Do You Need an M.F.A. to Be a Successful Writer?

Creative Commons photo.

No, of course not. Welp, that was my easiest blog post ever.

Ha. Of course, I have to dig a bit deeper. Obviously, a great many novelists, essayists, short story writers, screenwriters, etc. have been successful (however one chooses to define that word) without an advanced degree in creative writing on their resume.

But.

If it was more accessible in terms of time and pay, I 100 percent would have liked to get an M.F.A. Some of my favorite courses in high school and college centered around the writing process. Being able to go through a program where I engage with other writers through constructive workshops, and learn from mentors about the writing process? Sign me up, please.

But, no. You don’t necessarily need that to be a great writer. A great writer is a great writer, regardless of where they come from or what credentials they do or do not have. To put an analogy on the table, I’m a journalist. My degree is in philosophy. One of the best journalists I’ve worked with based out of Colorado had a degree in … anthropology.

Degrees don’t necessarily portend anything about what is to come in the next stage of your life, development and career. But again, if I had the time and money, of course I would sign up to have additional training in writing, as the goal should always be to improve as a writer.

One of my mistakes as a teenager, which I now chalk up charitably to youthful hubris, was that I didn’t think I had anything to learn. Regardless of what field you’re talking about, that’s a dangerous and arrogant mentality to have. I thought, I know how to write, what else is there to learn? You can either do it or not; it’s black and white. However, I did still have a lot to learn and am thankful that my attitude opened in college, where I learned a great deal from writing workshops I was in with thoughtful and engaging teachers and students.

You never stop learning. Even the best of us at the top of our respective fields, if they’re smart and open, they never stop learning, either. That’s how you continue to grow, stay hungry and successful.

I don’t consider myself “classically trained” as a writer since I didn’t get a degree in writing, albeit there was a fair amount of writing in philosophy. By classically trained, I think of someone who knows the grammar and spelling rules without having to Google them, like I do; who can make a joking comment about the Oxford comma without looking it up, like I do; and who can perhaps coach someone about the technical and structural aspect of an essay better than I could. (I will say, I was a teacher’s assistant my final semester of college for a Journalism 101 course, and I did enjoy that. I like helping people polish their rough drafts.)

My uncle, who was a high school dropout who did later get his GED, is also not classically trained and doesn’t have an M.F.A., but he’s one of the best writers I know, and I don’t say that because he’s my uncle.

I would never disparage anyone who has a degree. I would never disparage anyone who does not have a degree. That divide is always weird to me, either way it cuts. I judge the writing, not who is doing the writing. Did I like the story? Did it make me feel something? Did it make me think? Yes? Yes? Yes? OK, then. It doesn’t matter if they have that M.F.A., no GED, have never been published, are always getting published, are published in little-known magazines or published in the most esteemed magazines. Is it good writing? That’s it. That’s all.

Like with any field, there can be snobbishness and/or insecurity in the writing world, either way that degree line and/or publication line cuts. Just give me a good story, that’s all I care about.

So write. Write because you have a beast inside of you that needs to sprawl out on the page. Write regardless of who you are or where you come from or what your education looks like. Write because it’s your story.

6 thoughts

  1. We definitely agree here. If I could go back in time and start over as a writer, I’d or some writing classes and whatnot. It’s not a requirement to be a successful writer, obviously. I know plenty of writers who are self-taught. I think natural talent and a creative mind are things you have or don’t. You can polish them in a class but I don’t a class can create a writer if that makes sense. Thanks for the mention. I appreciate it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Perhaps here’s a way I would put it: I don’t think imagination can be taught. Some people either have it or they don’t, and obviously, having an imagination is quite useful to being a successful writer.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. absolutely I agree. You don’t need an MFA or even a Ph.D to be a great writer. Heck you can even be a high school drop out and still produce a great book. Learning to write doesn’t happen in a formal educational setting. Rather good writing happens from persistence, patience, and practice.

    Liked by 1 person

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