To MFA Or Not To MFA?

In a poor and blatant rip off of the Bard, that is the question. This month over at Poets & Writers the editors and writers take on one of the eternal questions among writers: Can creative writing be taught. (Subscription required for some articles).

Here at the VWP, we have an opinion on this. We are a teaching organization and our goal is to give our seminar participants the skills and confidence they need to go out and tell their own stories. All of our instructors have MA degrees in Writing*. So, I guess we all more or less support the idea that writing can be taught. There are elements of craft that can be exposed and explored, techniques to practice, structures to analyze, and more.

But the question at hand is, whether or not to go to a formal MA or MFA program. My personal opinion is that it’s probably not necessary for most people. I can honestly say that I am a much, much better writer post-MA than I was ante-MA. But that’s just me. There are any number of ways to learn to be a better writer. Here are a few ideas.

–Read. All good writers are good readers. Learn to read like a writer. Don’t simply pour over a book, ingesting its plot and savoring its characters. Carve it up a little bit by taking its structure and its paragraphs and sentences apart. Ask why characters do certain things at specific points. Consider the narrator: why is he or she telling you the story to begin with? What’s in it for her?

–Get a book on writing and read it. There are dozens of books on technique and craft that can help you polish your skills. John Gardner, Francine Prose, William Zinsser, Stephen King, Dorothea Brand, and many others have written craft books. Go find the one or several that work for you.

–Join (or form) a writing group. Just sitting in a circle with friends talking about and sharing your writing is going to be hugely helpful. You’ll get inspiration from the others to write, (sometimes) helpful criticisms of your work, and practice in close reading in order to provide helpful comments back on others work.

–Take an individual course. Lots of libraries, schools, and private centers offer writing classes. There are online programs, too. Take one and see if you like it.

–Or, go whole hog and apply to an MA or MFA program.

Oh, wait, I forgot one: if you’re a veteran, service member (active or reserve), or a military family member, you can take one of our seminars. Check our calendar page for the schedule. If you want to try to bring the VWP to your town or your base, write to us at

*In fact, incestuous little beggars that we are, we all have MA in Writing degrees from the same school: The Johns Hopkins University.