Do you need university qualifications to be a good writer?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azCELNd8V7A

Postgraduate writing courses have become hugely popular in the last 15 years and more and more English degrees feature creative writing as part of their syllabus.

These days it’s quite common to hear that an author’s first novel or debut poetry collection was created during their time on some university course or other. The idea of writers studying the writing process has gradually gained acceptance. There are fewer critics and those that persist seem to have a fading voice.

In this episode

Personally, I’m all for university writing qualifications. Well, not the qualifications so much, but the creative environment that the courses provide and the unique opportunities they present to us pen-twiddlers.

I suggest that writing courses give you:

  • a fantastic writing environment
  • advice from experienced, widely-published authors
  • a better understanding of the literary canon.

Watch this video with captions
Download the transcript (.RTF 44.9KB)

Further reading

Here’s a few articles on writing courses that you might find interesting. Also, a couple of books. The first I’ve read and highly recommend, the other a collection of essays put together by one of my old undergraduate tutors.

  1. Iain,
    An interesting post. I’ve been stuck in this quandary for a bit : done a BA in Eng Lit, not sure whether to go on to the MA. I’m sure I would get a lot out of it. Question is, would I get more out of just sitting at home writing?

    1. Thanks both for your comments.
      Simon – I’d say if you can afford it and you have the time, go for it. Because you would still do the writing at home, only you’d have a ready made writing group, a tutor to give you advice and an environment that helps you learn about the publishing industry. I went straight from BA to MA and I have no regrets. There have been sacrifices, but it was worth it, I think.

      Cruella – Do not get too excited about the world outside university! Enjoy it while it last and treasure every moment. If you have the circumstances that will allow you to go for it, and you think you’ve got the talent, it’s worth thinking about seriously. Make sure you have the motivation though, especially if you’re longing for working life (madness!).

  2. I’m in the process of finishing my MA in History. While this of course is radically different from studies within literature and creative writing, it still has provided me with perspectives and ideas I never would have come up with on my own. My years at the university and the experiences gained while I’ve been here have made me into a different person, and thus a different writer. There are of course examples of great writers who never had any formal education, but I think for most of us the input gained through education is a useful tool in our writing.
    And I would definitely consider going for a degree in creative writing had it not been for the fact that I am starting to long for the world outside the university…

    1. Simon – No problem! Yes, I looked at the Open University creative writing modules before now and thought that they looked quite good. The problem with distance learning, of course, is that you lose that sense of being in a writing environment. There’s no chat and pint in the pub after a seminar, that type of thing.
      One thing I didn’t say in the clip was how much I gained from other students. I’d say that shared experience was as valuable as all the expert tutor-led stuff that came with the course. In the UK, there’s always places like Arvon, if you want to give the whole thing a bit of a taster.

  3. Are you from manchester?Im currently studying english lit and toying with the idea of doing a MA in creative writing, although Im worried that it would make me like writing less so Im still unsure.

    1. Olivia – I’m originally from a relatively uninspiring part of Derbyshire, but have lived and worked in and around Sheffield for more than 10 years. Are you worried that you will enjoy writing less because you’ll be forced to analyse your work in more depth?

  4. Iain,
    You’re right of course – having been through a BSc at full time Uni and an OU BA I can appreciate the pros and cons. However, there just aren’t any MAs in commutable distance from me so distance learning is probably my only option.

  5. Hi Iain,
    I agree that no harm can come from taking higher level courses in writing. This is especially true if a person feels like it will help them in their writing career.

    With that said, I hope that no one feels that a MFA is a requirement to be successful as an author. It truly is an individual choice and I applaud those who have the intestinal fortitude to face years of schooling to write what their heart desires.

    Great post.

    George

    1. George – thanks for the comment as always and I absolutely agree with you, it’s not essential at all. Handy, but not essential.
      Lori – My point about the literary canon is particularly relevant to English degrees, whereas the environment and experience of tutors is more related to doing an MA. Both can be very helpful though.

  6. I enjoyed this, Iain. Great video!
    I’ve thought about this a lot, actually.
    I agree with you — many great writers are successful without the extended education, but toiling down down the MFA road or getting an English degree certainly opens doors and can open the mind to many literary styles.

