A decade ago, I graduated from the University of Exeter with an MA in Writing, Nature and Place. I still get asked from time to time whether creative writing degrees are worthwhile. Although my MA was in a very specific area of writing — it focused exclusively on place and nature writing in the British Isles — I think a lot of what I learned during the MA applies to other programs, including creative writing BAs, MAs, and MFAs. I know, when I was deciding whether to do my MA, I had a lot of questions and doubts. So, I hope this list of some of the things I gained from doing a creative writing MA will be useful to others considering pursuing further studies.
1. Writers write
This is probably the greatest gift that the MA gave me — it turned me into a writer that writes. Of course, I understood in principle that “writer’s write” before I did the MA, but somehow this never translated into me actually writing regularly. I’d write the odd poem when inspiration struck. Every now and then I’d come up with what I thought was a great idea for a novel, write a couple of pages, and then give up.
During my MA, I wrote every day because I constantly had assignments to hand in and weekly workshops to complete pieces for. Now, I write regularly and I always have ideas and projects I’m working on — and sometimes “working on” simply means “thinking about” and perhaps dictating audio notes (I use the Easy Voice app). How regularly I write has also varied the past decade.
At the moment, I’m writing for two hours on Friday mornings when my daughter is at preschool. In the past, I would write early in the morning before she got up. Some mornings, I didn’t feel like getting out of bed and I’d contemplate getting another hour of sleep instead. But by the time I’d finished my first cup of tea and forced out those initial few sentences, I found it difficult to stop.
2. Writing is a craft
It’s been argued, particularly in the media, that creative writing MAs are a waste of time because you can’t teach someone how to be a writer. Perhaps this argument stems from the notion that writers are creative geniuses who sit down and write fully formed books from start to finish as the muse flows through them. Perhaps the writer experiences tortured moments of writer’s block, but with enough whisky and the help of a trusty typewriter, they get through the block.
Okay, I admit, this is what I thought being a writer entailed as a teenager and in my early twenties. But the MA program put that notion to rest. I agree, some people have more natural talent or inclination when it comes to writing (and both are important — think of all the thousands of people who say they’ve always wanted to write or they have a great idea for a novel, but they’ve never tried to put pen to paper). But writing is also a craft, and by studying that craft, writers with even a smidge of talent and inclination can improve.
During my MA, we read one book a week and completed a short writing assignment based on the book. As someone who was new to the field of nature writing, this practice also introduced me to works of nature writing I might never have picked up off a bookshelf. Before the MA, I had always wanted to be a writer. After the MA, I was a writer and I had a much better understand of how to write.
3. You may need permission to write
Two writers who have written excellently about the topic of permission are George Saunders (sorry, the article is behind a paywall, it didn’t used to be!) and Penny Wincer (who has unfortunately since taken down her blog!). What they both point to is the value of having the permission to write. George Saunders got that sense of permission from his writing mentors, Penny Wincer argues that parents and carers need to give themselves that permission.
For me, the writing MA was a big ol’ permission slip. It was a year in which all I had to do was write (or almost all, I did complete an internship and work in a fish and chip shop while I was finish my dissertation). It was also a space in which my desire to be a writer didn’t seem fantastical, or like wishful thinking. That’s how I’d been made to feel by my high school careers advisor who, when I told him I wanted to be a writer, told me I would need a back-up plan. While I totally see where he was coming from now, at the time it felt like I had exposed by deepest, darkest wish, and he had pushed it right back down into the dark place from which it came.
During the MA, I spent my days with actual writers who talked about advances and the work they did to fund their writing. They didn’t talk about “back-up plans” but about the practicalities of making a living from and while writing. I also spent my days with other students who wanted to write, who were writers. It was only after the MA that I started to call myself a writer and not someone who wanted to be a writer. And I still keep that big ol’ permission slip tucked away in a box, to be brought out again when I start to doubt.
4. Get it down on paper and don’t stop until you have a first draft
Before I did a creative writing MA, I hardly ever finished a first draft of anything. It’s a problem I think most writers encounter when they’re first starting out — you get a few paragraphs in and suddenly the brilliant idea turns into a pile of slush. In the past, so many of my ideas faltered after a few pages and I thought the idea must be flawed — how could a good idea turn into such utter rubbish? The secret, I learnt from my MA course — or rather learned to really grasp in practice — is to get a first draft down on paper and then worry about re-working it later. Even if, as you’re writing, it seems like nothing will be salvageable, there is usually something that can be saved.
5. Writing is editing
Of course I’d say this. I’m an editor, I love editing. But this was a lesson I learned from my MA, long before I pursued my editing career.
By being forced to edit and par down my own work, and also through having to provide critical feedback to my course mates, I came to grasp (and even enjoy) the craft of editing. In a way, I now think of myself more as an editor than a writer. The writing part is the easy bit. It’s in the editing that the real work happens. The writing is the master plan, the editing is the building.
6. Trust the judgement of others
My MA involved weekly writing exercises, which my course mates and I then sent round to each other ahead of our weekly critiquing session. These workshop seem to be a common feature of most writing MAs and for good reason — they are invaluable. Being forced to put my writing out there was excruciatingly awkward, but it taught me to be objective about my own work.
The rule of the class was that we had to pinpoint one strength and one weakness in everyone’s work. Having other people point out the weaknesses in my writing — and they were often the parts of my writing I liked the best — helped me to be a lot less precious about my writing and accept that often, the editor knows better than I do. Although, I am still trying to figure out when to trust the editor and when to trust my “writer’s instinct.”
7. Research is fun
Before completing the MA, one problem I always encountered when writing was that I never wanted to do research. Partly because I just wasn’t sure how to go about it and partly because it seemed like an interruption to the creative process.
During my MA, I had to do a research methods module, and although I didn’t enjoy it at the time — it seemed like the exact opposite of being creative — I did come to see the value in it. Instead of launching into a piece of writing, we had to sit down first and think about which sources we’d like to use, and plan out our methodology. I think this research and planning stage is important for a non-fiction writer — and likely also for a fiction writer — and doing the MA helped me grasp that. Now when I start a piece of writing I always ask myself: where are the sources?
8. Writers need other people
The MA bought lots of lovely people into my life. The people on my course became good friends and I had the opportunity to learn from two great writers: Sarah Moss and Andrew McNeillie. Importantly, they were people whose judgement about my writing I felt I could trust. Writing is solitary work. Or at least, most writers prefer to write alone and without distractions. But the great thing about doing an MA was that I also had a group of people around me that I could share my work with when I came out of my self-inflicted solitary confinement.
In 2020, I was accepted on the Orion Magazine Environmental Writers’ Workshop. I was really fortunate to meet a great group of writers through that program and we still meet on a monthly basis to share and critique each other’s work. I find it invaluable and they often help me untangle myself when I can’t see the wood for the trees. So, you don’t necessarily have to do a full-time MA to find a group of writers to support you, but then again, I don’t know if I would have had the guts to even apply to the workshop if it weren’t for my experience on the MA program and all that I learned from it.
So, my MA experience was a very positive one and I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. Does that mean you should do a creative writing MA? I’m reluctant to come out with a wholehearted “yes” because no one else can make that decision for you. What I’m trying to show is that there are some really valuable lessons to be gained from doing a writing MA and that the critics who argue you can’t teach someone to write aren’t necessarily right.
Of course, a writing MA isn’t going to turn you into an overnight success. But if you want a year to focus on your writing, if you want to improve your writing and start writing more regularly, if you want to read and discuss important texts in your area, and if you want to be part of a community of writers, then I’d recommend doing a creative writing MA.