Monday 29 October 2012

To MA or not to MA, that is the question...

by Teri Terry
No, I'm not talking about the big life decision of whether or not to have children! Instead the question is this, one that I get asked a lot when someone finds out I'm doing a creative writing MA: Should you do one? What will you get out of it?
To try to get to the bottom of this, I've enlisted some writing buddies who all have creative writing graduate degrees from different places.

Vanessa Harbour, University of Winchester
I have got an MA in Writing for Children from the University of Winchester and then went on to do a creative writing PhD from the same university. 

I loved every moment of my experience. With the MA it was a real chance to try on different 'voices' and find out what sort of writer I was. It was also an opportunity to hone my craft. 

I didn't do a BA in Creative Writing but only because it wasn't available at the time. I would have done it like a shot otherwise. I had a very set idea of what sort of writer I was when I came to uni and it certainly wasn't one who wrote for children or teenagers. It was having that opportunity to try on those voices during the few undergrad creative writing modules that were available that allowed me to work out exactly who I was as a writer. 

I was encouraged to do the Writing for Children MA on the basis that if you can write for children you can write for anyone because it is tough. I still think they had a good point. Despite numerous people seeing writing for children as the easy option it is anything but.
I enjoy exploring my creative processes and the research side and it was this that helped me decide to do a PhD. The PhD involved writing a novel for teenagers but also researching the changes in representation of sex, drugs and alcohol. 

I now lecture at undergraduate and post graduate level and I take great joy in watching the students grow as writers. And yes I would recommend doing a creative writing degree because if I hadn't I am not sure I would have found out that I love writing young adult fiction. I also would not have the opportunities I did have to really work on my craft.

Creative writing degrees are brilliant for those of you who want to explore their writing more and want to do it in a supportive and controlled (to a certain extent) environment which will challenge you and your writing. It is a chance to push your boundaries. At Winchester you are taught by active practitioners who understand what you, the writer, is going through - the highs and lows of writing.

Most Universities provide many opportunities to meet agents, authors, editors and publishers but no course should or could guarantee publication. It does however improve your chances slightly to make it off the slush pile as a lot of publishers/agents admit that they will look at work done by someone who has undertaken an MA for example. This is because they know they will understand the editing process and that they won't be too precious about their 'babies'. They will listen to criticism and act upon it.

Find out more about the University of Winchester Writing for Children MA here.

Sarah Benwell, Bath Spa University
Bath Spa University’s Writing For Young People MA is a well respected course, with a focus on the practical and business sides to writing as well as the creative. The MA gave me so much: motivation, a chance to flex my writer-muscles and play with ideas, a greater understanding of the industry, an agent (I met her because of the course), but the biggest, best thing it offered was a community. 

Because of the course, I’ve become friends with brilliant, successful writers and industry professionals. I have friends who’ve seen my writing at its best and at its worse, and aren’t afraid to point out the difference. If I have a writing problem, whatever it is – plot holes, an evasive adjective, ‘The Fear’ or simply laziness – I know there’s someone an email or text away who will understand and help me fix it. And I’d do the same for any one of them. 

 An MA is not the only way to find these things, by any means, and it isn’t for everyone. It’s hard work, you have to be prepared for criticisms, and there are no guarantees, but it’s hands-down the best decision I ever made for me. 

Find out more about the Bath Spa University Writing for Young People MA here.

Caroline Hooton, City University in London
I studied for a MA in Creative Writing (Novels) at City University in London and graduated with a Distinction in 2009. It was a part-time degree taught in the evenings over two years, which was great because I had a full time job and couldn't take a sabbatical. Despite being a part-time course, it was a full-on experience. You had to complete a novel of at least 60,000 words in order to graduate, but there were also modules in structure and style in fiction, literary analysis and the publishing industry that all had to be passed. This boiled down to two classes each week, 4 - 6 writing assessments each term, an assessed literary criticism essay and (of course) working on the novel as well. 

Caroline: she prefers to remain a
 Woman of Mystery
The MA changed the way I approached my writing and made me get serious about it. I was really proud that I had the discipline needed to actually finish a novel and the courses on structure and style made me think about what I was doing with the story and why I was doing it. The MA led me to my agent, Catherine Pellegrino at Catherine Pellegrino & Associates but while I believe that a good MA should introduce you to agents, editors and other publishing industry professionals, I don't think that should be a person's main motivation for studying for one. An MA is a big commitment in terms of time and money and some of what it teaches you can be equally gained from good evening classes, critique groups and joining professional bodies like SCBWI. What you do get out of it (in addition to the certificate) is a sense of achievement, a draft of a novel that you can work on and/or submit and (in my case) a load of new friends who I still meet up with. It's also encouraged me to seriously consider doing a Phd in writing at some point by giving me an understanding of the academic side of writing. 

Although I would recommend the City University MA, you would need to contact the programme director to see if they're still taking students who write children's/young adult fiction. It is definitely worth applying for if you want to write for adults because it is genre friendly (and in fact started a new MA course focusing on crime thrillers in 2012) and it has a fantastic array of guest speakers (including Lionel Shriver, Monica Ali, Mohsin Hamid, China Mieville and Jonathan Coe).

