A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Do you need a qualification to be a writer?
Yes. And no.
You certainly don’t need a Masters in Creative Writing. I did one in 2008/9, but when I look back at my journey into publication, it doesn’t feature very significantly. In fact when I give talks about becoming a writer I often forget to mention it.
It’s not that it was a terrible experience. It was a pleasant, busy year. I’d been teaching fulltime for fourteen years, and remortgaged my house so that I could take a year’s career break – so it wasn’t a whim. I think I got from it as much as anyone could, but I was realistic about what that might be.
Here is what I expected:
Time. Time to dedicate to the writing which, for some years, had become central to my life. Time to find out if I really was any good at it. I’d won a short story competition, and my PhD thesis had just been published in book form, but what I really wanted was to have a novel accepted for publication – preferably the novel, Taking Flight, which I had just finished writing. I’d done an Arvon course in 2007, which had confirmed to me that I could write, and that I loved learning about writing. I didn’t imagine the Masters would be like a year’s worth of Arvon, which is just as well because it wasn’t.
Support. I wanted to meet other writers. I imagined gaining a network of people with whom to discuss this strange making-things-up that had become so central to my life. I wanted to learn from the wisdom and experience of the professional writers who would be teaching me. I wanted to subject my writing to the rigours of the workshop which I knew would be central to the whole experience.
Here is what I didn’t expect:
To be magically published by the end of the year – though as it happens, I sold Taking Flight just before graduation. Many of the others on the course, however, really did seem to think that the Masters was a shortcut to publication. They were much younger than me. They didn’t read much. In workshops, they rarely said anything about anyone else’s work. There were fourteen of us, and at least ten were pretty much silent. Was I disappointed in my classmates? On the whole, yes, though obviously there were exceptions.
The teaching was mixed – mostly good. At its best, wonderful, inspiring and genuinely useful. At its worst, occasionally lacklustre. But then, some of the students were lacklustre too.
It was an enjoyable year. It was a break from teaching. (People said it was very intensive but compared to a fulltime teaching job, it really wasn’t.) And yes, it gave me time to realise that I did seem to have the talent and – more importantly – the work ethic and attitude to become a professional writer.
So no. You don’t need a formal qualification to be a writer. But there are some qualifications that you definitely do need.
You need to be a human being. You need to be interested in other people and what makes them tick. People who aren’t curious don’t make writers.
You need to be observant. People who don’t look outwards don’t make writers – or at least, they make self-indulgent writers.
You need to read. Non-readers don’t make writers.
Thousands of people do Masters in Creative Writing now; it’s a huge industry. I wouldn’t advise someone not to do one, but nor would I say that mine was in any way life changing. I don’t even think it made me a better writer. If you’ve a year and a few thousand pounds to spare, and you’re realistic about what a Masters can offer you, go for it. Otherwise, don’t fret. Go to Arvon. Read books. Above all, write and live. Those are the qualifications you really need.