Is a formal education in creative writing worth it? Let’s explore, shall we?

This is a guest post by Nadia Jones

Since the day some scribe set his stylus to clay to record the epic of Gilgamesh, the literary landscape has been revolutionized many times over. For most of history, hardly anyone could read. Among great writers, talented amateurs did exist, but they were always the exception rather than the rule.

Between, say, the time of Shakespeare (who was mocked for his “small Latin and less Greek”) and today, education has gone from a privileged luxury to a societal imperative for all. And in just the past generation, technology has radically expanded this egalitarian access to the means of literary production so that truly anyone can be an “author” (meaning someone who can hand you a stack of paper with their byline on it).

But I skipped a step. By the early- to mid-twentieth century, the reading public was vast. Thanks to public education and magazines and newspapers, and book publishers needed content. They would actually pay you a wage, although not always a great one, but the very lack of worldly compensation only added to the romantic image of “the author” in the public imagination. Institutions began to spring up (most conspicuously the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1936) that purported to teach the process of creative writing as opposed merely to studying the works of the past. A simple idea, but a game-changer. Dewy-eyed youngsters like Wallace Stegner and Flannery O'Connor came from all over the country to hone their crafts.

In the decades that followed, workshop-style instruction proliferated. There are now nearly 400 graduate programs all over the country. Nor, despite this being a questionable economic choice in today's uneasy environment. Is there any shortage of aspiring writers to fill them when the top colleges admit maybe one or two percent of applicants?

Even as the self-publishing boom has truly come to fruition (and landed a resounding blow with the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, a rather dubious point of pride for amateurs everywhere), for anyone trying to get a deal for (especially non-genre) fiction with one of the big houses, an MFA is practically an entry-level requirement, a driver's license for those wanting to operate the heavy machinery of Literature.

Perhaps you've been considering entering this world of the creatively credentialed. What's holding you back?

1. “It's a waste of money.”

Possibly. But you may be surprised. MFA programs are judged and ranked in large part by their generosity in subsidizing students' writing. Teaching opportunities, fellowships, grants, and awards can often be patched together in such a way that, while you won't be saving for retirement in those two or three years of grad student life, you can just about break even.

2. “You can't teach writing.”

This one is a cop-out. What you really mean is that you want to insulate yourself from others' opinions and that the possibility that what you're doing is not good enough already. Sorry, but it's probably not. Absent the above practical considerations, no time spent honing your craft is wasted, even if everybody really is a total jerk and doesn't get you.

3. “They won't have any appreciation for my kind of work.”

Here you may well be right. Though tastes are becoming more democratic (many MFA types love and even write science fiction, detective novels, and comic books), submitting a portfolio of all genre-based material is likely to doom your chances. Make sure you show that you can write realistic fiction with compelling characters, unpredictable plotting, judicious detail and rich language. And once you're inside the academy, there will be some degree of resistance if it seems like your work is overly reliant on popular tropes. You should welcome this. Originality isn't everything but you may never find your voice if you stay inside a cozy online echo chamber of fellow fans.

I won't suggest to you that the answers to all your dreams lie inside the Emerald City of graduate-level creative writing workshops. It's a rough, uncertain path through life, and nothing is guaranteed. It differs in this way from professional degrees, where you go to dental school, get a dentist job, work on teeth, ba-da-bing. You'll still have to blaze your own trail in some sense. But I urge you not to dismiss the possibility out of hand. It may be just what you need to take your authorial aspirations to the next level.

[jbox]About this post’s author: Nadia Jones is a full-time education blogger based in Houston, Texas. Interested in all things academia, Nadia seeks to be an online college guide for those interested in the realm of online education. For questions and comments, contact her at [email protected][/jbox]

Yvonne Hertzberger

As a writer from the ‘outside’ who has never taken a course in creative writing I have to put in my two cents worth. I do think that a good basic grounding in both literature and composition is valuable for anyone who wishes to write. This is especially valuable in essay writing or technical writing.

But for me the greatest ‘teacher’ for ‘creative’ writing is reading. Reading voraciously in many different styles and genres allows the aspiring writer to encounter, and evaluate differing approaches to the ‘rules’. It enables the learner to decide what works, in their opinion, and what does not. That is what helps the new writer to develop a style of their own, to decide which rules they want to break, and why. It gives them, at an almost visceral level, a feel for what flows and what stalls.

I find that when I see what passes for instruction in writing, most of what I encounter is a list of rules, of ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s. I find these actually stifle creative thinking and individuality in those who are just starting out.

Again, don’t get me wrong – we still need that basic grounding first, but this ought to happen before the post-secondary level.

