Do You Need an MFA? 3 Important Elements You Can Replicate On Your Own

Do You Need an MFA? 3 Important Elements You Can Replicate On Your Own

Considering earning an MFA? We’re giving away an hour-long Skype advice session with Sarah Menkedick, an MFA graduate and founder of Vela Magazine, which publishes nonfiction by women. Leave a comment by December 15, 2014, to enter! (UPDATE: Jessica won!)

If you’re like me, you spent most of your childhood in school. That’s where you learned how to learn, and you’ve probably come to associate improvement with school. So, when it comes to improving your writing, it’s natural that you would consider a Master of Arts (MA) or a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree. After all, what better better way to give yourself time to write and a structured place to do it?

But MFAs are time consuming and expensive, and it’s certainly possible to significantly improve as a writer without them. How do you know if an MFA is right for you? And can you reproduce the benefits of an MFA without enrolling in a program?

My take on the MFA debate

Full disclosure: I have both a BA and an MA in writing. It’s hard for me to regret those years; they were a lot of fun and I gained an enormous amount of experience. I also met my husband, so I can’t say my MA was useless. However, I think I could have taken another path, perhaps one that didn’t require so much of my time, money and inner calm.

Based on my experience, I don’t think having an MA or MFA is necessary to become a great writer. This should be obvious to anyone who knows anything about literary history: Many famous and influential writers did not begin in academia.

Instead, to become a better writer without a set path, replicate important aspects of the MFA. Basically, the money you spend for your MFA (and it’s a lot of money) insists upon discipline and buys a few elements crucial to the writing process. Recreate these elements on your own to strengthen your writing skills without enrolling in an MFA.

1. Read across genres

Great writers need to read; there’s no way around this one. Language has to start in your brain to end up on the page, and the best way to get it there is to read. (Or listen to audiobooks on tape, whatever works for you).

Expose yourself to past developments in your genre, as well as what’s happening now. This is where you acquire the tools you’ll use, as well as improve on, later.

While reading may seem like a simple task, it’s not. With hundreds of millions of books in the world, it can be impossible to know where to start. An MFA program will not only give you an organized, vetted list of these books, but it will also force you to read them and analyze them thoughtfully. The program will expose you to new styles and authors you may never have come across otherwise, expanding your toolset and allowing you to contextualize your own work.

You can discover new works and authors without an MFA, of course, and you should continue to do it after one. Read everything — not only in your genre, but in completely new ones. Step outside your comfort zone. Read extensively and often. Listen to books on your way to work, and always have something new to read.

[bctt tweet=”Read everything — not only in your genre, but in completely new ones, says @inkhat”]

Don’t know where to start? Published authors often give examples of their favorite works in interviews. Look up one or two of your favorite writers, and try a few of their recommendations.

2. Meet word count requirements

Writing is craft, and craft requires time and effort. Carving out this time can be difficult. Unless you’re the incarnation of discipline, you’re going to have trouble hitting your word count goal every day.

An MFA program will insist on that word count. It requires you to produce, and to produce at a fast pace, something that is necessary to learn your craft.

This pace also helps you develop the ability to stop thinking of every sentence as precious, let go of your inner editor and move on — which can be harder than it seems. The less you’ve written, the more valuable each word becomes, and the more difficult it is to edit them. As you keep writing, you’ll realize that your ideas, no matter how poetic, aren’t perfect. Editing and writing become easier the more you do the work of hitting that word count goal.

Of course, you can achieve daily writing goals without an MFA, but the process involves a great deal of discipline and focus. You have to push yourself to meet daily, weekly or monthly word counts. It’s hard to do this alone, which is where the final element comes into play.

3. Find a group of supportive, committed people

You need to foster a group of peers with whom you can discuss and trade writing. These should be people whose writing and opinions you respect, and who aren’t afraid to offer constructive criticism. If you find yourself in a group that only praises your writing, leave. It’s not going to help you at all.

An MFA will give you this group gift-wrapped and ready to go. You start with a critique group on day one, writers vetted and approved by the same people who selected you. It’s likely that these relationships, both as friends and colleagues, will continue long after you’ve left the program.

Again, a writing critique group is something you can create on your own, but it can be challenging. Writing is a solitary art, and many writers tend to be independent by nature. Finding a group means fostering professional relationships, and that can take time and effort.

Look online for local groups, or attend local conventions and conferences in your genre. Go to signings and readings. Chances are you’ll find intelligent, like-minded people who can help you learn to write, and vice versa.

