To MFA or Not to MFA, That Is The Question…

There is much debate over whether doing an MFA is crucial to the experience of a writer.

There are two schools of thought (pardon the pun):

  1. The MFA shows a dedication to the craft and a seriousness about being a writer.
  2. The learning experiences of the world are of greater value than those learned in the classroom.

While the advantages to both are notable, and the combination of workshops and writerly real life experiences is ideal, the MFA is not the be-all end-all of your writing career. An MFA is expensive and often requires full-time attention leaving little time for a job or your family. However, it makes you focus and dedicate much needed time to work on your craft.

On the other hand, taking a course does not mean you are a writer. Spending money on a certificate to give you the credibility is not enough. An MFA, and any workshops you attend as a writer, should help to develop your craft not define it. Be wary of programs that offer weighty promises.

If you can buy Stephen King’s On Writing and set aside time to write daily, then all the power to you. You might get more out of that than an MFA program.

From an agent’s perspective, knowing that a writer has taken the time to invest in a writing program is looked highly upon; however, the writing sample will speak for itself. A writer is a writer whether they have the formal ‘credentials’ or not.

Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and journalist, advises writers to remember, “foreign countries exist.” From the Publishing Perspectives article:

Thinking back on her early career as a foreign correspondent, Brooks then encourages the next generation of US writers to put their MFAs in a backpack and “go.”

“As far as you can for as long as you can afford it. Preferably someplace where you have to think in one language and buy groceries in another. Get a job there. Rent a room. Stick around. Do Something. If it doesn’t work out, do something else. Whatever it is, you will be able to use it in the stories you will write later. And if that story turns out to be about grungy sex in an East Coast dorm room with an emotionally withholding semiotics major, that’s okay. It will be a better story for the fact that you have been somewhere and carried part of it home with you in your soul.”

Such great advice and one I recommend. You can have education and experience so use them to your advantage.

For those interested you can find the MFA rankings here.

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

6 thoughts on “To MFA or Not to MFA, That Is The Question…

  1. Though I had spent several years feeling despondent over not being able to get an MFA due to lack of money and raising (and home educating) a family, I have since made peace with it. Though I’ve only been writing fiction seriously for the last three years, I can’t help but feel my background in journalism (also no formal training except for great mentoring by a great editor) will carry me where I want to go. Having won an award from the Society of Professional Journalists, I have to think this could be proof that I possess at least some of the skills authors need such as being able to keep a distance from their work when editing, writing tight and meeting deadlines – whether self imposed or for (someday I hope) an editor or agent.
    I really enjoyed seeing the debate hashed out here at your blog, Carly, so thank you!


  2. This is actually funny, as I have a fine arts degree… only in music. A BA in Vocal performance with a minor in conducting and a minor in composition.

    And now I’m a writer. Go figure.

    If I’d gotten my degree in writing, I’d probably be singing somewhere! :)


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