Find out more about the City University London MA in creative writing (novels) here.
Philippa Francis (pen name K.M. Lockwood): West Dean College
I took a Masters in Creative Writing from West Dean College, validated by the University of Surrey. I graduated in 2011.

The course is led and devised by Greg Mosse (husband of Kate) There is a choice of full-time over one year ( which I did) or part-time over two. It is not aimed at children’s writers, but the vast majority of things I learnt are applicable.

It is definitely not ‘about’ the theory of writing; it is all about actual practice. I had worked with Greg before on short courses, and knew what an inspiring taskmaster he is!

It was extremely intense: both exhausting and exhilarating at one and the same time. As a craft based course, it taught me a great deal about skills I could apply to any form of writing.

We had an astonishing amount of contact time – 12+ hours a week, and soon built up our writing stamina. This was just as well, because to get the MA you have to write a novel.

I would highly recommend it to any writer willing to open themselves right up, willing to unlearn a lot of bunkum and able to direct themselves – oh and work like a mad thing. 

Find out more about the West Dean College creative writing MA program here.

OK, it is my turn: Teri Terry, University of Bedfordshire: Masters by research
Me, pre - MA

My MA is a little different to the other MAs above because it is a research degree, not a taught program. Basically this means I had to submit a research proposal about a novel I wanted to write and a contextual thesis to surround it. In my case the novel was Slated, and the contextual thesis was looking at representations of terrorism in YA dystopian fiction. I submitted it all last Friday and now await my viva examination with eager anticipation*.

*anxiety, fear and hiding under the desk with chocolate

The downside: doing a research degree means you go it alone. There are no courses; you have a Director of Studies you meet with to discuss what you are doing and to give you feedback on your work. You must be able to self-motivate and do independent research, and be up to writing a whole novel. You won't meet other writers on this course.
Me, post-MA: though the hat is still just an
aspiration. Until the viva. *sigh*

The upside: I was writing a novel I wanted to write and doing research I wanted to do.

The crazy-side: if you're thinking of researching and writing a thesis at the very same time as writing book 2 of a trilogy and promoting book 1 and planning book 3... DON'T DO IT. Unless you consider sleep an optional extra, and enjoy excessive stress.

What did I get out of it? Slated is a novel I'd already started and would have written anyway. The research side of things would have been more enjoyable if I had more time, but I do feel I got a lot out of it, which made me really examine what I want to write, and why. 


  1. I think - not sure though - that the City University MA course doesn't accept people who are writing for children.However I do run a ten week evening course in Writing for Children at City - the course that I took in 2008. It doesn't give you the academic content of an MA course, it does offer a lot of practical advice and a push to get writing, as well as visits from guest speakers and an introduction to some great children's books. Ten weeks for less than £200 was all it took to get me started...whereas a friend of mine took an MA in creative wrting (at a university not mentioned here) and was so put off that she hasn't written a word since.

    1. That's really good value for money, Keren ... and it means you get a taste before taking the plunge either in becoming an author or going for the MA. I want to do the equivalent for illustrators.

    2. There's no doubt that doing an MA is a big investment. When I looked into various courses in my area a few years ago, they ranged from about £4000 and up. Actually I really liked the look of the novels course at City University London that Caroline did, but the travel costs for me for London ruled it out.

  2. If I had the monies I'd do one just for the academic discipline of it all! LOL!! But never say never - when I retire, I do know I'd most likely embark on one! Thank you for sharing all your really interesting experiences here. It's made me really keen!!! Take care

  3. The value of the MA in creative writing is that it places the student writer within a community of writers at mainly the same level of skill and desire (of and about writing), so that one is challenged and encouraged to write and talk about writing and aspire to success in writing. Same with the MFA, of course.

    1. I wonder if all these courses are the same on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

    2. Candy, that sounds like another blog post in the making?

  4. I envy you all. There's just no way I could fit in the time but I day dream about doing an MA...

  5. It's really interesting to see the number of people doing these courses. I can see they would be a good way to meet other witers and network, or to obtain honest feedback on your work, but they are not the only way to do this. I have no formal training of this sort but I seem to be doing okay! Of course - maybe if I had done a MA things would have happened sooner. We just don't know!

  6. Does anyone offer a distance MA in Creative Writing for children? My alma mater introduced an MA in creative writing several years ago but only do adult literary fiction. I would love to study again, mixing up theory and practical, and it seems distance learning is the only way to do it. It would though mean missing out on meeting guest authors and other students but one would still presumably get plenty out of it.

    1. Have a look at Manchester University: I think they do!

  7. I consider myself a self-taught writer. I honestly don't have the time or the money to get more education. One Master's degree was enough, thanks. I admit I get a little defensive about the whole MA thing because it seems to be considered a mark of a "better" writer. It would be nice if you can do it, but I don't think you HAVE to do it.

    I've spent the past eight years reading writing and agent blogs, reading books on writing, writing my own books, networking and attending conferences. I also took a $99 dollar writing course online and it was wonderful. The best hundred bucks I ever spent.


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