Do You Need an MFA? The Absolutely, Positively Definitive Answer

May 10, 2022 § 16 Comments

Not condescending at all!

I’m in a wonderful writing group, tailored to our exact needs: 20 pages, once a month, no written feedback. We are three people with writing or writing-adjacent jobs and one aerospace systems analyst. Between us are a PhD, a couple of MFAs, some BAs and Associates degrees. If you listened to our last discussion, ranging from The Yellow Wallpaper to Mr. & Mrs. Smith, you’d be hard-pressed to define anyone’s credentials from their writing or their critique. We’re all working on projects that stretch our abilities. We’re all great at some craft elements and struggling with others.

I’m one of the MFA holders. Has it forwarded my writing career? Yes. And No. (You knew that was coming.)

My MFA is in Playwriting. With all due respect to my teachers, a Playwriting degree from an English department is ridiculous. Writing for actors and directors to interpret, creating setting from a few stage directions while maintaining awareness of the budget needed to stage your play, is its own process. More importantly, your Theatre department peers will go on to form small theatre companies that produce new plays. Long-term, an English department has nothing to offer playwrights.

Fortunately, I’d already published plays and had scripts produced. Many of them. I was also teaching in the Theatre department, where I could stage my thesis script. My MFA did two things for me: my assistantship was as a journal editor, and I discovered I liked writing nonfiction. Editing under the eagle eyes of a brilliant (Theatre department) mentor was a valuable step towards my now-career as an editor and teacher. Writing nonfiction led me to the Kenyon Writers Workshop, Dinty W. Moore and Brevity.

What’s made me a better writer is critique. My first sustained critique experience, giving and receiving, was a 10-month online contest with weekly prompts. Responding to others’ work with genuinely helpful feedback, while still being likeable enough to get votes for my work, was powerful. Receiving critique taught me to recognize the Damn, I thought I could get away with that feeling that means that criticism is correct; using it will make my work better. Recognizing when critique was wrong or unsupportive thickened my skin and gave me confidence. Writing weekly (and sometimes more often) on a strict deadline for 10 months gave me 50+ chances to try out craft techniques, and a folder full of work ready to revise and submit. And I got all that for free.

A good MFA program also gives critique, deadlines, and sustained commitment. Ideally, writers graduate with a significant project ready for publication, a host of smaller pieces, the ability to give and receive critique, and the ability to write to deadline, plus colleagues and mentors who will blurb, publish and support our future work. Many of us also incur tens of thousands of dollars in debt, discover the program doesn’t support our genre, and/or that our thesis is not actually publishable without substantially more work.

Is it worth it?

Yes—if you are writing literary fiction, literary memoir, or can find a program dedicated to your genre that also focuses on publication.

No—if you write genre fiction or commercial memoir and want to make money.

Yes—if you are fully funded by the department. That’s a vote of confidence in your work; your whole experience will be better.

No—if you want to become university faculty. That career boat has sailed. Publish books instead, and the English department will come to you.

Yes—if you’re a returning student in a low-residency or nontraditional program who needs time, support and focus for a specific project you are burning to write.

No—if your feeling is “maybe I’ll write a book someday.”

Yes—if you have substantial personal funds to pay for your experience.

No—if you’re putting it on a credit card.

If you have a burning passion for your book, and the ability to pay for the program or get funding, go for it. But an MFA is not a “figure things out” place—it’s a “use this time as fully as you can for your plan” place.

Fortunately, there are plenty of less-expensive and lower-commitment places to learn to write and finish a book. Several writing centers offer year-long programs oriented to finishing a book, complete with deadlines, colleagues and critique. And of course, you can cobble together your own program from webinars, craft books and short-term workshops, ideally enlisting a couple of writer friends you’re sure you’ll still be speaking to in 3 years.

No matter what your best path is, what matters most is putting the lessons into action. Revising and resubmitting a piece that doesn’t work yet. Actively analyzing fellow students’ writing to see what’s working, what’s not, and why—and then applying those discoveries to your own work. Hiring a teacher for yourself/your group to improve your craft. An MFA won’t do you any good without doing the homework, and neither will self-study. But if you’re focused, dedicated and committed to your own work, it doesn’t matter who you pay—or if your writing credentials cost nothing at all.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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§ 16 Responses to Do You Need an MFA? The Absolutely, Positively Definitive Answer

  • Thank you. Allison, I always know I can trust your advice. I find this is an accurate and wise summation. The experience was useful to me though I wish there had been more support for completing a “publishable” manuscript. We were told again and again not to worry about publication. Indeed several of us have since been successful in publishing. Overall the MFA experience was valuable to me, though it came during the most painful and personally difficult period of my life. (I still regret that my life so thoroughly interfered with my art during those two precious years.)

    I will add one insight: In my MFA program, most people objected to giving and receiving peer feedback—I heard it continually and still bemoan the failure of my peers to appreciate the value, even the necessity of providing feedback. My peers wanted only to hear from our instructors, our “mentors.” Peer response teaches us to support one another, to recognize how others succeed and fail to grow as writers, to benefit from the skill of understanding others’ work, to respond as readers to our own work as well as that of others, and thus to become mature and independent writers.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      I agree 100% and appreciate your faith in me! Peer response is so much a part of learning to write better ourselves.

