I’m going to talk about something that causes rifts in the writing community. I’m going to talk about school.

I have two degrees. My undergraduate degree is in Radio-Television-Film. For that degree I largely focused on media/cultural studies and screenwriting. I also did a lot of work regarding fan psychology because that fascinates me, and the criteria for the degree (at that time, no idea what it’s like now) was somewhat loose and self-building.

My second degree is an M.A. in Writing, Literature and Publishing. I did not get an M.F.A. in Creative Writing you’ll note. This is because I felt like taking some publishing classes would give me better prospects while trying to, you know, find a job. Since I knew I wouldn’t be able to just write and make money. I was trying to be practical while still following my dream, you see? And it worked. I got an internship with Houghton Mifflin that became a full-time job after graduation, and then I moved on to work for Pearson for a few years too. I also taught some Shakespeare over the summers.

Okay, so that’s my background. But let’s talk about the writing part. Let’s talk about whether writing workshop classes were, dare I say, necessary to me as a writer.


If anything, I found writing workshops frustrating. There were a lot of good writers in there, and there were a share of people who—I’m going to say it, and you’re going to yowl—weren’t good writers and probably should not have been encouraged. Yet the instructors kept trying to help them. Because that was their job. And the other students sat there, stymied and bewildered, struggling to find good things to say so as not to hurt feelings. Because workshops are enabling spaces. They can be constructive ones, too, but they are enabling first and foremost.

Schools make money by having students. If you have enough money, you can probably get into a writing program somewhere. Not Iowa or whatever, but somewhere. And it’s in the school’s interest to keep you there, so they’re not going to tell you to quit. They’re going to encourage you to stay.

“But wait!” you shout. “Writing programs have admissions standards! You at least have to be good enough to get in!”

Yes and no.

Schools also have to make a quota. So they have to let in at least as many people as they need to basically fund themselves. Depending on the school, they may accept just about everyone.

Where this leaves me is that I exited grad school not sure I was actually any good at writing. Because I’d seen lots of people being told they were good writers when I knew in truth they weren’t. So I found myself asking, “What if I’m really no good and they were just saying nice things to me, too?”

And did the writing workshops help me? Um . . . somewhat. Some more than others. I think it’s more that I found people at the school whose opinion I came to respect, whose feedback I came to value. But I didn’t need to pay thousands of dollars for that, did I? And you don’t either. Find a critique group. Find beta readers. Meet (like I did) people at writing conventions and set up an exchange of WIPs. You’ll get all the benefits of workshopping with far less cost and a lot more honesty.*

So the short answer is: I don’t think you need a fancy degree to be a writer. I do think you need feedback, but it doesn’t have to come from Professor So-and-So, who may not even be candid about your abilities.

Which leads us to the question: Can writing even be taught?

That’s a topic for another post.

*As far as honesty goes, you can only hope the people reading your work and giving you feedback are not just being nice. At first it may be that they don’t feel they know you well enough to rip into your writing. However, saying nice things to one another does not help you. So I recommend the old sandwich technique: name something you like, name something that doesn’t work for you, end with something encouraging. And if someone is just not a good writer? Even I would hesitate to come out and say it. I would probably hedge and say, “This isn’t really my style/genre.” And I would struggle to find at least one good thing to say. Because no one wants to be the one to crush someone’s dream. Instead we’d all rather watch it die slowly over time, until the would-be writer realizes he or she has wasted his or her life chasing a dream that will never come true.


Like this? Take a look at my latest novel The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller, now available from Tirgearr Publishing.

5 thoughts on “Uh-Oh.”

  1. Interesting theory about writing workshops, and it totally makes sense. I’m sure it happens with many schools and programs.

    My husband has talked about the same thing. He works in a very specialized area and believes that the college we both attended (and still live close to) are accepting anybody and everybody into that program and pushing them through when they just don’t have the abilities for the job.

    And he/they see it when those students get to the job and end up washing out before their on-job training is done. 4 years of college down the drain sometimes, because that degree is so specialized. It would’ve helped to tell them 2 years into it rather than let them graduate.

    So is it about them getting money from students or is it because they don’t want to tell them they suck? Probably some of both.

    1. Yes, I think it’s both about the money and not being the one to say “no.” No one wants to be the person to tell someone they aren’t good at something. There’s this idea that if we do that we’re snuffing a light, cutting of someone’s potential. Like, if you tell someone they aren’t good at writing, there’s a “what if?” game where you think, What if they would have gone on to write a Great American Novel but I just ended that? We’re a culture that firmly believes that anyone can do anything if they try hard enough. Unfortunately, telling people that sets many up to fail because I don’t think it’s entirely true. I think some people don’t have what it takes no matter how much schooling or whatever. But to say that is to go against the American Dream. Or the Western World Dream. Or something.

      All that said, I also don’t want to be the one to tell someone they’re no good at it. I, like anyone, will look for workarounds. I will fall back on technical skills. “Oh, well, you spelled everything correctly . . .” ::shrug:: And hope the person reads between the lines, figures it out. We put the onus on the hopeful to know when to quit. And at the same time tell them persistence is a virtue. Which it is, to a point, but . . .

  2. I have a college degree in Creative Writing. (In Canada, college degrees are two years. University would be three or four years.) I have learned so much more from doing my own research, writing, and publishing than I did when I zoomed through my degree. It was fun, but I didn’t learn anything practical. I’ve been to several writing seminars that were fun too, but I didn’t learn anything new. I totally agree with you that you don’t need a degree to be a writer, but feedback is a must. Honest and reliable editors and critique partners.

    Linking this to your writer convention post, you’re smart about how you’re considering them. Creative writing covers a broad range of things, but what we each need to improve is different. My local critique group does the sandwich method, but sometimes what they don’t like is much bigger than what they do! Yet I’ve learned so much from them, especially about short stories, and I continue to do so.

    1. Re: the sandwich method, I do think it’s the best way to offer criticism. But as you say, sometimes you hear more of what people don’t like. Still, I think you learn more from what doesn’t work than what does. I also think people are more inclined to talk about things they dislike; it’s easier, for whatever reason, to pick out things you dislike. This extends to online reviews, where I think people are more likely to write about things they don’t like—we’re a species of complainers. If you really enjoy a restaurant, you’ll probably say as much to friends, but you might not bother to go online and write a review. But if something goes wrong at a restaurant? Oh, you want EVERYONE to know! We’re programmed that way, to warn people off things. That’s why good reviews mean so much to writers, and why hearing good things about what we’re working on is so important. That’s what motivates us to keep going. So we need that sandwich. We need enough to encourage us to work, but we need to learn what doesn’t work, too.

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