Writing MAs: Are they worth it?

Writing MAs: Are they worth it?

By Luiza 27/06/11

Can writing be taught? The jury is still out, but many of our most successful writers had their careers boosted by a Creative Writing MA – including Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan. Writing student Tori Truslow explains how you can make your MA work for you...

Creative writing at postgraduate level can provide a huge boost for an aspiring writer, but what should you look for in a course, and how can you get the most out of the experience?

Look beyond the myths, for a start. “People’s strongest doubt seems to be whether you can teach creative writing,” says Nigel Pollitt, an MA student at Royal Holloway. “To a sceptic I would say, do you think surgeons and bricklayers shouldn’t be trained? Creative writing is no different — you can learn technique. How you apply technique is up to you.”

Katie Allen, on the Poetry MA at St Andrews, agrees: “It’s a lot more demanding than you might expect! I’ve learned a lot about the technical side of poetry, so when I’m writing I have a lot of new things to juggle in my mind.” For pushing personal boundaries, there’s nothing like practising on the fly while working to a high standard and strict deadlines, and you come out of it a better, more self-aware writer.

At the same time, an MA gives you space, so use it to explore and experiment — it’s as much about unlocking potential as it is about honing technical skills. Novelist, translator and Warwick MA director Maureen Freely says: “Students have a lot in them that they’re not using. I go in wanting to see what isn’t there yet, what’s holding them back from going where they want to go.”

Another common worry, says Georgina Wolfe (Royal Holloway), is that “writing courses churn out identical writers. This is nonsense. The writers in my group are incredibly varied. [And] you have writers like Ishiguro and McEwan who both took the UEA MA and have very different styles.”

Wolfe herself is a practising barrister; her colleagues on the MA vary widely in age, background, and style. Diverse output is the natural result of a diverse group — collaborating with people with such richly varied experiences can only deepen your understanding of the world, which can only make you a stronger writer. Make the most of what you have to offer each other. Forging strong connections means you’ll have a creative support network for life, great friends that are also great critics, and tutors keen to see you flourish in the world.

Writing MAs also provide insight into the industry, with visits from publishers and agents. I’ve found Warwick’s series of “LitBiz” talks invaluable, turning the world of publishing from an arcane mystery into something accessible. Our tutors are also keen to instill an entrepreneurial spirit in us. With the time, space and resources available, why not become your own publishing house or literary events organiser?

I won’t graduate with just an MA, but experience in small-press funding and marketing, producing an anthology, and running workshops. Again, it’s hard work, but a brilliant opportunity to gain practical experience in a safe, supportive environment.

Are there other things you should consider before going in? “Make sure it will fit with the rest of your life,” says Pollitt. “Think seriously about full-time vs. part-time.” Choosing a course that suits you practically (time, finances, location) is vital. Gentle pressure might boost creativity; anxiety can kill it. This is where the support network comes in again — my classmates remind me to breathe when I forget.

Do your research, find your balance, and have fun.


What are your thoughts on writing MAs? Have your say below…


Image: Writing by jjpacres, available under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

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