Do you need an MFA?

If you’re having trouble with these elements, or the discipline of writing itself, an MFA might be the right choice for you.

Enrolling in a program also buys you dedicated time to write, which is often difficult to find when you’re working a full-time job. It’s also a socially acceptable time to write, which translates fairly seamlessly into a resume when you leave. It may not land you a job, but it’s an easy story to explain. A program also exposes you to research tools and professional pathways you might not otherwise be able to access.

On the other hand, pursuing an MFA is a serious undertaking that requires a great deal of time and money. Now that you know what you’re looking for, you may be able to recreate the most important elements on your own. Then you can focus on the fun part: writing!

If you’ve pursued an MFA, what elements most helped you evolve as a writer? If you’ve chosen not to enroll in a program, how have you developed your skills?

Filed Under: Craft
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  • Molly A. says:

    This is a timely post. I have been struggling with whether or not to broach the subject of going back to school for an MFA with my family. The cost is so prohibitive. It is something I still plan to consider in the future, but for now, I need to concentrate on building the writing habit (thanks to NaNoWriMo for that boost) and networking with other writers to develop a critique group.

  • Although I already have one Master’s degree, I am seriously considering a MFA in the next few years. In the mean time, I’m spending money taking online classes which are helping me improve my writing skills and participating in critique groups. I think the discipline of a MFA program would take these developing skills to a higher level. Thanks for your post – thought I was the only one wondering about this.

  • Leah Cannon says:

    What a great post. I am considering doing an MFA but can’t afford it right now. It’s very reassuring to hear that the same goals can be achieved without an MFA (albeit with some work).

  • Kerry says:

    I have been wondering about this question. The blog I started has help me keep up the writing on a consistent basis, more than I was, but I still have trouble finding any sort of writing peer group. Structure would be good, but the cost is a big factor.

  • Totally agree with your take on the writing MFA: it can be useful, but writers can certainly create their own version with a little extra effort. In fact, this is one of the main reasons I created, to give writers a roadmap for cobbling together their own personalized versions of an MFA. Also, it’s cool to see that your take is right in line with the DIY MFA structure. I believe that writing, reading and building community are the three main pillars of any writer’s education and your structure is completely in line with that.

  • Jessica Jacob says:

    This was right on time. I want to start my masters next year and I’m torn between an MFA which seems like it would make me a better writer or a different degree to increase my overall knowledge. All I want is to learn about the world, improve my writing and enhance my skills in all ways of communication and knowledge. With this post I’m now wondering if the MFA would offer me that or is there a different degree which combines writing and learning about the world?

  • Dawn says:

    So I have an MA, which I thought would lend legitimacy to my work, but in reality is pretty much useless. I’m comfortable with my skill level and discipline. But I was considering getting my MFA so that I’d be able to teach. I think I’d be a more productive writer if my day job was teaching writing, rather than a soul-sucking 8 to 5 (and sometimes more) corporate gig.

  • Faith says:

    Great post. I always wondered whether or not I should get my Masters in writing. Now I think I’m going to proceed without it, considering the time and money it costs to complete. Thanks for clearing it up for me. I really appreciate the action items you listed. I’m part of a monthly writer’s group and I read voraciously. However, I plan to add goals for word count requirements. ;0)

  • Thanks for this post! I have been weighing the pros and cons of this for some time!

  • Dorothy says:

    I think while there are valuable ideas here, you’ve not mentioned that MFA programs are very different from place to place both in their quality and their structure. A good MFA program is certainly not determined by its reading lists, word counts and the dedicated time to write it offers. There is also the matter of finding mentors who are real writers themselves, some of great note. To find such people, get to know them, develop relationships with them and get the benefit of their belief in YOU is an invaluable lift to a serious writer’s career and art. Good MFA program can hook you up with grants, residencies and employment, as well as tremendous inspiration from qualified sources.

  • Thanks for this post! I have been weighing the pros and cons for some time…this is helpful!

  • Christine says:

    Thanks for this. I’very been wondering about an MBA but am not sure about the cost or timeven involved. Plus, I’very taken courses and prorgans and almost feel an MBA may end up being a kind of procrastination for me, instead of just doing it. I have two good critique groups that keep me writing and revising.

  • Bookgirl says:

    i have a Bachelor and i thought of doing a Masters mainly for the structure and discipline. i tried setting my own deadlines, but i couldn’t fool myself. When i worked as a journalist the deadlines were there and I could get my pieces down no problem, but when it’s my own fiction that’s another story.