Image: Matthew Loffhagen
I got my Creative Writing degree by accident. My college, in the UK, was unusual in requiring first-year students to pick an additional subject in their first year – partly to widen their interests, and partly as an escape route if their first choice wasn’t everything they hoped . My major was Fine Art, so naturally I scanned down the list of related arts subjects that A) I was vaguely competent in and B) didn’t clash with anything else on my timetable. Out of everything, Creative Writing seemed the best answer. I figured it would be fun distraction from the studio during the first year of my degree. Little was I to know that I’d be graduating with both subjects emblazoned on my degree certificate.
For most people, a Creative Writing degree isn’t something you sleepily sign up to like I did. Since you’re reading this article, you’re obviously thinking a lot harder about the pros and cons than I ever did. I can tell you straight off the bat that a degree is not an iron-clad guarantee of career success, or even enhancement, nor an automatic ticket to fame and fortune as a writer.A degree can’t guarantee professional success or artistic renown.Click To Tweet
That’s not to say that a Creative Writing degree won’t help your career (especially if you’ll need to pitch for work, like a ghost or travel writer), but it’s far from a sure thing. Really, the best question isn’t where a Creative Writing degree can take you next, but what it can do for your craft and method.
To help you with this all-important decision, I’ll take you through the pros and cons, as well as some alternative paths that may meet your needs just as well (if not better).
Pros of a Creative Writing degree
1. You’ll be part of a community of writers
Half (or more) of the appeal of college is socialization. Even if you study part-time; seminars, lectures, group study and extracurricular activities will keep you busy both socially and intellectually. Being regularly entrenched in a fertile learning environment with so many other like-minded people can develop and grow your skills – both writerly and socially – exponentially. You’ll encounter different people with vastly different experiences, tastes, and writing styles to you, and you’ll find unexpected sources influencing and evolving your work.
You’ll also be networking almost constantly, and without the usual unpleasant effort of finding a suitable event. This may sound trivial, but you’ll be learning alongside the influential writers, editors, agents, and reviewers of the future – people who are only going to grow in influence as time wears on. While there’s no guarantee you’ll meet the next huge publisher, you may well form a relationship that will benefit you down the line. Even passing acquaintance makes you a more known quantity when someone is checking manuscripts or organizing a literary fair down the line. And all that’s before the opportunities you’ll have to write for college newspapers, literary collections, and reading events.
2. You’ll be given regular feedback on your work
Criticism can be double-edged sword, but we’ll just focus on the positive side, for now. Unless you already have a bank of reliable and relatively unbiased alpha and beta readers at your disposal, it’s likely that, beyond school teachers, you’ve been relying on family and friends for feedback. The problem with that is that, no matter how much they swear to be as honest as possible, they’re going to be far more inclined to pull their punches when your work really needs beating into shape.
Now, there will be some in your seminars or critique groups who may show you similar kindness, but there will certainly be others who won’t – for better or worse. The thin-skinned may find this a rough ride, but they’ll also find that it almost unavoidably toughens them up. As well as your peers, you’ll of course have the opportunity to pick the brain of your tutors and lecturers, who can sometimes offer counsel worth the steep price of admission by itself.Feedback from peers and tutors can be worth the cost of tuition. Click To Tweet
You’ll also be asked to critique and evaluate the work of others, which not only sharpens your own skills and powers of observation, but will help you define your personal brand.
3. You’ll read. A lot
Bookworms, rejoice! It goes without saying that the key to great writing is reading great writing. A Creative Writing degree will have you reading for study as well as just pleasure, and reading a lot of things you might not normally choose.
A less obvious benefit is that you’ll also read a lot of poor-quality and early work from other writers. Nothing will help you catch lazy decisions, easy clichés, and damaging writing devices quicker than looking out for them in the work of others. Plus, seeing someone else’s work go from first-draft mess to fourth-draft promise will reassure you that your own early efforts can be redeemed.
4. You’ll also write. A lot
It seems almost redundant to say this, but doing a Creative Writing degree will have you doing, well, a lot of creative writing. Probably a good 1000+ words per week. Yes, it can be draining, but writing, like any other skill, needs a lot of practice, and you’ll certainly get that.
5. You’ll learn discipline
The rigorous structure of education – whether full or part-time – can be ideal for those of us who thrive within that kind of environment, and you might be surprised to find yourself in that category. Actively receiving feedback, week after week, incentivizes good writing behavior, and having others depend on you for the same will hone your study of, and appreciation for, the craft.
