work in forms and genres that you've never tried, or don't much like, and that's a good thing: playwriting is brilliant for prose-writers, poetry for playwrights, life-writing for the mask-wearing fictioneers, while studying Sherlock Holmes is very good for people whose God is W G Sebald. It's the equivalent of fencers learning ballet to improve their footwork, and painters working at photography to think about light: having different restrictions and different opportunities works creative muscles and brain-cells you didn't know you had. And it can be a life-saver later: I'm not a poet, but when I had to teach an undergrad poetry module I was very grateful indeed for having had to workshop poets on my masters.

Some modules may be more about exploring the literary and cultural context of what you're doing and this is not just trimming: whether you like it or not, your readers operate in that context, so your writing must too. Indeed, a few MAs are as much about using Creative Writing to explore how literature works, as they are about producing new pieces. The course should be designed so that you can focus ever more closely into your particular interests and skills, until your final portfolio reflects those, but I know some people who went into their course convinced they were one kind of writer, and had a Damascene conversion to another.

I want to write genre fiction. Will they take me?

CW teaching in the UK started with the MA at East Anglia, which was modelled on the US-style MFA, and so the discipline has developed outwards and downwards from that advanced level, and at a literary-fiction angle. MAs still operate at the literary end of the creative spectrum, and traditionally, lit fic has disdained fiction which straightforwardly does what it says on the tin: that's why in the industry "commercial fiction" and "genre fiction" are almost interchangeable terms. And there was a time (yes, at UEA, albeit many years ago), when a writer said she wanted to write crime, and "felt the frost settling on the interview panel". However, the postmodern world recognises that there need be nothing unsophisticated about working in a genre; there are increasing numbers of courses specifically for crime fiction and speculative fiction. On the other hand, I get the impression that gender-based genre-snobbery still operates, so while crime is the intellectual's respectable fun, I can't see nearly as many options for writers of the "female" equivalent, which is romance.

Having said all that, when I said "nothing unsophisticated", I did mean it. At the lit-fic end of things genre distinctions tend to blur and melt, and if you want nonetheless to work with those distinctions you will be expected to think and write critically and analytically about the satisfactions that your chosen genre supplies to readers - its opportunities, its tradition, its restrictions - and then about how you are chosing to work with all three, and what actually happened when you did.

I want to write scripts.

Some MAs include writing for stage, screen and radio in their normal modules: you try several - perhaps very fruitfully - and you opt later on; in others you choose right at the beginning, and may not get a chance to try your hand at other forms. And at some, the English department for prose-and-poetry, and the Film or Theatre department for scripts, seem to operate as if neither exists, which I find odd and sad: there are lots of ways in which I as a novelist have more in common with a playwright or even a painter, than I do with a specialist in Saussure, or the history of Renaissance sonnets.

What will I actually learn?

I hope that's implied in all that you've just read, but to sum up, you should get to explore different forms and genres and discover your tastes and talents. You should also learn to develop both ends of the writing business: how to find and recognise ideas, feelings and potent material; how craft and technique works and how to apply it; how the writing process can draw those together in drafting and revising. The thing you can't really be taught, but will have to learn for yourself, is how to use those three kinds of understanding together, to end up with a finished piece. What a course can do is give you space and support while you work that out. 

Anecdotally, I have to say that you will, quite often, not find MAs - at least the prose-fiction and creative non-fiction ones - as ruthlessly focussed on Story being King, as the industry would like them to be. That's partly a good thing: when story is king the rest of what's interesting in writing is at risk of become downtrodden slaves. There are so many other glorious ways to think and to write, and if all writing went down the narrow road of writing that can reliably sell 50,000 copies, literature would be very much the poorer. But it is also a problem, both for those who want to get published in the mainstream, and for those who are genuinely really interested in how storytelling works.

Indeed, there is still a snobbery, in a few quarters, about plot, which is partly a version of genre snobbery: a feeling that any fiction which which is driven by the need to satisfy the reader's basest appetite for a "causally-related chain of events" will be too restrticed in other respects to be worth bothering with. For the difference between plot and story, click here: for our purposes now, it's worth knowing that the history of that snobbery also means that some lecturers who do know that story matters may genuinely not be very well equipped to teach it. Scriptwriters, on the other hand, think so much in terms of story structure that I assume that it's less of a problem.

There's also a genuine difficulty with novels on any course: workshopping a whole novel is hardly possible and, even taken in chunks, it's very hard for the inexperienced writer and reader to take an overview, unless you're all used to working with synopses, which most students and some tutors won't be. But that will be a difficulty in any group: it's just a difficulty that an MA may not be much better placed to overcome, except in being longer, and having more willing readers.

Will it add to my portfolio of writing?

