Oh how the world of letters has changed. Once upon a time, writers found sponsors in wealthy friends or lovers more politely called “patrons.” Then somewhere along the way writers just became self-supported if they had money and starving artists if they didn’t. But writing was a sort-of gentlemanly pursuit, something done by learned men (and occasionally women) but not something you went to school to learn, specifically. Now, not only are there hundreds of MFA programs out there, there are writing certificates, combined English Lit/Creative Writing MAs, even PhDs in Creative Writing! In every class I teach and at every conference presentation I give, at least one person wants to know how important these degrees are to his or her writing career. “Do I need a Creative Writing MFA to get my novel published?” they ask. The answer is: they can be useful, but they aren’t necessary.
You don’t need an MFA or any other degree, certificate, or award to get published. Just check out the New York Times bestseller list or the shelf in your local bookstore and you’ll find less than a handful of authors who have them (if you’re a fan of genre fiction, you’re even less likely to find accredited authors, since these lofty academic programs primarily focus on literary fiction). However, this fact doesn’t make an advanced degree in writing meaningless.
How a Creative Writing MFA Can Help You
There are many reasons a writer might choose to pursue an MFA or other academic writing program.
Some of my comments on this subject are repeated in this informative Suite 101 article by Bonnie Way. To elaborate, you might choose to pursue a writing degree if:
- you’d like to work intensively on your craft with the support of a published writer (your professor) and peers
- you think you’d like to teach creative writing at the college level (most four-year schools require MFAs for this)
- you’re interested in networking with published authors and other serious writers
- you love delving deeper into good literature and debating with other book nerds
Who Cares about Your Degree
With nonfiction, the right degree can make a difference in whether a publisher thinks it can sell your book to the media and to readers. For fiction, it matters less if you have a degree, but having one can help you stand out. To agents and publishers, it means you may have connections via your academic program to other published authors who might give endorsements; it conveys a devotion to writing as a career, thus increasing the possibility that you’ll produce more than just one novel (in other words, that you’re a better long-term investment than a non-degree writer); it gives you more opportunities to teach at universities and notable conferences, which increases your visibility and opens venues for sales.
To readers, though, it means next to nothing. Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to. If publishers know readers won’t care, then they won’t care. And readers don’t care if you have a creative writing MFA and fancy letters next to your name. They just want a great read.
Bottom line: Write a well-crafted, engaging story, and no one will care where (or if) you went to school to learn how. But if you’ve been thinking about getting an MFA for reasons beyond getting published, consider the above as nuggets to toss on the scale as you weigh your decision.
Founder of The Writer’s Ally, Ally E. Machate is a bestselling book collaborator, award-winning editor, and expert publishing consultant who loves using her insider knowledge and experience with the publishing industry to lead serious authors toward success. She and her team live to help make great books happen, whether that means showing a writer how to improve a manuscript, get an agent, or self-publish; or coaching an author on growing her platform to sell more books. Since 1999, she has supported hundreds of authors on their publishing journey and takes pride in serving as their books’ best ally.