The Cons of Writing Degrees

by Cortney Winn

In today’s world there are countless avenues one can take to become a published author, and an astronomical number of aspiring authors trying to get their foot in the door--or more accurately, get their book in the hands of readers. In most professions, a degree will drastically increase the chance of a successful career in a given field, but that is not the case when it comes to writing books.

The road to traditional publication looks like this: An author writes a manuscript then seeks an agent. The agent sells the manuscript to a publisher and the publisher sells the book to consumers. For self-publishing, anyone with a word document and a basic knowledge of Amazon can release their work for readers to buy. The problem aforementioned is the astronomical number of aspiring authors trying to stand out in a saturated market. The good news, or bad news depending on your viewpoint, is that a degree in writing will not do much to get your manuscript in the hands of literary agents and will not increase book sales for self-publishing authors. A degree—even an MFA in creative writing—will not guarantee success as an author, and on top of that, the careers falling under the scope of an MFA are few, rendering the cost of tuition an expensive gamble. The great news is that everything needed to stand out as an author can be self-taught, and will be more beneficial when sought out and learned outside of a classroom.

In an interview with Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander, an American best-selling book (and now movie), I asked her about her journey to publication and her viewpoint on a creative writing degree. Janet earned a BA in history but did not pursue a writing-related degree. “I did not [get a degree in creative writing],” she said. “I got work as a proofreader, then a typesetter. I wrote what I learned here and there. I became a journalist, a newspaper editor, a magazine editor, and wrote all the time, submitting and getting rejected and learning all the time. [A creative writing degree] played no role in my publications.” (Fitch) I asked Janet: If a writing degree wasn’t instrumental in her success as an author, then what was? She responded, “My stubbornness probably was a critical element, the intensity of my love of literature, and my ambition to be a great writer. Not a good one. I was always swinging for the fences.” Although Janet agreed that a writing degree would have helped her avoid certain mistakes and pitfalls, she is one of many successful authors without a degree in creative writing. I ended the interview with the question, “In your opinion what education should a writer seek out to attract agents and have a successful career as an author?” Janet responded,

“I am always a great supporter of history as a course of study, a way of understanding our world. History is everything. It is the grandmother of all. Philosophy isn’t bad… English, biology, medicine, so many fields of knowledge to pursue, which would leave their traces on the writer’s mind. The one thing I would not suggest is an undergraduate major in creative writing. Know something before you start writing. It is the saddest thing to see people who are talented with story and the word, but have nothing to write about.” (Fitch)

Having an MFA in creative writing, or any other degree, will not guarantee that a literary agent will choose to represent you. It won’t even give you a substantial edge against the competition and if you are self-publishing, it won’t get readers to buy your book. What will give you an edge is your writing. Learning the craft is non-negotiable, but how you learn it makes no difference to an agent or a consumer. If you can write well, if you know your genre, an agent will want you regardless of time spent in a classroom or money spent on a writing degree.

When discussing the author selection process with Laurie McLean, literary agent, and partner at Fuse Literary, she disclosed at one point in her career she received more than 2,000 submissions a month from authors seeking representation, and when asked how many of those authors she offered representation, she’s only added 7 new authors in the last three years. (McLean) As literary agents, their job is to champion authors who can write marketable books, whether that author has a degree in writing or not.

I posed this question to Laurie: “As an agent, do you actively look for writers with a writing-related degree such as an MFA in creative writing or English major?” Her response was, “I do not look at MFAs as a benefit to most writers. It is a good underpinning for someone who wants a career in writing, but most MFAs do not teach about the business of publishing, concentrating solely on the craft of writing, and most of that craft is taught for writers of literature, not genre novels.”

