Should You Pursue a Creative Writing Degree?

Should writers gain a tertiary education in creative writing? What are the benefits? Is it essential?

For most people, graduating from high school inevitably means moving on to higher education to complete the obligatory undergraduate degree. Though for many, particularly those looking to pursue a career in the Arts, there is a variance in opinion over whether a degree is absolutely necessary. When it comes to writing, do we see actual benefits from completing a degree first? At the end of the day, are we advantaged over others who haven't pursued tertiary education?

Despite this ongoing debate, it is true, today more than ever, that there's a broad range of writing degrees for writers to choose from. We are no longer limited to choosing between the English Literature or Journalism. The ability to study Creative Writing at University has opened up many doors for those looking to write simply for the love and passion of writing. It began to hold its own, and is to this day, becoming more and more prevalent. Ultimately, these degrees can teach valuable transferable skills that writers will learn to put into practice. Not only this, but these degrees also significantly boost an aspiring writer's confidence, which in turn, makes them more proactive in getting their work out there.

Creative writing education

Is a tertiary education in creative writing worth it? Writer's Edit explores. Image Credit: Andree Lüdtke via Flickr Creative Commons.

Nevertheless, it is important for people to understand it is just a step. Writers should look at it as a form of guidance which will hopefully better prepare them for writing in the industry. It does not, however, prepare them for the world of employment. It should not be substituted for a portfolio.  Although many will concede to the fact that it has its many advantages, publishers generally, are not interested in what sort of degrees or certificates writers have attained. A portfolio is far more important to them, they can see the writing in practice; see if the writer is suitable for their publication.

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Jon Elsom, executive creative director of Bray Leino, a marketing and advertising company and graduate of the MA at Birkbeck says:

Academic background is less important than evidence of creative flair in a portfolio. It’s never been the case that your academic qualifications are as important. That’s why creative departments are such melting pots, because they’re full of people from all sorts of different backgrounds.”

In the present day, over seventy-eight institutions around the world offer Creative Witting as an undergraduate degree,  the proclaimed Oxbridge included. The question remains, is it worth it? Malcolm Bradbury, one of the writers who helped set up the first British MA in creative writing, 35 years ago said on the topic:

Some thought writing couldn’t be taught. Some thought if it could be, it shouldn’t be.”

Holly Lisle, Fictional author renowned for her website Forward Motion Writers' Community argues the case; "Get your education from professionals, and always avoid experts."

She states that experts are merely people with a degree: "The degree doesn’t mean he knows how to do what he’s an expert at.” Further, she goes on to say; it does not prove any practical experience, only that he can “impress other people with his accomplishment,” which is attaining the degree. She describes them as conformists, who are paid by third parties, which ultimately allows them to earn more money and more security by conforming.

If they conform for a long enough time without annoying anyone or doing anything unexpected, they can earn higher positions or, in college systems, tenure. In an expert system, the talented, the challenging and the brash are weeded out, and the inoffensive mediocre remain.”

Lisle isn’t alone in this opinion. Many agree that pursuing a writing degree will mean spending a lot of time doing things that have no relationship to what you want to do in the future. As it has been testified, that many people who study a degree in writing, end up shifting towards the education or business medium; “College educations are designed by conformists to create conformists. Even those colleges which point to their radical stance and avant-garde teachings are creating students who conform to their mould-their sort of radicals, their sort of avant-garde.”

Students in college have to earn the approval of their teachers in order to get their grades and graduate. And you don’t learn anything new if your main goal in life is seeking the approval of experts.”

Lisle goes on to describe a professional as someone who earns their living working in the field. “A professional architect designs and builds houses for clients. A professional hairdresser cuts and styles hair for clients. A professional writer writes stories, articles, or books for readers.” These are the people that earn their money through people buying their consumer product. If they’re not very successful, they don’t get paid. “So the ones who have been around for a while and who are still working are probably worth learning from.”

While Ellie Pike, HR adviser at Penguin agrees to some extent with Lisle’s views, and that all portfolio’s be examined individually, she states, “for positions in marketing and publicity as well as to some extent, editorial, the skills that come from a creative writing degree can be very valuable.”

All in all, there are some fairly split views on the subject. To experience a first hand response, we interviewed a university student at the University of Technology, Sydney, currently undergoing a degree in writing;

Bianca Musico says:

 Do I think studying a writing degree at university is crucial? Not really. I think that hand on learning in a writing field is more important, and will have more of an impact. I did an internship before I started my writing degree and can safely say I learnt more at the internship than I have at university. There is nothing more valuable than real life experience.

I think it comes down to the individual, Uni is good in preparing one for jobs and what working could potentially be like. It teaches you to deal with criticism and not take it personally. It takes you back to basics. Grammar is probably the biggest factor with that.”

It doesn’t matter how young or how old you are; the decisions you make today don’t have to be the ones you live by tomorrow. If you choose to study a writing degree today, you don’t have to keep it tomorrow. Unless you have an immaculate writing style, it will not hurt you to pursue it academically. With new degrees popping up every day, there becomes a broader range of options available to fit most needs. Nevertheless, if you are concentrating on certain outlets of writing and have real talent, the lack of a degree is unlikely to impact you as much as you might think in the future. Just take it day-by-day. If writing is your true calling, you’ll find a way to succeed.

Writers never feel legit. We all feel like frauds. The successful writers just do it anyway.” - Carol Tice.

For more on Carol Tice's views on writing and its prerequisites, click here. 

What Others Thought

While researching for this article, I tweeted “Should writers gain a tertiary education in writing/creative arts? What are the benefits? Is it essential?” These are some of the responses I received:

- 'My Creative Writing degree opened my eyes to a life beyond the conventional 9-5 job.'

- ‘No, because it will lead to endless poor imitations of others as a teaching structure and as an aspiration - as it has in Art.- I think it would cause a narrowing of imagination as students’ creativity would be moulded through their tutor’s biases.’

- ‘It's not essential but it certainly won't hurt. It gave me momentum and the opportunity to be around other writers and creatives.’

- ‘Certainly, real creation comes from within - the bones of a tale, whereas knowledge and facts provide the flesh - I've found that the more you know, the more believable the story usually is’

- 'The job is the education, the audience the professor.'

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