    Elisabeth Roam



I agree with Yvonne that being a voracious reader sets a rock-solid foundation for becoming a writer. Tied to a understanding of the rules, the knowledge derived from discovering and analyzing the styles and voices of many authors and genres gives the aspiring author a tailwind into her career. Then it becomes a question of which rules to embellish and which to break.

On the flip side, I’m always open to new experiences and obtaining new knowledge, so the MFA programs hold a certain interest for me.

Thanks for the very interesting article, Nadia.

Alyson Miers

I have a BA with a concentration in Creative Writing, which is not on the same level as an MFA, but it’s a step in that direction, and my impression of my education is that taking Creative Writing courses taught me how to accept criticism. This is a very useful skill for a writer! But I don’t know whether the concentration actually taught me better writing skills. I do recommend taking a poetry course or two, even if (like me) you write nothing but prose. Still, I think the biggest thing I got out of the writing-focused courses was getting used to the idea that writers must accept criticism in order to do their best.

(Of course it’s possible that my university just had a sucky Creative Writing program, but that’s my experience, anyway.)

Steph's Scribe/Stephanie Verni

I received an MFA in Creative Writing from National University last April. I cannot say enough about the school, the program, and the faculty. I learned a great deal from reading and analyzing texts. While I agree that being a voracious reader is helpful to anyone who wishes to write, either on the side or as a full-time profession, exploring texts with a guided, qualified instructor is most helpful. It forces you to see the examined published works in different ways than you may see them while reading them alone. And while reading and writing are indeed autonomous–it’s still helpful to receive feedback on your writing from students who are pursuing the degree along with you. Personally, I received tremendous, thorough, and thoughtful feedback on the a novel of contemporary fiction that was my thesis from my thesis mentor. I loved getting and cherish receiving my MFA, and I use it daily in my own collegiate teaching; I am offering my students far better critiques having gone through the program than I did prior to it. It has rounded me out as a reader, writer, and teacher. And, it helped me self-publish my first novel, BENEATH THE MIMOSA TREE.

Erin Elizabeth

This is a question that I’ve wrestled with since graduation. I studied writing during my undergrad years at Sarah Lawrence College, and three years ago I applied for and was accepted to an MFA program in writing for children and young adults. I decided not to go, only because the main reason I wanted an MFA was so I could postpone actually finishing and publishing my book. While graduate programs do give writers the opportunity to further hone their craft–and, perhaps more importantly, network with other writers, publishers, and agents–I think it’s important to go into them with the right motivation.

John F. Harnish

Mercy sakes, Nadia, you sure do bring to light several valid points regarding “formal education in creative writing”—which is almost an oxymoronic phrase. Creativity is the absence of formal impositions. It is the creator’s open mindset sparking with nonconforming notions weaving the compelling substance of a plot. Formality fades in favor of what works best beyond the rutted avenues of not so pleasing sameness. Creativity is the ability to deliver to the beholder the essence of a conveyed concept.

The earliest conveyed communications were warning signs as piles of rocks indicating “ground swallows” marking a quicksand pit, or alerting wanders of a growth of poisonous plants, and for the infamous wisdom “don’t eat the yellow snow.” Survival was the primal focus, which slowly expanded to express a painted record of brutal times—visual aids for storytellers.

Storytellers received instant gratification from audience reactions. Ain’t no how surprising that academia pounded on stories making them right with the use of good grammar—not to be confused with the righteously said good and proper grammar supporting political correctness. “Avoid consuming tainted snow” lacks the attention getting bluntness of “yellow snow.”

It was the evolving human need for recorded expressiveness that grew written communications, these civilized marks became acceptable written forms of comprehension within small segments of the world’s slowly increasing population.

I don’t need to list the many innovative contributions folks lacking a “formal education” have made to the betterment of humankind. There’s a clear assumption that images of famous innovators will float into mind. I admit I’m rather attached to Ben Franklin.

When I’ve taught creative writing, I perceived my primary function being to help open students’ minds—or more correctly motivate them to think outside the box. Blessed be those asking, “There’s a box???”

The ageless box is filled with the sands of passing times, however it’s beyond the gritty, grime of imposed structure is where fresh ideas blossom.

Regarding is it worth the high cost of being educated via a course in creative writing, each person needs to measure the value of the take aways that linger with you long after the conclusion of the closing session. My measure of the worth of the course, workshop or webinar is based on if I pick up one seed of an idea or an innovative variation on a theme, then the course has produced a return on my investment of time and effort.

I was noted for having only one question in the final exam:

“What is the difference between orange???”

The question was their springboard to takeoff from, and after taking flight, skillfully demonstrate their creative twists and turns as expressive essays about orange.

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