Creative Writing Master’s Degrees: Are They Worth It?

Originally posted on Medium.

Today, I am having a writing day.

Not because I have some burning, innate desire that must be satiated by the written word, but because I have finally realised, after a three degrees under my belt, that the only way I’ll ever get published is if I sit down and write the damn book. (Thank you, Captain Obvious).

So to answer your question, ‘do I need a Masters?’… in short: no.

DON’T STOP READING, BECAUSE THERE’S CLEARLY MORE TO IT THAN THAT. ‘No’ really was just the short answer.

While there are many resources for writers out there that don’t cost £6,500 a year, Creative Writing postgraduate degrees have popped up and stayed popular at universities all over the world in recent decades. Postgraduate writing programmes evidently hold a great appeal, despite the price tag. So what’s the big deal?

Let me give you three things that I took away during my Master’s degree in Creative Writing.

1. Sometimes your best work comes when you’re not working on THAT PROJECT.

You know the one. The Big One, that book you long to write or that assignment that’s due, or that [insert heart’s desire here].

I won’t lie — I’ve stared down a hefty and important word document and balked at the thought of returning to it, or editing it, or starting it in the first place. But it’s so important, I think to myself. This is the book that will make me!

And perhaps it is the book that will make you. Keep chipping away. But one of the most valuable things I learned during my Postgrad course is that when given tasks that are out of your norm, you can come up with some unexpected gems.

During a memorable creative non-fiction seminar, I wrote a semi-autobiographical piece from the perspective of a narrator who’s trying to change the subject away from their personal life. Grades aside, it was one of my favourite pieces all year, but I’d never have written it off my own steam because non-fiction wasn’t my usual area.

If there’s one thing a Creative Writing Master’s will do, it’s take you out of your comfort zone.

THE TAKEAWAY: Break out the writing prompts and take a step back from The Big One for a while — it’ll still be there when you return!

2. It takes a village to raise a writer.

We might paint a picture of a solitary writer sitting alone in a cabin, preferably out in the wilderness somewhere after a long trek to find themselves, with no connection with the outside world (and especially no wifi, that tempting devil). Just the writer and his pen, that’s all the he needs.

Sorry if this bursts your bubble, but despite many of us writers being stereotypical introverts, there is nothing that will elevate your writing to the next level like collaboration and feedback.

And guess what?

Feedback requires other people!

… really? Don’t say I never gave you anything.

So a Master’s degree in Creative Writing will definitely give you that: like-minded people who want to pursue their writing seriously. The best part is that they’ll want feedback just as much as you do, and that will lead to a deeper understanding of the craft as you constructively critique one another.

Although perhaps you might do a round table review and find yourself (as I once did) reading a script about a man caught at Customs with cows’ eyeballs shoved up his… anyway. It was out of my comfort zone, but I gave that writer feedback regardless!

THE TAKEAWAY: Finding a group or buddy to get and give peer feedback will invariably change the way you approach your own writing for the better.

3. Find your place and do your research.

Whether we like it or not, those of us who seek traditional publication will eventually need to categorise our writing nice and neatly ready for the marketers to swoop in and target a specific audience.

Make a note of the word ‘eventually’ in the above sentence; I’ll be coming back to it.

Personally, I’m a fan of fantasy fiction, therefore I will specifically search for and buy fantasy fiction. There is no point in packaging me a spectacular murder mystery. However thrilling it may be, there are certain things I want from a story, and I don’t think I’ll find them in the blood and gore section.

Readers want tropes (or even tropes that are turned purposefully on their heads), but there are conventions of genre to which conscientious writers must adhere. This is where the research element comes in.

I can’t answer for every course, but at Loughborough University, anyone who pursues a Creative Writing Master’s degree is required to complete several documented research projects of their choosing. From presentations to your final dissertation, you need to show how you got from A to B, with B being your polished final piece.

For me, my chosen topic of choice was young adult fiction — first, I researched popular authors and books, looking also at noted journals and studies, then compiled the recurring themes and characters. None of this was with the intent to copy, but to better understand the wants of the readers. I found that researching the genre — reading books, reviews of books, and delving into the psychology of those that read them — allowed me to play with the conventions.

Let me come back to that ‘eventually’ I mentioned earlier.

Not every story fits a certain mould, and I certainly wouldn’t wish to stifle creativity or stem the active imagination. As a high school teacher, I often told my students to think outside the box, and I stand by that vision myself as a writer.

As a reader, though? As a reader, I expect my expectations to be met.

THE TAKEAWAY: know your genre — become an expert in it — and don’t skimp on the reading.

The Final Word on Master’s Degrees:

There are some writing experiences that were invaluable to me during my postgraduate course, not to mention the friends and feedback that I desperately needed. The contacts I made during that year have even led to a complete change in my career trajectory.

Is it right for you? Well, I can’t answer that on your behalf. I hope you’re not too disappointed, but I’m a stranger on the internet. All I know is that it was right for me.

In my case, once I thought about doing the degree, I couldn’t get it out of my head. Whilst I could have arguably got all of it elsewhere, just the act of coming together to write with purpose boosted my craft beyond what is was before.

But then again, it was only five hours per week, and I have been known to view the past through rose-tinted glasses.

Originally posted on Medium.