Yes. You might even find you've got stories or poems suitable for competitions and magazines, scripts which the drama or film studies department are up for giving a whirl to, or the beginnings of a novel. You should certainly end up knowing a bit more about where to find outlets for your work, and how to approach them. If it's a whole-novel MA you should end up with - well - a whole novel. 

Might it damage my writing?

It's not, I have to say, unheard of - but not that common. If the course really does go wrong, it's more likely to be a case of you feeling that your pocket has been damaged, without a good-enough result in return. But remember "ugly duckling syndrome": when you learn lots of new things, your work can be awkward and out-at-elbows while the tools are still new. I've lost count of the writers I know whose MA novel (which was the reason they'd done the course) didn't get published - but the next one did. Having said that, some courses are better than others, and some writers are more thin-skinned than others, and it's worth trying to find a good fit. The thing is, a bland "This is lovely" is no more use, though less painful, than a brutal "This is shit", but what you really want is specifics, in a safe and reasonably neutral space. If the lecturer running your workshop can't control a seminar-bully then I'd hope you could get the department to tackle the problem, but with even friendly and well-intentioned weekly workshops, there is a risk of writing-by-committee. There's also a risk that a lecturer can't shove those of friendly good intention over the threshold into saying something useful (which may not be the lecturer's fault: it can take some shoving!). And if what you want to write is sufficiently out of step with what most of your peers want to write, you may just find that feedback isn't all that useful. All of these problems become more acute if the bully, committee or out-of-step person is a tutor or lecturer. Again, it's possible that the department can help, but it can never be certain.

Having said all that, you are a grown-up, and you do also have a responsibility to cope with things, ask for what you need, and expect to be challenged and pushed beyond your comfort zone. This is postgraduate level. Ann Lamott says truly that the sword of truth may be better used to point than to cut, but spoons are also for pointing, not for feeding. It is not your lecturer's job to make sure you're never upset that a story to which your heart and guts are stapled is called dull and predictable, or to censor her/his suggestion that the most useful thing you could read is American Psycho.

And, of course, it's just possible that you will discover either that you can't become the writer you hoped you could, or that you might but don't, actually, have the drive to do that. For some, that's OK, or even a relief (it was with me, when I finished my Drama degree having learnt that I didn't want to go into the theatre). Indeed, you could argue that's a perfectly good outcome: you have gone as far as you can, and learnt an authentic truth about your creative self. But do allow the possibility to cross your mind, and don't cough up all that work and money if you're going to feel that such an outcome would be a total and complete catastrophe. 

How do I choose between similar-looking courses?

I would look very closely at the course itself, and think about how it fits with what you want to do. Not just the topics of the modules, and the day of the week, but the size of groups and teaching methods; the contact hours, the structure of assessments. Then there's the lecturers' backgrounds: being published is essential, being starrily published not; it may even be a bad thing if it means the lecturer is always away; some even farm out their marking to the lowlier-paid hourly-paid lecturers. Other industry stars are conscientious, energetic and all-round Good Eggs: ask around in the hope of finding out which this one is. What does the department do in the way of getting industry figures involved? And talks/seminars/lectures by well-known and exciting writers? Does the department promote student's work with an anthology or a website? Assuming there's editorial control so everything in it is top-notch, these are a good showcase for your writing, and agents do trawl them in the hope of making contact with the new talents. Birkbeck's The Mechanics Institute Review is one of the best know of such things, but there are many others, and getting involved in editing, publishing and publicising is another good line on the CV. 

Don't forget what the university itself is like. You may only be there one day a week (and do check what the journey's like at the times you'll be travelling), but is it pleasant to spend time there, when your seminar group needs to get together? Is the library good and nice to work in - especially if working at home isn't easy? Does it give you access to other libraries in related institutions, as with the University of London's Senate House Library? Are events in other departments also tasty-looking: can you go to them, and would you be willing to do the journey on a different day? If you might be interested in collaborating with other departments, is that possible? Universities are bad at structuring things to prompt inter-departmental collaboration, but they should support you if you initiate things.

Full-time? Part-time? Distance Learning?

Creative Writing suits part-time study rather well. Indeed, I know several people, doing a full-time course for work, childcare or visa reasons, who wished they could have done part-time, so that there was more brewing, stewing and revising-time between workshops. I know others who felt the reverse: the sort of creative head of steam that they needed to build up was dissipated by having relatively few days in the department, and rather too much solitary trying-to-remember-what-happened-next at home among the annual report and the toddler. It would be worth asking the course what the numbers are like, as if you're in a minority (on either side), you might find it's not terribly well set-up for you: part-timers don't always do all the modules, but what if almost everyone else is a full-timer - will people forget that you haven't?