    I’m glad I was trained as a scientist first — learned how to properly write a thesis, etc. — now the fun part is going back to fill in the blanks (e.g., literary history and craft). I admit it, there are LOTS of blanks! Eep! But, it’s been enjoyable thus far.

    Cheers!
    ~xo

  7. I don’t think they’re necessary. I feel that can nurture a writer, but they can’t make or break one. If you’ve got talent and the passion and perserverance, you’ll make it as a writer regardless of whether you’ve taken a course.
    Julian Friedman argues that it’s other subjects that will benefit us more as writers, such as psychology. After all, scripts and novels are about people, so we need to know how they tick.

    I recently wrote a blog post on this topic. Check it out on my screenwriting blog:

    http://michellegoode.blogspot.com/2010/07/are-screenwriting-degreescourses-worth.html

  8. I am currently in the middle of a dissertation for an MA Writing for Children. I came from a social science and primary teaching background. I found the course great with a real mixture of creativity and literary study. The full time route meant two days per week contact time, with most of the work done by independent study – part time was 1 day per week over 2 years. Plenty of time to devote to my own writing development. This course runs at UCLan and people travelled from all over the place.

  9. Iain,
    Great post! I too have been thinking a lot about this subject because I have recently graduated from an MFA in creative writing. I totally agree with what you said about literature study as well as the idea of being in the company of like-minded writers and how that can push you as a writer.

    Beyond the question of whether or not one *should* get a degree, though, I think it’s also important to think about the writers who *can’t* get said degree. There are many writers in the world who don’t have the luxury of going back to school full-time and that seems horribly unfair.

    To that end, I’ve come up with a project called Do-It-Yourself MFA. The idea is to give people many of the tools I learned in my MFA so they can cobble together their own independent writing plan. Writers will write no matter what, but this plan would help writers fill in the other gaps (like the literature study, finding like-minded writers, etc.) and put together a plan that’s customized just for them.

    This will be a month-long project via my blog. If you’d like more info:
    http://iggiandgabi.blogspot.com/p/iggi-u.html

    Excellent post!

    ~gabi

  10. Hanif Kureishi was guest-lecturing at my University at the same time as slamming Creative Writing courses. Kingston, if anyone’s interested. He was arrogant, rude, didn’t offer any feedback whatsoever, talked only about himself and not his writing, and said he didn’t see the point of giving us a writing exercise.
    At the same time as taking money for lecturing.

    What a sorry excuse for a man. Utterly hypocritical. If you’re going to bash something, don’t take money for doing it.

    His latest efforts at writing aren’t even particularly good, just a string of improbable overly bizarre events strung together with sex and a hangnail of a plot.

    In the right environment, creative writing courses can be fantastically beneficial. But you do need the right teacher, and not some arrogant ass like Kureishi.

  11. Iain,I am a non-native aspirant. I have studied B.E Mechanical. I still don’t know why, except that my parents wanted me to. I have in me this urgent, almost consuming passion to write. I have so many stories to tell, so much to say, and I want to say it just as beautifully or intensely as I feel it all. Yes, I can write in my native language too; only my Hindi, which is my native language, is much worse than my English. I want to acquire English language skills that will help bridge the gap between my ESL skills and those of a native speaker. Can I enroll in MFA creative writing with a university that provides ESL support? Or, is a BA in English a pre-requisite? Please advice.

  12. Who says we need to gain a qualification in imagination to write? So sooner or later publishers will refuse to accept material from writers unless they have the qualifications to show that they followed another failed writers plan. Its only inadequate failed writers with no talent or imagination that bang on about needing so much more because they have no success themselves.

  13. […] interested to know if any of you fine readers would or have considered taking a course like this. My own experience of taking a postgraduate writing course was extremely positive, so I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for how this collaboration […]

  14. I think this is a great post, I just found it when reading another one of your posts. I completely agree that you don’t need a degree to write, but I do think it does help.  I’m seriously thinking of doing an MA in Creative Writing and looking for places to do so. I’m from the Dominican Republic, but studied in the states so I have a good control over both English and Spanish. I’m still considering in what language I should take the course. 

  15. […] to those students, I was reminded of a throwaway comment I made several years ago when asked about my own experience of taking a postgraduate writing course. I think it applies now more than ever. It went roughly as […]

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