Is a Creative Writing Degree Worth It? Let’s Get Into It.
In my day—by which I mean the early 2000s—a creative writing degree was considered one of the less practical academic pursuits, only a little more reasonable than a philosophy degree and a theatre arts degree (which, incidentally, is what I have).
These days, we have a bit more appreciation for what a person can do with some well-rounded creative writing skills. Such a person can write novels and poetry, sure, but they can also compose speeches for politicians, create written content to refresh a major corporation’s brand, and craft compelling ad copy.
There’s no question about it. Creative writing is a skill that earns, depending on how you use it.
But as is the case in a lot of modern industries, we’re starting to see that a degree doesn’t carry the weight it used to. And not having a degree isn’t always a barrier to entry.
So where does that leave aspiring writers? Should you bother to pursue a creative writing degree? If so, what should you be trying to get out of it?
We’re about to go over all the ins and outs of this educational path. We’ll talk about:
- The advantages of pursuing a degree in creative writing
- The different types of creative writing programs
- How to choose the program that’s best for you
- How creative writing is taught
- The career opportunities that come with a creative writing degree
Let’s start by looking at the perks.
Benefits of Pursuing a Creative Writing Degree
I’m about to list the four biggest benefits of attending a creative writing program. But I want to be clear about something:
Every one of these perks is something you can also get without a degree in creative writing.
I don’t say that to discourage you from taking this path. This might still be the best next step for your career. See, the biggest difference between getting a formal education and DIY-ing one isn’t what you learn but how you learn it.
That’s why we’re not just looking at what these four benefits are but also how you achieve them in a creative writing program.
Develop Strong Writing Skills
This is the reason most creative writing students pursue a degree. A good program offers a range of courses to help you sharpen your skills, faculty members who have real-life experience with the publishing industry, and access to visiting writers who can offer additional inspiration and insight.
Most programs incorporate writing workshops where you and your fellow students share and give feedback on your work, all under the guidance of a professor. Many universities also put out literary journals, giving students the opportunity to participate in the publishing process.
And of course, enrolling in a creative writing program ensures that you’ll be constantly writing, which is the best way to sharpen your skills.
Explore Diverse Genres and Styles
A self-guided learner has full authority to choose which areas of writing and literature they’ll explore. This is mostly a good thing, but the benefit of pursuing a creative writing degree is that your professors will see to it that you get familiar with a range of formats, genres, and styles.
This is especially true in undergraduate creative writing programs. Expect to read and analyze a wide spectrum of literature, from ancient epic poems to modern mainstream novels.
Build Your Network
This is such a notable perk that many of my friends who went to graduate school for screenwriting highlight this as the number one benefit.
Of course, you can build a network of peers and mentors without shelling out a ton of money for a formal education. But in a creative writing program, you spend all your time with other writers. You read each other’s work, struggle through the same coursework, and connect on a personal level.
Plus, if you happen to go to a school with a robust alumni network, you might find it easier to connect with those in your industry who share your alma mater after you graduate.
Widen Career Options
There are plenty of writers who don’t have a degree in creative writing—or don’t have a degree at all—who are making a decent living off of their words.
Nevertheless, a formal education can offer a wider range of options. It will give you a better shot with employers who place high value on college degrees or want to know that you have specialized knowledge regarding a specific type of writing.
And if you think you might enjoy teaching creative writing, a degree is a must.
Types of Creative Writing Degrees
Intrigued? Then let’s explore your options more in depth.
There are several different types of creative writing degrees you can pursue, each with a slightly different focus and different opportunities once you leave school to practice your craft in the real world.
We’ll break this down one by one.
It typically takes four years to complete an undergraduate creative writing program, though the timeline can be longer or shorter depending on your schedule and any credits you’ve already earned and transferred over.
We’re covering some general creative writing degrees available at the undergraduate level, but I highly recommend doing additional research. There are several more specific degrees that zero in on a particular aspect of writing, like a Bachelor of Arts in Communication or Journalism.
If you have a clear-cut vision for your writing career, start there and work backward to find the degree that makes sense for you. If you only know that you want to be writing one way or another, start by looking at these three options:
Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Creative Writing
When you pursue a Bachelor of Arts, you can expect to get a well-rounded education that includes writing instruction as well as a balanced emphasis on the sciences and humanities.
It’s a liberal arts degree, basically, and it’s the most common choice for students seeking a creative writing education.
Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in Creative Writing
BFA programs are much rarer than BA programs, but it’s worth considering one if you want an education that puts a heavy emphasis on the “arts” part.
This type of program focuses less on sciences and humanities. It often includes hands-on writing workshops (more on those in a bit) and is favored by students who fully intend to become authors, playwrights, screenwriters, or poets.
Bachelor of Science (BS) in Writing
If you think you might enjoy applying your creative writing skills to something more scientific or analytical, a BS might be the best option for you.
This is a popular option for students who see themselves getting into technical writing, cultural studies, or communication.
Postgraduate education—or grad school, as the cool kids call it—comes after you’ve earned an undergraduate degree. The most common reasons to seek out a graduate degree in creative writing include:
- You think you might like to teach creative writing at the college level one day
- You earned an undergraduate degree in a different field and now you want to study writing
- You just really want to go deep on this subject
Just as with undergrad degrees, there are highly specific grad programs you can explore. Or you can dive into one of these:
Master of Arts (MA) in Creative Writing
While an MA program doesn’t have the humanities and sciences components of a BA program, it still maintains a balance between participating in the arts and observing them.
That is to say, you’ll do a ton of writing in this program, but you’ll also read and analyze a fair amount of literature.
Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing
MFA programs tend to be super hands-on, with workshops in which students share and give feedback on each other’s writing. Over the course of the program, you’ll complete a book-length work like a novel or poetry collection.
You also might find that you need more credits to earn an MFA degree than an MA in creative writing.
PhD in Creative Writing
Now you’re just stalling. Write your book already.
I’m kidding. A PhD is a perfectly reasonable option if you want to study literature and creative writing in great depth. Most students who take their writing education this far are also planning to build a career in academia in addition to being a published author.
PhD programs are extremely rigorous, can last four years, and conclude with a dissertation project.
Writing Workshops vs. Writing Courses
At this point, we should probably discuss the difference between writing courses and workshops in an academic setting. You’ll find both in many programs, but the balance between these two educational experiences will depend on which type of creative writing degree you pursue.
It will also influence your entire learning experience.
What Makes a Course a Course?
A creative writing course is exactly what you think of when you imagine any class in a formal education setting.
In a course, a professor lectures on specific topics, assigns projects, and grades students on their performance. There may be class discussions and even opportunities for students to share and engage with each others’ writing. But the overall structure of a course focuses on conveying information.
What Makes a Workshop a Workshop?
A creative writing workshop is more hands-on. While the professor will share insights and guide discussions, the primary purpose of a workshop is to help students refine their craft. They share their work and give each other feedback.
You see much more of this learning style in BFA and MFA programs, which put greater emphasis on honing creative skills. If you want your writing education to include analyzing literature or studying the business end of publishing, you’ll probably want to look into more course-heavy BA or MA programs.
Renowned Creative Writing Programs
This is usually when a person wants to know where they should go to get these degrees. What are the best creative writing programs out there?
Really, the best program is the one that fits you. Reputation is just one of many factors you should consider when you decide where to pursue a degree in creative writing.
That said, it’s always a good move to know the respected institutions in your field. It helps you sound informed at cocktail parties. To that end, here are some of the most revered schools in the world of creative writing (in the U.S., anyway):
- The Iowa Writers’ Workshop
- Brown University
- Columbia University
- Duke University
- Emory University
- Mizzou (Journalism)
- Northwestern University
Choosing the Right Creative Writing Program
If prestige shouldn’t be a top consideration when deciding where to earn a degree in creative writing, what should you prioritize?
Here are a few factors to keep in mind as you research your options:
Career goals - Do you want a program that’s going to prepare you for a job in marketing that pays the bills while you write poetry on the side? Do you want to become a globe-trotting journalist or a high-earning technical writer?
Decide what will be the best degree for you, then zero in on the schools that excel in that area of study.
And don’t forget to consider genre! If you want to earn an MFA but are interested in commercial fiction writing, make sure you find a program that matches your goals. Literary fiction tends to get all the love in higher education.
Faculty - Research who you’ll be learning from. Do they seem like the right folks to guide you on your professional journey?
Curriculum - Learn everything you can about a school’s course options and creative writing majors before you commit. Will you be able to focus on the area of writing that matters most to you? Will the skills you learn help you do fun things in the real world like eat and pay rent?
Location - There are accredited creative writing programs that are entirely online. However, many of your best options will be in-person or low residency. Not only is the location relevant for practical reasons—you have to be able to get there—it can also influence how much you pay to go.
If you attend a state school in your own state, for example, you can expect to pay less than the out-of-state students.
Results - Do a little digging to find out what graduates say about their experience in the program. What did they like about it? What didn’t they like? Would they say it was worth it? What are they doing with their creative writing degree now?
Cost - You’re probably way ahead of me here, but I’ll mention it, anyway. The less you pay for a degree in creative writing, the greater your return on investment will be. Look at tuition costs, possible scholarships, out-of-state versus in-state expenses, and the local cost of living.
Career Opportunities with a Creative Writing Degree
Maybe you decided long ago that you definitely want to go to college. Maybe for you, the question isn’t whether you want a degree at all but whether a degree in creative writing is a good use of your college fund.
In that case, we should talk career opportunities. What exactly can you do with a creative writing degree?
A lot, as it turns out. In fact, we have this ridiculously long list of jobs that require strong creative writing skills. You can follow the link to explore them in depth, but here’s a quick sample of what’s in there:
- Content writer
- Technical writer
- Social media writer
- Literary agent
- Brand strategist
- Ad writer
- Corporate communications specialist
That’s really only scratching the surface, and it doesn’t even touch on the ways your writing skills might serve you in less creative professions. I know multiple lawyers with a creative writing degree they credit for making them significantly better at drafting legal arguments. (On the flip side, an alarming number of lawyers become screenwriters or novelists.)
The important thing is to consider different creative writing majors carefully. Between the different schools, degrees, and areas of concentration, you’ve got lots of options and plenty of opportunities to select the education path that leads to your ideal writing career.
Whatever You Do, Keep Learning
Only you can decide if a creative writing degree is the right move for you. Whether you go for it or not, remember that continuous learning is the best thing you can do to ensure a successful and fulfilling writing career.
Keep reading work that inspires you. Build and nurture your writer network. Proactively seek out workshops, seminars, conferences, books, articles… anything you can get your hands on that will help you sharpen your skills.
And while I wouldn’t claim it’s a one-to-one replacement for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, remember that Dabble is always here for you with a shocking amount of free educational resources and a supportive community in the Story Craft Café.
Peruse the hundreds of articles, templates, and worksheets in DabbleU. Subscribe to our newsletter for weekly guidance delivered straight to your inbox. Download this free, 100-page ebook walking you through the entire novel-writing process.
Even if you need a little more time to decide if you want a degree in creative writing, you can start boosting your skills now.
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