Distance learning also works very well for Creative Writing, although there are many different models, not least because workshopping online works so well. With the usual "asynchronous" forum setup, feedback can be more considered than it can round a workshop-table in meatspace, and you can fit posting and responding into your own life. There are also options for live, web-chat or even camera-based real-time workshops, although the technology is not without its glitches. You will almost always be in some kind of tutor-group, plus larger forums to provide a bigger pool of potential friends and fellows. I would look quite hard at how long such a course has been established, however: distance teaching is an art in itself, which isn't always recognised by those who set up a course as a cheap moneyspinner. Indeed, the amount of involvement that tutors have can be, or at least feel, surprisingly low, not least because you're not conscious of them as a real person in a physical space. The MPhil at the University of South Wales - which I did in the days when it was Glamorgan - is, I think, pretty much unique in its mix of distant one-to-one contact with your tutor, and weekend workshops; the distance-learning MA at Lancaster is also very well-established and well-regarded. The original experts in distance learning, the Open University, have just launched its MA, which shows every sign of being as good as their very excellent undergraduate courses (I'm slightly biased here too: I used to teach one of those.). 

What about MPhils, MFAs and MLitts?

MPhils are called that because it's like a short PhD: a research degree, not a taught one. So, generally speaking you get it not by doing modules and submitting a portfolio, but by writing a novel, collection of short stories or poems, probably plus a critical essay, under the guidance of a supervisor; the "exam" is a viva. What you have to do does vary a lot, though, so make sure it suits you. 

MLitts seem to happen at universities where the basic first degree is an MA - Scottish universities and Oxbridge, mainly - but structurally look similar to an MPhil, although with varying amounts of teaching versus research.

MFAs started in the US, as a much longer degree, practice-based in one or other of the arts to develop craft and also teaching skills, when normal MAs were only critical-theoretical. The first CW MFA in the UK, at Kingston, is 2 years full-time or 4 part-time, and looks like a similar mix, including experience in the industry.

You will also see MAs in "Professional Writing", for example at Falmouth and similar disciplines: they tend to have a stronger industry focus, with elements of journalism and non-fiction writing, and perhaps a less literary colour to the more creative modules. In theory they ought to be much more directly useful for working in the industry, but as with all university degrees in practical subjects, I suspect - though have no proof - that you'd find a lot of potential employers are just as happy with an English graduate with a good brain, a CV of internships and work-experience, and fast typing. 

I'm also tempted by a PhD: would that be a better idea?

They are very different. To think about this possibility, have a look at my post here, and to think about what you might put in your proposal, go here: one option would be the MPhil in Writing at the University of South Wales, which can be extended to become a PhD. Conversely, most PhD programmes in the UK register you for an MPhil, and then "upgrade" if all is going well, but they will allow you, if time, enthusiasm or talent has run out, to stop at the MPhil stage.

I don't think it's for me - but I do want to develop my writing. What might I do instead?

  • If it's just that an MA is too much money and commitment, have a look at shorter courses that the same departments offer: diplomas, certificates and the like. The Open University's undergraduate courses, too, are very good, and there are dozens of other online ones around. Commercial organisations - publishers, literary agencies - are starting to sell courses as quite high level. Some are good, but they do tend to be very expensive for what they offer - not entirely their fault, since they have to charge VAT which universities don't - and the lure of having an agent or editor guaranteed to look at your work can skew your judgement about whether all the other aspects of the course would suit you. Ask around for opinions and experience. 
  • Shameless plug 1: if you want a course of which several students have said, "I learnt more in this six weeks than I did on my whole MA", go here. There are definitely things that an MA will expose you to that our course doesn't - not least because Self-Editing Your Novel is all based on your existing novel or creative non-fiction. But there's no denying that some MAs are not as interested in the conscious, graspable techniques of storytelling as some writers would like them to be. 
  • Look at the Do-it-yourself MA on the blog of Andrew Wille, editor and teacher.
  • Join a good writer's forum for the support and advice - even bits of workshopping. The Word Cloud and Scribophile are both very friendly and knowledgeable. Also handy for asking about people's experience of courses.
  • Consider getting an editorial report on your current novel: a good report should help you learn well beyond the boundaries of what this particular project needs.
  • Look for a mentor. The agency Gold Dust has terrific mentors on their books, though it is very expensive; other editorial agencies like Writers' Workshop and The Literary Consultancy also offer mentoring, or you could just approach someone who you know did a good appraisal for a friend, and see if they can help. (Shameless plug 2)
  • Spend some money on a good writer's conference, such as the York or Winchester festivals.
  • If your goal is to earn a living writing books, have a look at my post about it, and think about what would most directly help with that.

And that's it. Whatever you decide, best of luck!