Why NOT to Get a Creative Writing Degree

I have a BFA in creative writing from the University of Evansville.

I took a mix of literature and writing courses, got practical experience as the editor of the Evansville Review and University Crescent (and had a fabulous time doing it), and was mentored by a professor who ultimately gave me a lead into F+W for my internship (now 12 years ago!).

I
recently commented to a group of friends on Facebook that if I had to
do it over again, I would not major in creative writing (though I would
never, ever change a thing about my college publications experiences).

A college friend, who had also majored in writing, asked why. And now I share those reasons with you.

  1. The most valuable lessons I’ve learned in my writing life never
    came from my formal education in it. I’ve learned much more
    through practice and through reading what I love. (Plus, in a nod to
    Writer’s Digest, I’ve benefited from its prescriptive, nuts-and-bolts
    stuff that universities tend to eschew, but can really shave years off
    the learning curve.)
  2. I’ve
    also found that the writers I enjoy have some intense interest, passion, or training that influences their style and point of view and
    voice. It really sets them apart.
  3. I was just too damn young. Lots of the writing was merely cathartic.
  4. I also learned much more through teaching composition to freshman.

So
what major would I choose if I had to do it over again? Since you can improve
your own writing simply by doing more of it (plus everyone gets better
with age), I’m not sure I even care. It could be any major that
provides something enriching, a different facet or perspective to my life thinking.

Given
that business/marketing skills are often found in successful writers, that is a tempting choice. Sadly, most people think business/marketing
are contrary to art and creativity. But 2 things to keep in mind:

  • Marketing should be about a service provided to people, not something inflicted on people! (Read: May I market for you? Thanks to Guy who helped lead me to this article.)
  • Business
    is as much about people and psychology as it is the numbers. I always
    like to quote Dana Gioia on this point, who once said the higher
    you get up the food chain, the more it’s about qualitative
    judgment, not quantitative. Read this interview with him at the Wharton site.

That
said, getting a degree in writing can give you the time and permission
you need to focus on your writing. Plus a great mentor is invaluable.

But it doesn’t help you develop a writing career or help you get published (if that’s what you’re expecting).

P.S. I still love and adore my alma mater.

Photo credit: Aunt Owwee

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7 thoughts on “Why NOT to Get a Creative Writing Degree

  1. Emma_Wordsmith

    I really appreciate the advice. I’m starting to look into colleges to go to, but I have to think about what I’m going to be studying. I thought creative writing would be great, but maybe not if what you’re saying is true I also appreciated the suggestions; however, marketing is so… consumer-oriented and competitive, and I’m too much of a pacifist for that. Business doesn’t sound too bad, but I’m looking for a creative degree to challenge me, something I find meaningful, not business. I would also hate to go into technical writing, so do you have any other suggestions for what I should look into? I would really appreciate it.

  2. Monica

    It is encouraging to read this. I have no writing in my formal education, but I have decided to dive in to this deep pool that you are all seeming to have so much ‘fun’ in. Occasionally I doubt myself on the grounds that I have no education in this field and so I don’t know what I’m doing. So a post like this, from an experienced author, is what I need to hear.

    I discovered that I enjoyed writing while writing my dissertation, and I am now an editor. So I do have some knowledge to begin with, and when I shake off my doubt, my passion for storytelling takes me the rest of the way. Thank you for this post, which will serve me for all those other days.

  3. Jane Friedman

    Tara, You are so right about never properly finishing a story! The necessity of revision was not emphasized, and I’ve learned now that writing is rewriting.

    Also, in the school setting, I would procrastinate until the last minute, write something in a 3-5 hour rush, turn it in the next day, and never look at it again.

    Obviously you get out of writing programs what you put into them … but then you have that age factor again.

  4. Tara Lazar

    Interesting post. I have an undergraduate degree in English and Creative Writing. After college I landed in marketing and PR and spent more than a decade in that field.

    Like you, I think I was just too young for that writing degree. And the professors weren’t very disciplined with us. For example, I never finished a story to my satisfaction. I was allowed to keep starting new ones without a proper revision. Most of the time, I wrote half-stories. I thought there was some magic formula for ending a story that I hadn’t yet been taught. No one explained that finishing a story would teach me how to finish a story.

    Now I have returned to writing, but you know what? I’m glad I have that marketing and PR background because I’m going to need it!

  5. Jane Friedman

    I think agents look for solid publishing credentials, and in the case of nonfiction, a marketing/promotion platform. They also like to see signs of a person who’s dedicated to the craft, which can be indicated by membership in professional writing organizations, notable time spent in workshops/retreats, or a great prize win.

    An MFA degree from an extremely reputable university (e.g., Iowa) may help land you an agent, or at least get you a request for your manuscript. Just keep in mind that writers who graduate from MFA programs aren’t known for turning out commercial bestsellers, and unless your work is very mainstream, an MFA degree isn’t going to mold you into a NYT bestseller. (Quite the contrary.) So it’s a very particular kind of agent who’s interested in writers from MFA programs: the agents who love serious, literary work.

    You can also just as easily land an agent by publishing a great piece in one fabulous literary journal (if you do see yourself as a literary writer). Agents regularly scout such publications looking for new talent.

  6. Marybeth

    It is funny that you say this. Now that I have taken on writing, I have been considering going back to school to major in writing or journalism or something of the sort. However, most people that read my blog/work tell me not to waste my time. I was told I would learn more just by "doing". I understand that is true, but don’t agents look for credentials such as schooling/degrees?

  7. China-Matt

    I’m glad I didn’t get a writing degree until grad school. I realized that my writing as an undergrad was not very good, and my teachers didn’t really teach me much when it came to style. Grad school was much more inspirational for writing.

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