Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

In pursuing a writing career, how important is it for one to have an MFA?

A writer’s success comes down to the quality, creativity and insight in the writing. Sure, you have to be persistent in keeping your work circulating as you seek publication and you should know a thing or two about how to compose an appealing query, but if the writing isn’t strong, you won’t get far.

A degree in writing—the Master of Fine Arts, in particular—is a great opportunity to work on your craft. It’s a rare experience to have sustained time to focus on your writing, an accomplished and skillful author and teacher to guide you and a community of writers who take their work seriously. Many writers find that these qualities, which come with most MFA programs, help them toward their career goals. Some programs also offer editorial and teaching experience and up-to-date information on the world of publishing that can complement the focused work on craft. And the degree can be an important qualification for some paid positions once you graduate.

All that being said, a writing degree holds no value if the writing itself is lackluster. Mention of a recognized program in your query or cover letter might pique some interest, but a quick look at the first page is where the real commitment—to read forward or toss the manuscript in the reject pile—is made. Eager for further proof? Neither Zadie Smith nor Jonathan Franzen have an MFA, but they do have, between them, seven novels, a National Book Award, an Orange Prize for Fiction and finalist status for the Pulitzer Prize. Janet Evanovich, a writer of romance and mystery novels, who is best known for her Stephanie Plum series, writes books that consistently land on the New York Times bestseller list. She doesn’t have an MFA either.

So, the question you might ask yourself is this: How important is an MFA to my career? Some writers do thrive with the kind of time, guidance and community provided by a program. Still, there are other options for the writer who is seeking guidance but doesn’t want to engage in a degree-granting program. Writing classes, conferences and programs outside academia can offer community and close readings and teachings by talented and dedicated authors. Regardless of the route you choose, your main focus should be on the craft of your work. Ultimately, that’s what’s going to help you secure—or keep well out of reach—the agent, publishing contract and devoted readers eager for your next book.