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Do You Need an MFA to Write a Novel?

A long-held belief continues to pervade emerging writers' thinking: if you want to become a writer, earning an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) is essential. Yet while an MFA is valuable for many reasons, if your goal is to write a novel (or other long-form book project), an MFA may be overkill, sideline you from your goal, and put you into debt for many years. Since mentor support, literary education, and peer connection can be found in private writing programs — for a fraction of the cost and in ways that may ultimately suit your writing goals more personally and relevantly than a university degree program— it's worth examining your priorities before going back to school and asking, "Do you need an MFA to write a novel?"

by Jenna Kalinsky.

Earning an MFA is an incredible experience: you receive an all-encompassing education in literary theory and writing craft, work with venerable faculty, have ready access to a peer community, and get to borrow on being part of the academy, all of which is exciting and validating.

Yet if your goal is to write a novel, memoir, short story collection, or a work of popular fiction, an MFA may be more than you need and could even set you back from writing your book.

A close examination of your priorities, goals, and budget will indicate whether earning an MFA is the right choice for you or whether you should hunker down and write your book while getting the mentorship, education, and writing framework from a private writing program that can provide specific targeted support to help you achieve this important goal.

The One Differentiating Factor Between a University Program and a Private Program: the Degree

Given how many independent writing programs there are nowadays that make writing easier, more fun, and gratifying— and in ways that can specifically target your writing goals and at a fraction of the cost of an MFA— the true differentiating factor between earning an MFA or working with a private writing program to write your novel is the degree.

If you wish to go into university teaching or be considered for employment in certain circles, having a terminal degree (or PhD) is extremely helpful, particularly if you haven’t published a novel.

A novel, however, is indeed currency and as such, opens as many doors in different ways, something authors of merit such as Elizabeth Gilbert, Jonathan Franzen or anyone who came up prior to the cultural implantation of the idea  that the MFA was the only way to go have found as they landed plumb teaching gigs at major universities (or eschewed them to keep writing).

vintage typewriter with One Lit Place notebook and coffee

There’s nothing like walking through the fire of writing a novel or two that prepares you to be able to teach others about the craft, structure, and development of writing a novel, so when you spend your time and energy writing, the more teaching, speaking engagements, and panel discussions you’ll be invited to participate in.

Famous Authors Weight In: Do You Need an MFA to Write a Novel? 

In this article, 27 household name authors were interviewed as to whether one needs an MFA to write a novel, and while the answer seemed to be a mostly even split, by and large even among those who say it can’t hurt or it is a good idea, they still value life experience— and writing— over the more formal educational setting.

Plus, nearly every one of those who said “yes” couched their response with a mention of the expense and advised earning an MFA only if it were free and/or came with a work scholarship or stipend.

They know from which they speak; an MFA is extremely expensive (in 2014 the average cost of tuition for one of the 10 most influential MFA programs in the U.S. was $38,000), and unless you’re independently wealthy, you’re looking at many years of working to pay off the accrued debt,  paradoxically saddling you with less time to write.

*In this comprehensive article, I provide data regarding financials, years, low and full-residency program requirements, and more: “The MFA Alternative: the Best Option for Busy Writers”.

Indeed, if you look at the situation with a skeptic’s eye, you’ll see that MFA programs have proliferated (from only 52 in 1974 to over 350 in 2016) not only in order to tend to budding authors’ educations, but to be clear, they’re also cash cows for the universities. Others who are dismissive of the model claim the programs churn out homogenized writing written to a “workshop standard,” which is counter to the idea of artists forging new territory with creative work.

close up typewriter keys

What You Need to Write a Novel: Time, Support, and a Framework

When a dear friend and former student of mine, John C., began working with me privately, he captured the learning by doing method best by saying, “I’m going to school on my novel.”

I have echoed him many times to speak to the opportunity learning by doing provides: in truth, there’s no degree program in the world that can give you the tools to write a novel in the same way writing a novel will.

If you ask yourself “do you need an MFA to write a novel” and break it all down, you’ll realize only two things are necessary to write a novel:

  • an implement (pen/paper/computer)
  • some time alone each day to think and capture your thoughts on the page

And a third thing will ensure your success:

  • personal support from a writing coach, mentor, or dedicated group

Going it alone works for a rare few, but most writers find once the going gets hard (and it does!), what helps them make it to the end of their draft and eventual publication is having a coach, mentor, or a group: vital systems of support, guidance, and education that help clear a path, keep you feeling strong and motivated, and ensure you know you are in esteemed company who value what you do and sustain you emotionally.

Where these things are found in an MFA program to a degree (group workshops are the signature of most MFA programs, but personal mentorship is rare), all of this kind of support is very much available through private programs, whose sole purpose is to support writers in all ways so you achieve this important goal.

Do You Need an MFA to Write Novel? No, But Here’s What to Look For in an MFA-Alternative Program 

  • Mentor support
  • Literary education
  • Frameworks and strategic systems to break down the process
  • Peer connection

Mentor Support

A mentor is commonly the single most important factor that makes or breaks a writer’s ability to complete their novel.

junot diaz quoteA mentor experienced in both writing and writing instruction has the particular ability to tunnel you through the challenges and pitfalls and steer you instead with strategies, tips, micro assignments, accountability, and straight talk.

These people hold you up when you’re close to falling down and often make the difference between you wanting to write a novel and you actually writing— and completing— your novel.

Literary Education

Learning writing craft and the theory behind why writers make specific choices in a broader context also enhances your natural gift for storytelling (all people are built for telling stories; it’s part of our DNA and most of us who are predisposed to want to formalize our storytelling on the page already have a sense for the architecture of a story).

Some of writing is that intuitive, and some truly benefits from our studying theoretical underpinnings or playing with form and structure or learning best practices for character and dialogue. Learning how to manipulate form and craft empowers the writer measurably.

black coffee cup and white espresso cup on wood table with man's arm

Peer Community

Accepting help, grousing, offering suggestions or strategies to others, and geeking out about books and writing in ways you can only do with fellow writers is soul affirming and a pleasure. When we know we’re part of a supportive community, it is validating and inspiring.

Even if you have support on the home front or are an independent sort, it’s still fun and useful to belong to such an elite club of peers. Finding these people through private programs, on social media, in book clubs, and writing workshops makes the whole affair of toiling away on the writing alone much more rewarding.

In Short …

An MFA is an excellent way to find your footing as a writer in an immersive context, make life-long friendships, and gain access to future job opportunities. But if your goal is to write a novel or other creative works, you can do so along with getting the same (or even more focused) education, specific personal attention on you and your work, a writers’ community, and receive all of the support, guidance, and design to help you get the job done, and done without ado: a novel ready for publication.

From there, all you have to do is sit back and watch how many doors your book will open …

Our One Lit Place Write Your Novel in 4 Months Program was designed precisely to be able to offer writers an MFA-style alternative that provides specific support, literary education, and targeted guidance.

Your writing matters, and we want you to fulfill your creative projects and add your voice and ideas to the world.

Visit our Write Your Novel in 4 Months program page or contact us if you have questions or would like to see whether the program is right for you!

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