Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Are MA writing courses worth it?

Radio 4's The Front Row devoted all of last Friday's show to debating the worth of Creative Writing courses, particularly at postgrad level. [UK folk can hear the whole thing here for another few days.] To me the answer offered by Mark Lawson's guests was a qualified yes, but with numerous caveats attached. Worth a listen, if you can.

Now, my opinion on this is biased. I teach part-time on a Creative Writing MA at Edinburgh Napier University. Plus I was a part-time student on the university's MA in screenwriting between 2005 and 2007. So you might well think me utterly indoctrinated as to the value and worth of MA courses. Perhaps so, but I can see both sides.

Much the same debate rolls round every year as people contemplate postgrad courses in screenwriting. The argument boils down to a few key questions. Firstly, can talent be taught? Probably not, in my opinion. You can teach people craft skills, but if they've no talent you're just polishing a turd. Shiny exterior, piece of shit interior.

Secondly, do you need to do a Masters to succeed as a writer? Plainly not. There are no shortage of successful novelists and screenwriters who've never darkened the doorstep of a postgrad course. Extensive reading, endless rewriting, a few short courses and a relentless drive to succeed despite many obstacles could see you through.

[I would argue it's a fraction easier to get a commission as a novelist in the UK than as a screenwriter. Thousands of new novels get published every year in Britain, while there are far fewer opportunities for emerging writers to make anything resembling a living from their screenwriting. Of course, your mileage may vary.]

Thirdly, if talent can't be taught and you don't need a Masters to succeed, why do postgrad writing courses exist? Cynics will say it's an easy way for universities to make money. Being a cog in that machine, I prefer to talk about the positives that a postgrad writing course can offer - even if there's no guarantees of success.

Getting on a postgrad course can be a great source of validation for emerging writers, particularly if that course has a stringent selection policy. [On the course I teach we've turned away two people for every writer we allow in.] It proves that others believe your writing has merit, that you have some innate talent worth fostering.

Devoting a year [or two years if studying part-time] to such a course gives writing status in your life. It underlines the fact you're serious about writing. Anyone can say they're thinking about writing a novel or have a great idea for a screenplay. You're making a commitment, putting your money where your mouth is as a writer.

Postgrad courses thrust you into the company of other scribes with similar ambitions. Writing is a solitary, sometimes soul-destroying slog. Being able to spend a year or longer as part of a writing cohort can be immensely enriching. You gain readers for your work and, sometimes, friends for life. You're not alone as a writer anymore.

A good course will challenge you, push you to do more, to write more, stretch you as a creator of stories. It offers a safe environment to fall flat on your face, to try new things as a writer, to experiment - and to fail. A good course can help you nail down the thing that's unique about your writing, if you don't already know what that is.

You should emerge from the course a better writer than you went in, otherwise it hasn't been worth your money. There are no guarantees any postgrad course will lead to success, but it should transport you much further along your journey as a writer. When you finish the course, the way you write and read should be transformed.

Make no mistake, a writing MA is not about the piece of paper you get at graduation. It's what you learn, who you meet, how you respond to challenges. The concentrated duration is like injecting a shot glass of rocket fuel* into your writing ambitions. I'd argue you won't get that from reading how to books and taking short courses. Onwards!
(*phrase purloined from the redoubtable Andy Diggle)


Rick said...

Great post David. I'm just coming to the end of my MA screenwriting course in Bournemouth and it's been the best decision I ever made. Very much agree with the point about validation and pushing writing to the forefront for a year. I used to feel a pretentious idiot if i said i liked to write! Though I am now at that worrying crossroads of what to do once you graduate!! Here's hoping!

Tom Murphy said...

Great post, David (as usual). You're spot on about the benefits of doing an MA (I did mine in screenwriting at Bournemouth). No-one thinks they're going to leave a course with the Golden Key to Everything, but there's no doubt you come out a much better writer than you go in.

I never really get the spluttering hostility aimed at post-grad courses. Of course you can't implant talent into someone, but you need to demonstrate some sort of aptitude to get on the course in the first place.

And how on earth could your work not improve by being put through a carefully designed programme of assignments and feedback? Not to mention the more general education in film and TV history, screenings and discussions, sessions with industry bods, access to academic resources etc.

Last year I blogged a few thoughts on some of the units of my MA course here.

Lynn said...

I love reading a British perspective on advanced degrees in writing. Your last paragraph is an astute summary. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective.

Author of You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers

The Kid In The Front Row said...

I think you need to do whatever it is that gives you the know how and, more importantly, the confidence to proceed. If it's an MA, that's awesome, but if it isn't, it really doesn't matter.

editor said...

I felt Front Row put MA writing courses on trial and treated them with suspicion and disdain. No one treats students of the visual arts in this way. We run the Hookline Novel Competition which is open only to students and grads of MA writing courses. Book groups choose the novels for publication. We believe we are finding some interesting new writers.

research paper writing said...

I have been visiting various blogs for my research papers writing. I have found your blog to be quite useful. Keep updating your blog with valuable information... Regards