Is a Writing Degree Worth It?

Writing degrees often appear on the ‘most pointless degrees’ lists. Drop-down menus don’t even recognise them as subjects. But are they really that useless?

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

‘You have a degree in… Creative Writing? How will that help you here?’

The snideness hangs still in the silence. It’s my first postgraduate interview; a cash-handling role at a bank, and had I not spent the last three years of my life tight roping extensive workload, debt and general survival, then I might not have bothered listing my Creative Writing BA (with Hons, have to weasel that title in wherever possible) as an achievement on my CV. But by this point, I was so used to having to defend my degree choice that I’d often self-deprecate to save the bother.

So I laugh.

‘It won’t, but at least my e-mails will be entertaining.’

A weak, panicked response from a naive postgraduate who should’ve 180’d the second she walked through those glass doors. But for reasons I can only assume to be a mesh of desperation and poor judgement on the bank’s part, I got the job.

Six months later, I lost the job. So I decided, after a brief breakdown, to pick up where I left off and apply for an MA. In business? Science? Teaching? No. I decided to deepen my debt, postpone corporate reality, and continue my whimsical study of writing.

What appealed to me about the MA was the name; ‘Professional Writing’ sounded more bourgeois and socially acceptable than ‘Creative Writing’, which conjures up the image of some haphazard after-school club for children whose parents can’t pick them up until an ambiguous ‘later’.

As a term, ‘Professional Writing’ umbrellas every kind of niche, too. So I applied, and here I am; now halfway through my MA, exuding stress from every pore, and part loving every minute of it. If I’m an expert in anything, it’s studying writing, and I like to think I’ve (over)paid for the right to share my experience with writing degrees so far. So, is it worth it? Let’s start with the BA.

What to expect at BA

As an undergraduate, I studied the aptly named Creative Writing BA, which, in the UK at least, is the standard writing degree across most universities. Though the titles of modules will vary in pretentiousness dependent on which university you choose, they don’t tend to differ too greatly in their content. The focus here is, quelle surprise, creative writing, so short stories, poetry and amateur novel openings will make-up the majority of your coursework (and yes, it is all coursework. A blessing, I’d say). The creativity aspect is interspersed with watered-down literary analysis and expensive reading lists, the latter of which I managed to get away with ignoring, though I wouldn’t recommend this.

The first year is vague in the sense that you’ll be writing haikus one week and a fragment of historical fiction the next. It is also, quite literally, pointless. The marks you receive don’t count towards your degree, but a pass (above 40%) is mandatory to continue into the next year. This system spans across all degrees, I believe. On reflection, I’m thankful for it. Very few excel in their first year.

The second year starts to get a little serious, but the choices remain somewhat ambiguous. It’s assumed you haven’t decided what kind of writing you’d like to specialise in, so you’re offered a platter of creative choices that are dependent on whoever they have on hand to lecture. This can be interesting, as my degree seemed to allow certain lecturers to build modules around their speciality. The digital media module I studied in second year was a fascinating insight into how writing is evolving, and how to utilise new technology to expand your audience. Genre fiction provided weekly insights into the histories of the leading literary genres, as well as industry insight into what makes the most money, and what’s more likely to get film/television deals. Overall, the second year is primarily focused on easing you into the habit of weekly submissions, and sheds a little light on the inner workings of the world of writing.

By the third year, you’re expected to have some idea of where you want to go with your writing, so the modules become more fine-tuned; novel writing, non-fiction, poetry, reading as a writer (focuses on analysis and reviews), etc. You’re also given free rein over an independent project, which in some universities may be the dissertation. My particular university didn’t have the choice of dissertation. There were four modules (including the independent project) spread across the year, with submission pieces averaging 5000 words each.

Throughout the years, guest speakers will give one-off lectures. Some are inspiring, while others are damning. The mood swings, pendulum-like, between a fantastical dream world where creative writing pays the bills, and dystopian reality, where you’ll be chasing payments from freelance gigs whilst juggling retail work and pub shifts. This can help to ground you, though you’ll often find yourself wondering why you’re paying £9000 a year to have someone tell you you’re fated to poverty and persistent failure.

O, what lark! Poetry, ahoy!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that poets, tragically, do not earn enough money to make a living, so many lecture in their spare time. This was a fact served fresh-out-the-freezer by a visibly depressed guest speaker, who said to a wide-eyed audience of bright young freshers ‘who amongst ye wants to be a poet?’

When several (I among them at the time) proudly raised their hands, he responded with a scoff and a ‘yeah, good luck with that. There’s fuck all money in poetry’, before proceeding to profess the woes of being a full-time carer in sonnet form.

