Should You Get a Writing Degree?

Should you get a writing degree? The question came up recently in an online discussion on LinkedIn, and it got me thinking deeply about the topic.  It’s been a running controversy for years among writers. Many have degrees, and many don’t.  There are successful and less successful writers on both sides of the aisle.  In light of the recent plethora of creative writing degree programs, it’s worth asking yourself whether a writing degree is worth the time, cost and effort.

When I went to school for my MFA in Professional Writing from USC, there were very few programs with a master’s degree in writing in any form.  There were probably even fewer with a specialized BA program in just creative writing.  Add to that the fact that in my orientation class at USC, there were a lot of people (70+?)  and I think more were actually enrolled. The director of the program told us few of us would finish, and he was right. There were 7 in my graduating class 3 years later.

Today, I have read that there are about 250 or more creative writing programs scattered throughout U.S. colleges and universities. There is also discussion about whether these programs have shaped what constitutes “good writing” in a somewhat artificial way, promoting a style and type of literary story that young writers are trained to emulate, and supporting a literary market that would not today accept some of the great writers of the past since their work didn’t meet those criteria.

Personally, I chose my degree program because it was focused on “commercial writing”— or as USC instructors put it, writing you could make a living at. Needless to say, poetry wasn’t part of the curriculum regardless of its literary value.  Literary programs are fine for some people. but that wasn’t what I was looking for.

The value of any degree is in the eyes of the beholder.  If you find yourself longing to take a degree in writing, there’s no reason not to.  If you don’t feel the need, then there’s nothing that says you have to.  But this attitude hasn’t stopped people from wanting to tangle over this issue. Hm. How did taking a writing degree become an issue anyway? Gun control is an issue.  Equal rights for women is an issue.  Whether or not to take a writing degree is hardly in the same realm.  Nonetheless, a writing degree often prompts a lot of snorting and pawing the ground among writers.

The most obvious argument against a degree is the most simplistic.  Somebody is sure to say “You don’t need a degree to write.” In reality, there are a lot of things in life you don’t really need a degree to do. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be helpful to have one.

Then someone else will name a litany of famous, respected writers who didn’t have degrees. We’ll stipulate to that fact, as they say in the courtroom. Finally, someone will tell the old chestnut about the famous writer who was scheduled to speak to an auditorium full of writing students about the craft of writing. He arrived, stared at the audience a moment and asked “So you all want to be writers?”  They answered that they did. ”Well, what are you doing here then,“”he sniffed. “Why aren’t you home writing?”

While it’s true you need to practice any craft, there’s something to be said for an apprenticeship. Even in the days of yore, we didn’t send people out to learn how to be a blacksmith by just throwing them into a forge and saying “have at it.”  Yes, you can do it that way, but it’s inefficient and sometimes problematic.

Some writers argue that they’ve met people with writing degrees who were selling cars instead of writing for a living.  In reality, the same could be said of any other degree program out there.  I suspect that relatively few people leave college and go on to work in their specific field. The implication is that a writing degree is supposed to be something more profound, like taking holy orders. It’s apparently supposed to be different from other professions.

And it is.  A true writer writes because she must, not because she can or because she has a degree. But this gets mixed up with the whole issue of making a living from writing. Money is definitely important. I remind myself of that everyday with a quote that hangs on my wall: Remember, Shakespeare wrote for money. But I also believe that writing is also an art, and can (and should be) practiced for its own sake.As you can see, the question of studying writing often prompts a much larger, longer, more convoluted discussion about things far removed from the education of the writer.  So the question remains unanswered: is a writing degree worth the time, cost and effort.  More important to me is the larger question of does a writing degree do anything for you as a writer?

Personally, I honestly believe I am a better writer — both business and creative — for having taken my degree, and for doing a research paper on the films of Graham Greene, discussing the original cut of the extended screenplay for Little Big Man with the man who produced that famous film, doing papers on the literary marketplace that opened my eyes to the cold, hard facts, and spending endless hours discussing the best point of view for a particular story with my critique group. Can I show you how it’s made me money? Not exactly. Like most things in life, it’s hard to find direct links. But I know the value overall, and that’s enough for me.

In the end, writer at workpeople write for their own reasons  — and they take a writing degree for their own reasons.  Curiously enough, the original question online was “Where can I find a good online degree program in scriptwriting?” It wasn’t “Should I take a degree in writing?”  But if you open the door to where, you’re going to get an earful of why, mostly from writers who did, or more specifically, why not, mostly from writers who didn’t.  In the end, neither side is right or wrong.

That’s because it comes down to some essential questions: why are you taking (or not taking) a degree? What do you want from it? What really drives you as a writer, and how will this somehow enhance your experience?

I took my degree because I wanted to. In the end, as far as I’m concerned, it was so worth it. I hope everyone else who decides to pursue a writing degree will be able to say the same.

© Chanda K. Zimmerman 2012