Friday, February 1, 2013

To MFA or Not to MFA?

I’m on a listserv of writing teachers, and the question recently came up of the value of MFA programs. Though none of us are questioning that people get a good education – and often great networking with publishing professionals – these programs can be expensive. Like $36,000 plus travel expenses for one of the best-known low residency children’s book writing MFA programs.

Obviously, that’s not realistic for everyone, especially if you don’t want to go into debt for your education. And although you occasionally hear about six-figure deals, advances for children’s books are much more likely to be in the $5000-$20,000 range. You’d have to sell several to make back the money you put into the MFA. There’s no guarantee you’ll sell a book just because you have an MFA, and I’ve heard of people getting so burned out and stop writing altogether.

So what if you feel like you need a better education – or the contacts that come with a respected MFA program?

On the list, we discussed other options. Kristi Holl said she interviewed MFA grads about what their program involved and how they learned the most. The three main components:

  • Reading an extensive list of current and classic children’s books
  • Studying craft books
  • Writing and being critiqued

How about doing that on your own? You should be reading extensively anyway.

You can find many lists of “best” books. The American Library Association has many annual awards, including the Newbery (for middle grade books), Caldecott (for picture books), and Prinz (for young adult books). The international reading Association has the Children’s Choice Reading List. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators has the Golden Kite Award and the Crystal Kite Award, which is based on a vote by peers. Visit your local bookstore or library, pick up a stack of books, read, and analyze – perhaps with A Copy of “Reading like a Writer“ or this online guide to “How to Read like a Writer.”

The craft books Kristi found most helpful include:


Other books which are favorites of writing teachers:
THE PLOT WHISPERER, by Martha Alderson
ADVANCED PLOTTING, by yours truly, Chris Eboch
SCENE & SEQUENCE, by Jack Bickham,

And that’s just a small selection of what’s available. You can also follow blogs on the craft of writing. One of my favorites for craft is Janice Hardy’s The Other Side of the Story. Many of the members of this blog also have individual sites. I’m no longer regularly posting new information, but you can see past posts on topics ranging from developing secondary characters to improving your pacing at my Write like a Pro blog.

And finally, writing and critiquing.

Some people work better with deadlines and penalties for failure. If that’s you, consider starting a group with some other writers where you share your weekly word count and keep each other on task. Or get your family involved by making a schedule and “due dates.” Maybe your kids will like seeing you do your “homework” and start to understand that you need work time!

Getting quality feedback can be a challenge. But even if you live in a remote place, you can try to connect with a critique group online, perhaps through the Childrens Writers & Illustrators Chat Board, now run through SCBWI.

You may reach a point where your critique group can no longer help you. This often happens when your work is very strong – but not quite strong enough. Then consider hiring a freelance editor. Some of the big-name former editors from the publishing industry now work freelance. Or for lower rates, look for experienced writing teachers. (You can see my rates and recommendations here.)

There are also plenty of online classes, like those offered through the Institute of Children’s Literature, which pair you with experienced teachers at a much lower cost than MFA program.

As Kristi commented, “While this isn’t the same as getting an MFA, you CAN study and practice and do a reading list and get a critique group and create your own home-study pseudo-MFA program—and have no debt when you’re finished.”

But what about the business side of the industry?

The Idiot’s Guide to Children’s Book Publishing, by Harold Underdown, is an excellent overview of the business. It explains the different genres, the difference between a magazine story and a picture book manuscript, how to find a publisher, etc.

There’s a good book by Nancy Sanders called Yes! You Can Learn How To Write Children’s Books, Get Them Published, and Build a Successful Writing Career. She points out that we typically write for three reasons—the emotional satisfaction of getting published, to make money, and for the love of writing. She suggests separating those three goals, so you don’t put pressure on yourself to sell what you are writing for love, and you find more practical ways of approaching the other two goals. She then addresses how to target each goal. This is a great book if you are interested in making writing a career.