    • lgood67334 says:

      Concise, clear, and very much to the point. I especially like your last response. When I work with clients or contest submitters I always try to see what their intentions were as well as reporting what tripped me up. This makes me a better observer in my own work IMHO. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  • Bravo!. Remember centuries of writers wrote without MFA programs or even courses. Then Creative Writing became a business and Allison, you are part of that , as I have been, too. My favorite story is about Gustave Flaubert who at last finished a looooong novel, gathered his best friends and read the thousand page work aloud. Three days and , I’m sure, much booze and opium later, Gustave completed his reading. There was a long silence ,then one of the friends said, “Gustave, throw it right in the fire.” He didn’t, revised, and eventually published the book, which wasn’t his masterpiece, Madame Bovary.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      I love that story!!! Peer feedback can be totally overrated 🙂 I’ve found my teaching shifting lately as self-publishing becomes a viable, quality option for getting our work into the world, and as memoir shifts to include more cultural relevance. Still seeing how that’s changing!

  • kperrymn says:

    I love the way you laid this out–beginning with your writers group of three people from differing backgrounds. While there are no rules for what comprises a good writing group, yours is a great model for a setup that works well for the members of your group. Thanks for including those details.
    I also love and appreciate the yes and no questions–and answers–on MFA programs. Many thanks for useful information and perspective.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      You’re so welcome – I’ve been in a lot of writing groups, so I really wanted this one to be exactly what I needed!

  • Melody says:

    Hello Alison:

    You know I am a fan, so thank you for a balanced perspective.

    This whole conversation changes when you are Black. All of it. (Longer article to be written and hopefully published)

    The abysmally low number of Black writers who are accepted and then funded into an MFA program is heartbreaking. (Longer article to be written and hopefully published)

    Peers and feedback… Wow. What a luxury white writers have (still).

    This is a huge not-so-much-spoken about major problem for Black MFA students (of course not 100%), and for Black writers who learn the hard way what else to look for in critique partners.(Longer article to be written and hopefully published)

    Well, my senior project in my well-respected MFA program, was titled: If I Listen To You. This major academic paper focused on critique, feedback, etc. When I presented, my room was also packed with loving and the not so loving faculty members in my MFA program. At the end of my 30-minute read and my 20-minute public defend (I insisted it be public), There was not a dry eye in the room, and my suggested policies became rule of law in my MFA program.

    While the publishing world has much much much work to do, the MFA programs are making strides and the publishing world will look a wee bit longer at a Black writer with an MFA, as opposed to a Black writer without one. That said, both Black writers will not be paid (advances) anything close to a white writer regardless of their education level (still).

    So, when that CONGRATULATIONS GIRL, looks like me, then….


    • Allison K Williams says:

      Melody, you are so absolutely right! The MFA world has a ton of work to do to be more inclusive and supportive of Black students. And Brevity would LOVE to put your work on this topic in the blog, so hit me up any time 🙂 (But see if you can get a place that pays, first!)

  • Beautifully explained, Alison. Writing is a lifelong pursuit anyway, and takes far longer to learn than the few years of an MFA. What I love about this post is that you’ve identified the real elements all writers need, no matter how we get them – space to experiment, space to be guided by people who are right for us and to be stretched; opportunities to make contacts. I particularly loved your points about responding to criticism – that ‘darn’ moment made me laugh out loud. Thank you.

  • Hi Allison, I went the route of cobbling together what would be an excellent MFA program. I took workshops and intensive courses with writers who inspire me (because I sought them out, aka professionally stalked them:), did a year-long diploma at Cambridge in CNF, joined writer’s groups with diverse backgrounds (because peer feedback from a homogenous group educated in the same way is kind of boring), and all of this for 1/5 the cost of a 2-year MFA program (I created a budget). All remote, which means I didn’t have to spend the $$ to travel, relocate, etc. We live in an age of fluid education. The MFA degree is no longer what it was – a selective workshop experience with access to authors that no one else could get plus a teaching gig. It’s also so expensive that the price tag alone discriminates against anyone who cannot afford to take one day off of work, let alone owe money for the next 10 – 30 years. I’m all for the DIY approach and am happy to share my methodology! Thanks as always for your sober words.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Michelle, what a great idea!! This is so true: “The MFA degree is no longer what it was – a selective workshop experience with access to authors that no one else could get plus a teaching gig.” I’d love to see a blog from you about how you did this!

  • Charlotte Wilkins says:

    So much of what I learned outside a degree (MSW) turned out to be some of the most useful and rewarding skills I have and couldn’t be obtained within an academic setting. At 75 I have no interest in another degree or “doing time” in a classroom. I need honest, clear, thoughtful crtique that educates, supports and moves me forward in my writing. I get a level of that in my small writing group, but I also need to learn the how-tos of the craft from those who are experienced. As one new to the writing life, the cobbling together and determining who out there is really good at teaching skills and giving feedback, is the difficult part.

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