Cons of a Creative Writing degree
1. College is expensive
Let’s talk about the gauche subject of money, shall we? America has both the most sought-after and most expensive colleges in the world, ranging at the time of writing between about $11,000 and about $45,000, depending on the length of the course and whether you need bed and board while you study. For many of us who are less financially fortunate, this changes the question from, ‘Should I get a degree?’ to ‘Is it really worth me getting a degree?’With online courses, writing groups, and author memoirs, is a degree your best option?Click To Tweet
Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, there’s no absolute guarantee that pouring your hard-earned savings into a costly course will yield tangible results, and if money is your biggest barrier, then you may want to consider the cheaper alternatives abroad (particularly Canada), or the other options I’ll be sharing soon.
2. Not all the feedback you receive will be useful or constructive
Remember that double-edged sword? Having your work regularly scrutinized can be hugely beneficial, but bear in mind that you’ll be getting a mixed bag each week. We creative people tend to also be a little precious with our work, so turning in something you’re proud of only to have it harshly savaged by your class in an unfriendly (possibly caffeine-deprived) attack can be hard to take, especially if your creative writing journey is in its infancy. The worst part is they might all be wrong, too, as sometimes the pressure of having to contribute something to the class can induce unnecessary opinions.
3. You might not be suited to college
We all learn differently and flourish in different environments. I started my Fine Art degree with a class of about 35—40. By graduation, that group had been whittled down to under 30. College isn’t for everyone, and I don’t mean that those people are in any way stupider or less motivated. The intensive, results-driven, traditional academic system doesn’t work for everyone.
4. The pressure to succeed could make or break you
This goes back to harsh critiquing and the college environment not being everyone’s cup of tea. The students that dropped out of my Fine Art course did so for many different reasons. Some felt they’d picked the wrong course, or even the wrong college. Some felt homesick. Others sadly crumbled under the pressure – which can feel substantial. A lot of that pressure comes from your tutors pushing you to succeed (sometimes to their definition of success), but a lot of it can come from yourself, which is far trickier to deal with.
5. Creative Writing may not be the best subject for your creative writing
Creative writing can be a beneficial degree for writers, but it’s often best as an accompaniment to another subject. It’s possible that the wider knowledge of a Literature degree, the expanded knowledge base of a History or Law degree, the non-fiction applications of a Journalism degree, or even the technical thinking of an Engineering degree will benefit your work more. Before settling on a Creative Writing degree as default, ask yourself what your writing (and your life) really needs.
There may have been a time when a college education was not only highly affordable, but reliably opened doors to well-paid and suitable jobs. Sadly, that’s just not the case anymore. Happily, there’s also more in the way of alternative (and cheaper) educational paths than ever before. To ensure you’re making a totally informed decision, it wouldn’t hurt to consider the other options available to you, such as:
- Joining a creative writing group,
- Starting a creative writing group,
- Enrolling in a community college course,
- Getting a Writing Certificate,
- Taking an online class,
- Joining a low-residency creative writing program,
- Starting a blog or becoming a journalist (learn on your feet!)
To degree or not to degree
It can be just as hard to decide against pursuing a degree as it is to start one. If you feel that something is holding you back from reaching your full potential as a writer, there’s a lot to be said for, well, just being a writer. Read a lot of books. Start a blog. Go out and experience the world. Meet new people. And write – as much as possible. If you’re still feeling stuck in a rut, maybe a degree – or one of the alternatives – could help you.
Ultimately, you get out of a degree what you put into it. Do thorough research, visit as many campuses as you can, listen to what others have to say about certain courses and/or tutors, and – most importantly – figure out exactly what you want.A Creative Writing degree depends on engagement and effort. You get what you give.Click To Tweet
If you’re committed to improving as a writer, a Creative Writing degree is one of the best places to do so. If you’re not, all you’re really getting is a really expensive piece of paper. Of course, the best way to find out more is to ask those who know. If you have a Creative Writing degree, are currently studying for one, or just want to find out what they’re like, let me know in the comments.
For more advice on honing your writing as part of a group, check out Why Joining A Writing Group May Be The Best Thing You Do All Year, or for a choice of non-college classes, try 10 Online Creative Writing Courses For Every Kind Of Writer.