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Why MFA?

11 Nov

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of a Master’s of Fine Arts in writing. Do you need one? No. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, no one needs their MFA to be a writer.

That being declared, two years in my MFA program have probably put my writing career 5-10 years ahead of where I’d be on my own. I have a semester left and have had nothing but good experiences at Seton Hill University’s MFA in popular fiction. I came in a raw (but determined) writer and am graduating with an agent and likely two polished novels—one of which will be shopped to editors soon.

My program is special. It focuses on genre fiction and in my YA reading classes, the book lists are comprised of novels I would’ve chosen on my own. Melissa Marr, Scott Westerfeld, and John Green are just a few of the authors I’ve read and discussed with my classmates and professors.

But reading is reading. If you go for your MFA, you’re paying for big improvements to your writing.

Seton Hill is a low residency MFA program, which means we’re together on campus two weeks a year—one week in January and one in June. For residencies, every student submits a ten page piece for critique. It can be a piece of the thesis project, a short story, a first chapter, or an attempt at an unfamiliar genre. Almost anything goes and a few weeks before residency, everyone receives packets of stories. This ranges from 3-4 stories per day with about three critiquing days per residency. It works out to 9-12 story critiques per person, which is a lot of work, but fantastic experience. I’ve critiqued horror, YA, fantasy, picture books, and romance novellas, and have picked up the conventions of many different genres.

The best part? Everyone receives 7-10 very detailed critiques of their piece. After a thorough (and constructive) workshop roundtable led by one of the published faculty, you walk away with pages of marginal and global comments. The feedback is phenomenal and I’ve learned as much from listening to others comment as I have from doing the critiques myself.

Throughout the term, we work with assigned (or chosen!) critique partners on a thesis project—a full length novel. Some people switch CPs from semester to semester, while others click with one or two people and stick together throughout their terms. We also work with published author mentors. I’ve worked with Nancy Holzner, Diane Turnshek and the fabulous Nicole Peeler and we have many accomplished authors that come back to mentor year after year.

The bottom line? There’s no way I could have gotten so much quality feedback on my work—or learned as much as I have—without the program. I would’ve had to pay for a professional editor to get the same level of close reading, and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to get critiqued by writers with so many different perspectives OR to critique so many different types of writing.

Conference workshops can be productive, too, but they don’t foster the same sense of community as a structured program. We get to learn about our classmates over two and half years and many people make close friends or helpful business contacts.

The downside is tuition. No Master’s program is cheap, but there are scholarships and grants available for the brave. I quit my job in publishing to take a position at the university in exchange for tuition. I was ready to take a big step and get serious about my writing. I knew that what I was putting out wasn’t publishable and I didn’t want to waste anymore time trying to crawl off that plateau. The MFA was the kick I needed.

The MFA isn’t for everyone and earning the degree hardly guarantees publication or a cushy teaching job. What it does do is give students an insider’s view of the publishing industry and offers opportunities to improve for those who are willing to listen. People who join the program thinking they know everything don’t get much return on their investment, but those who listen and make changes to their work can make great strides toward publication.

I’d recommend it for anyone looking to join a dedicated community of writers and jumpstart a writing career.

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