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Questions for our seven writers

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To MA or not MA? Is a creative writing MA worth the cost and will it help my writing career?

SARA COLLINS

People frequently ask whether a creative writing MA is worth the price. My usual answer is that it teaches you how to read like a writer, and imposes the discipline of a deadline. But a good degree will also help you develop the skills you’ll need to help your work find an audience. You may be asked to put your novel into context while promoting it. The questions I’m asked most frequently are about my influences, my purpose in writing the book, and where I think it fits in the tradition of gothic fiction. It helps to have spent time thinking and talking about the craft of writing, before fielding questions like these.

If you can’t do a degree, you can create your own syllabus. Many good writers have written beautifully about the craft. A few I found helpful: Annie Lamott, Bird by Bird; Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer; Stephen King, On Writing; Ursula Le Guin, The Wave in the Mind and Steering the Craft; John Gardner, The Art of Fiction; Joyce Carol Oates, The Faith of a Writer; John DuFresne, The Lie that Tells the Truth.

GABRIEL DYLAN

I would’ve loved to have done an MA, but to be brutally honest, I’ve got two little kids to feed, my wife is a stay at home mum, I work in a secondary school (teaching pay is awful!) and I just couldn’t afford it. Whiteout was written as a hobby, something I loved to do, and although I have an English degree from Marjon down in Plymouth there was no focus on creative writing on my course, so I really made things up as I went along in the writing of my first novel, and just read and wrote as much as I could. I still feel very lucky that this amazing opportunity happened to me with absolutely no prior experience.

But the thing is, since the sale of Whiteout, working with great editors like Katie Jennings and Mattie Whitehead at Stripes has really helped hone my writing, and forced me to up my game. Similarly, from having Polly Nolan at Greenhouse steer me in the writing of book 2, I feel like I’ve been on an intensive writing course, where all my faults have been exposed. At times its been brutal, but I’ve got no doubt working with Polly has really helped my writing. Polly is a fantastic editor who really seems to get to the heart of what I’m trying to write and drag it out of me.

But if I had the chance to do an MA? I would love to!
  
JUDITH HENEGHAN

I must declare an interest, here. I have taught on the MA Writing for Children and Young Adults programme at the University of Winchester for over 10 years. I have an MA myself and last year completed a creative writing doctorate. My fees for the latter were waived because of my teaching post and the irony is not lost on me.

Despite this, my first point about MAs is an obvious one. You don’t need a degree to succeed as a novelist. What you need is a really good novel.

And when someone applies to do an MA at Winchester I’m interested to know what she or he or they hope to get out of it.

Those who seek the magic formula to becoming a successful novelist are better off saving their money. But if you are looking to practise and develop your craft with the discipline of weekly deadlines and a supportive writing community then an MA can be transformative. For some, a course allows them to publicly acknowledge for the first time that they are serious about their writing and the impact of this cannot be underestimated. You will discuss stimulating books. You will be encouraged to experiment as well as specialise. You will (usually) have to write some academic essays and you will almost certainly be expected to submit your raw drafts for critique by your tutor and your peers. If you think this might stifle your creativity, don’t do it. But an MA programme can be the push and the stimulus an emerging writer needs and it is also likely to provide opportunities to connect with agents and editors. Do your research though. MAs differ enormously in terms of how they are set up and what exactly they offer.

Nevertheless, the issue for many people is that universities run on student fees and an MA costs a lot of money. It is worth seeing if there are bursaries or scholarships on offer. Also there are shorter, less expensive courses and mentoring schemes run by other organisations and these may well offer similar benefits.

LELAND CHEUK

I think it is worth it as long as you’re going into the experience with eyes wide open. I’ve found that even for the top-rated programs, it’s not at all uncommon to start publishing books and stories in reputable journals ten years after graduation. I did a low-residency program at Lesley University, which meant I could keep my day job and essentially pay off the tuition simultaneously. I wouldn’t recommend going into debt for an MFA if you can’t get into a fully-funded program.

ZOE MAY
  
I considered doing an MA but I was already in debt from my undergraduate studies - I'd done a BA and a journalism course - and I wasn't particularly keen on getting into more debt over a creative writing course when I wasn't sure I'd even get published at the end of it. Instead, I decided to teach myself. I'm naturally autodidactic and driven so this suited my personality well. I bought books on writing, did cheap online courses (Udemy has good ones for £10 each), and I read blogs on writing. I set up a writing group locally to gaincritique (a key part of creative writing MAs that I couldn't do alone). I met up with my group every fortnight for two years and it was incredibly eye-opening - hearing other people's honest opinions on my writing was a real gamechanger.
One of my favourite mottos is, 'Where there's a will, there's a way'. A creative writing MA might make it easier to get published, it might fast-track the process, but if you have drive and determination, you'll find a way with or without one.

ELY PERCY

I was the first person to be accepted onto Glasgow University’s Mphil in Creative Writing without an undergraduate degree back in 2002 (they let me onto the course with portfolio merit alone and to my knowledge I am the only person this has happened to at Glasgow).
 
When I applied I didn’t think about how I was going to pay for it. I come from a working-class background, I’d been on benefits for a number of years and my parents were not in a position to give or lend me the money. By a stroke of luck, there was an admin error and I received a letter quoting me half price fees – the university honoured this and I did not have to pay a penny because the Carnegie Trust (who usually only give to postgraduates who have received a first) helped me financially as did my local council.
 
I can’t speak for other people, but I gained a lot from the course and I believe it was
100% the right thing for me at that time.

HELEN KITSON

I didn’t really know about creative writing MAs when I was starting out as a writer, and I don’t know if I would have taken that route had it been available to me. I’m speaking from a position of relative ignorance, but I would say that an MA would likely give a writer the tools to finesse his/her work and could potentially be a valuable experience. It might even get you to where you want to be sooner than if you didn’t take the MA. On the other hand, you certainly don’t ‘need’ the MA to make it as a writer. I think it probably depends what it is you want to gain from the programme. As with any big commitment of time and financial resources, do as much research as possible before embarking on such a big step, and don’t assume you’ll never become a (published) writer if you choose not to go down that road. What works for one person won’t work for another for all sorts of different reasons.