Three Things You Won’t Learn in an MFA Program

But you need to know them, if you want to be a writer.

Shaunta Grimes
Nov 30 · 4 min read

A couple of weeks ago I got a padded manilla envelope in the mail. It took a while, but my graduate school finally sent my actual Master of Fine Arts diploma to me.

A pretty document to frame, I suppose, and hang on my office wall.

It says that I received an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. It represents four semesters of work during which I read 250 books and wrote two middle grade novels.

It was a low residency program, so I went to school for eight days at the start of each semester and took intensive classes in subjects like writing for television and creative theory and pedagogy and writing picture books.

There are a few things though, that I didn’t learn in graduate school.

There wasn’t a single course offered in the business of writing. I suppose on some level that makes sense — this was a Master of Fine Arts program after all. I was there to learn the art of writing.

It’s interesting to me that an MFA teaches you how to write, but not necessarily how to be a writer.

Here are the three things that I didn’t learn in graduate school — but that I think are just as important as the art if you want to make a living as writer.

Making a living as a writer is possible, but not necessarily straightforward.

It is possible to earn a living as a writer. But the least likely path to that goal is writing a single breakout novel that earns you an advance that you can live off of while you write your next well-received novel.

Does that ever happen? Sure. But it’s rare. Exceedingly so.

And if you put all of your eggs in that basket, you run the risk of writing one book that maybe takes you years to finish and if it doesn’t fulfill your writing goals, then you decide you’re a failure and quit.

Making a living as a writer is almost never as straightforward as writing a single book that sells to a big publisher for a big advance and makes you enough money to live on.

It’s possible to earn a living as a writer, you’re just going to have to come at it differently.

Maybe you freelance. Maybe you indie publish. Maybe you teach. Maybe you blog. Maybe you ghostwrite or write copy or work for your local newspaper. And maybe, sometimes, you have a book advance, too.

Cobble together a few income streams that eventually become your life as a writer.

Writing is a very, very long game.

But writing is different. This isn’t the kind of work where a degree even remotely guarantees you work.

Art is subjective. And what you learn in graduate school is pretty much just the basics of how to go on and keep learning on your own. You might finish one or, if you’re real prolific, two projects during your program. It might take ten manuscripts before you write one that’s publishable.

Are you prepared for that?

That’s a question that no one ever asked me during my MFA program. So I’m asking you now. You’re the only one who knows the answer.

Writing is a long game that involves continued work and continued learning — you have to keep writing and make sure you improve with every effort. If you do that, chances are good that you’ll get somewhere.

You don’t get to know where that somewhere is until you arrive.

Are you prepared for that?

If you’re a writer, you’re a marketer.

I get it. Marketing sucks. Most writers hate it. We’d all rather just write and let our work speak for itself. If it’s good, people will find it and read it. If they don’t, then it wasn’t good enough.

But it doesn’t work that way.

Even traditionally published writers — those of us whose books are put out by publishing houses — are responsible for marketing our work if we want it to find its readers.

That’s the reality of being a writer today. And it’s not something I learned in my MFA program.

If you’re a writer, you’re a marketer. The sooner you can wrap your head around that, the better. Start building an email list. Get comfortable talking about your work. Start a blog — it’s the best way to be able to publish more frequently. Seek out opportunities to get in front of readers.

No one is ever going to care about your work as much as you do. It’s your job to spread the word.


Here’s my secret weapon for sticking with whatever your thing is.

Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter and Instagram and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation, and The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.

The Write Brain

Posts about productivity, business, and systems for right-brained creatives. Ideas aren’t enough. We actually have to do the things!

Shaunta Grimes

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Learn. Write. Repeat. Visit me at ninjawriters.org. Reach me at shauntagrimes@gmail.com. (My posts may contain affiliate links!)

The Write Brain

Posts about productivity, business, and systems for right-brained creatives. Ideas aren’t enough. We actually have to do the things!

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