The severe lack of money in writing poetry is, I assume, one of the reasons that Creative Writing is so heavily weighted towards poetry. The majority of my lecturers were poets and the modules dedicated to the study of the expressive art were plentiful: performance, contemporary, sudden prose… oh, you didn’t want to write poetry? That’s too bad because you’re required to take four modules this year and of the eight choices available, half are poetry. So as a forewarning… there’s a lot of poetry.

But how can you put a percentage on the outpouring of my soul?

The marking criteria is ambiguous and somewhat deflating. Lecturers will try their damnedest to explain exactly how they mark your work, but all will fail and wander off on a tangent of how they’d personally mark, were they not confined to the oppressive boundaries of the system’s demands.

Some may be blunt enough to tell you up front that no one has ever received anything in the highest tier, that is 90–100, because the criteria is quite literally ‘put forward for the Nobel Prize for Literature’. 80–90 is a mythical otherworld that some have, according to legend, found themselves within, but what you’re really aiming for is realism, so somewhere between 60–80 is considered to be ‘doing pretty well’. This is frustrating because a person who studies, let’s say, Psychology, has every chance of achieving 100% on a multiple-choice test, an essay or an exam. But these heights are unattainable and unheard of in the creative sphere, so the standards are different. A 2:1 in Creative Writing is fantastic, but when sat on paper adjacent to a 1:1 in Psychology, it pales in comparison.

Grades aren’t everything, but having your creativity marked is like carving out a piece of your subconscious mind, moulding it into something submittable, and handing it to a stranger who’ll spit on it before they pass it back a month later.

Lecturers are human. They have a particular taste, so their bias will often (unintentionally) seep into their marking. Some lecturers will adore your writing, so you’ll accumulate firsts from them, but others will loathe your themes, your use of adverbs, and you’ll be lucky if they pass you. This is a shared frustration across the arts, but it’s one of those crucial life lessons best learnt first hand. Some people will love your work, but others will hate it. At least your lecturers know what they’re talking about; they’re all published! And their feedback is far more constructive than it is critical. It’s up to you to choose to ignore it or use it to better your work. And if you feel you’ve been marked too harshly, you’re well within your right to challenge them.

Is a BA alone worth the money/stress/work?

All this is well and good, but if you don’t intend on going on to an MA/PhD, a Creative Writing degree by itself is somewhat useless. It does nothing to improve your chances of a postgraduate job, as I quickly discovered. Most people scattered across my modules were wise enough to combine Creative Writing with another subject, as a joint honours or major/minor. I often wish I’d done the same.

But that isn’t to say the experience is a waste of time. It’s quite the opposite. The undergraduate degree allows you to experiment in a supportive environment, and offers plenty of opportunities to explore and develop your writing. You might go in wanting to write a novel, only to find performance poetry is your true calling.

But for me, the most valuable part of my BA was listening to feedback from potential readers. The majority of class time is spent in small groups or class circles, wherein everyone reads your work (or you read it aloud) and points out parts you may have overlooked, such as spelling, structure and grammar. The feedback is incredibly helpful, because it helps you to decipher whether a particular part makes sense, whether readers understand your intent, and often people will offer up their analysis of your work, which is fascinating to hear.

What about the MA?

Whereas the BA tends to explore the creative aspect of writing, the MA is far more focused on the industry. It’s keen to show you that making a living from writing isn’t an idealistic dream, and offers up a variety of viable ways in which you can make money from writing. I discovered Medium through one of my lecturers!

The MA is far more organised than the BA. The modules feel somewhat neater, more specific, and wean out as the year progresses until you’re left to work independently on your final project. There’s also a serious intent of getting you published. The MA grants access to people already deep in the industry, such as agents, editors and professional writers, who explain how their jobs work and what they look for. This differs from the guest speakers at BA, who were there to inspire (or depress) you through motivational speeches, writing tips and personal readings.

On the downside, the MA is only a year long. It’s intense, and there often doesn’t feel like there’s enough time in the day to get everything done. Though I hate it sometimes, it’s internalised anger at my laziness that I redirect to the course. The majority of the time, I love it. It’s insightful, helpful and feels like I can make writing my life without having to suffer financially for it.

So, is a writing degree worth it?

Whether or not a writing degree is ‘worth it’ is dependent on what you determine to be worth your time, money and effort. If you’re going to university in hopes of bettering your job offers and boosting your salary, then perhaps not. But I have friends with degrees outside of the arts that have wound up in jobs so far removed from what they studied that I can only conclude that, in this day and damned age, it doesn’t matter what course you choose. I believe everyone should study the thing they’re most passionate about. It’s a great chance to meet like-minded people, hone your craft and potentially get a foot in the industry.

Although I would say that if you’re serious about writing, you should at least (if possible) carry your studies through to MA level. It’s a wholly unique experience to BA, and is more likely to open up doorways that would otherwise remain closed.

Writer. Forever student. Currently studying PGCE English at the University of Oxford.

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