You can find lots of other books on writing for children, or writing in general. SCBWI provides members with THE BOOK: The Essential Guide to Publishing for Children, with information on preparing and submitting your work, market surveys, and resources.

And then there’s networking.

This is an important part of being a professional writer. But you don’t need to go to an MFA program to connect. I’ve gotten lots of job leads from list serves. I’ve met editors and agents at writing conferences and retreats, such as those offered all over the country by SCBWI. Personally, I recommend the retreat format, as it’s typically a smaller group and you have more one-on-one time with the speakers. Check out events in your state, or where you have friends and family, to save money. Some people even successfully network by following editor/agent blogs or Twitter feeds.

There’s one final advantage to a degree program: It’s “legitimate” and therefore could be taken more seriously by the family. That might be a reason to set up a “curriculum” on one’s own, with twice a year events, time scheduled for homework, etc. – and to tally up the cost to show how much cheaper it is than a MFA program. That might help you protect your writing time and counter any grumbles about the expense of a few hundred dollar retreat.

I’ve heard great things about writing MFA programs, but if you want some of the benefits with little of the cost, consider creating your own. You might even get your critique group or other writing friends to join in. And then you can hold your own writing retreats! But that’s a topic for another post….


  1. With all the books and information out there, one could easily put together their own MFA. I think there are websites that do it for you. DYSMFA.

    But, if you'd like to teach, then a MFA can help with that. I guess it depends on the goals. Because there are so many great ways to learn these days, I wouldn't consider it. Plus, it' no guarantee to getting published.

  2. Heck, I'd settle for a bachelor's degree.

  3. I have a bachelor's in painting, so clearly I took a different path! I agree with Laura--there is no guarantee you'll get published with an MFA, though I think it can certainly help. On the flip side, when I started writing, I had no formal training, so I wasn't bogged down with the "do this" and "don't do that" of writing "rules". I'm not exactly known for my rule following though! ;) Great topic, Chris. I'm interested to hear what other think!

  4. Oh, how I'd love an MFA. Concentrated time focused on bettering my craft with peers and teachers guiding the way -- bliss.

  5. I think it partly depends on what your goals are. Personally, I wouldn't pursue an MFA for the potential connections. I'd do it to become a better writer and if I were interested in teaching writing at the college level. So far I've gone the craft-book-critique-group-writer- conference-route. Right now I'm in a Masters Program for Special Education while teaching fifth grade so another "school thing" for me is unlikely in the near future anyway. (My wife got her MFA and learned a ton, and I've had several friends get theirs as well....)

  6. This is a great post and I was just having a conversation with another lawyer turned writer friend of mine on this subject the other day. We concluded that we both got our JD's in lieu of an MFA...and in retrospect, an MFA would have been a bargain, but the JD is such a nice back-up plan in case those six figure book deals never appear! :)

  7. This is a great argument for the non-MFA route to publishing. I got my MFA and LOVED my program. It taught me to read well and broadly, reach out to other writers and how to handle criticism constructively. All things you've pointed out can be done without the MFA program for a dedicated and disciplined writer. What an MFA doesn't guarantee (and to be fair, most programs don't use this as a selling point) is that you will be published. You will, however, become a better writer. I always encourage people to examine their options and make the choice that is right for them. The MFA was the right choice for me and I highly recommend it. That said, many amazing writers haven't needed an MFA to be successful.

  8. A great way to get a taste of MFA land is by attending a summer writers conference. There are dozens of fantastic conferences out there. Check out Poets&Writers magazine for a listing.

  9. I'm in a critique group with at least three writers with MFAs from Vermont College. I learn a lot, and live vicariously, through them!

  10. I know several people who received their MFAs in Writing for Children from Vermont, and they said it changed their lives. I think they learned the most from the critiques they got; all became better writers and have since sold novels and articles, all begun while in the MRA program. Nice!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!