I also asked, “If you were trying to decide between two skilled writers, would a writing degree give one writer an advantage over the other?” To which she replied, “Absolutely not. It is all about the quality of the writing and an author’s storytelling skills when it comes to genre fiction, which is what I represent as an agent.” (McLean)

I decided to turn my perspective toward someone who has a writing-related degree. Anita Slusser—a creative writing instructor at Snow College who has published poetry and creative non-fiction—earned an MA in English with an emphasis on the theory and practice of writing along with a creative thesis. When asked the question, “Do you think a writing degree is vital to building a career as a writer?”, she responded, “I think having any kind of degree is important to being an author, but not necessarily a writing degree. Writing is more about practice. The one thing that a writing degree can give you that other degrees won’t is a writing community, individualized coaching, and feedback. But if you can find a writing community elsewhere, you can get a lot of what you need. I suggest getting a degree in something you are passionate about.” (Sussler)

The New York Times explores the pros and cons of an MFA in creative writing and one of the biggest downsides to the creative program is the cost. Cecilia Simon lays out the dollar amount for these programs saying, “With tuition high for a degree not known for its marketplace potential — on average $27,600 for a two-year program at a public university, $72,600 at a private — funding is often the deciding factor in program choice.”(Simon)

The cost could be overlooked if not for the devastatingly low chances of making it as a published author. Simon quotes the coordinator of Waywiser’s Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, Mr. Harrison, by including his statement in her article, “We can only publish so much,” Mr. Harrison says. “I have to sound a cautionary note: M.F.A. programs make money off of people’s dreams. Everyone in the system is implicated. Writers, too. It’s a bit of a house of cards. One hopes people at least understand the odds and how difficult it can be. The number of writers has increased, but the number of readers has not,” Simon includes stats in her article saying, “The monthly magazine Poetry receives 100,000 submissions a year and publishes 300 poems.”(Simon)

In a poll on Twitter, I asked the writing community, “Does an MFA in creative writing give you a greater advantage in a career as an author over someone who studies and practices the craft on their own?”, to which 30% voted yes, and 70% voted no. One voter, @SGoodAuthor, commented, “[Does an MFA help] In actual writing ability? Not really, since you have to be able to write to be accepted. In connections and opportunities? Yes, I would say so.” Another contributor, @GCSalter, offered, “Creative writing courses won’t teach you what a literary agent is, how to get a job in a publishing house, etc. However, a good creative writing course will help you develop your work, hone your abilities.” @kit_small commented, “Advantage? No. Time to be completely focused on your voice and style? Yes.”(@cortneywinn11) According to this poll, the consensus was that an MFA doesn’t hurt your chances; it can be beneficial, but it doesn’t give an author a drastic edge. Diligent study and quality feedback, which can be found in writing groups, conferences, and courses, can be just as powerful.

What’s even more deterring are the career options available for an MFA of creative writing graduate (other than publication). A blog post written by Chelsea Henshey illustrates how few professions can be entered with just a writing degree. Henshey offers six career paths—three of which are unpaid—such as pursuing a Ph.D., writing manuscripts (in hopes of publication), and keeping up with contacts within the MFA program. The other three career suggestions are teaching, which would require further certification, editorial work, and freelance services. (Henshey). Neither editorial nor freelance requires degrees, just experience, and networking, rendering the degree moot.

All sources and evidence say that a writing degree, although helpful, is not necessary to have a successful career as an author. Practice, study, networking, and community are what are needed to gain traction as a writer. So if you want to be a writer, and have money and time to spare, chase that MFA. But if you are like most people–who do not have funds to excess, find a writing group, join conferences, and practice, practice, practice.

Works Cited@Cortneywinn11, “Does an MFA in creative writing give you a greater advantage in a career as an author over someone who studies and practices the craft on their own? I'm really interested to hear everyone's thoughts on this... I've heard it's not worth the time and money.#WritingCommnunity” Twitter, 16 Nov. 2021, 3:55PM,, Janet. Personal Interview. 17 Nov. 2021.Henshey, Chelsea. “I Have an MFA. What Now? 6 Career Paths for MFA Graduates.” Writer's Digest, Writer's Digest, 30 July 2015,, Laurie. Personal Interview. 1 Dec. 2021. Simon, Cecilia Capuzzi. “Why Writers Love to Hate the M.F.A.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 9 Apr. 2015, /12edl-12mfa.html.Sussler, Anita. Personal Interview. 26 Nov. 2021