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April 8, 2024
By Sassafras Lowrey
An MFA can teach you writing skills, but will the program prepare you for a writing career?
By 2018, I had written five books and decided to pursue an MFA in creative writing with a concentration in fiction. For me, earning an MFA gave me the time and space I needed to quit my day job and transition to writing full-time, but that was something I had been building toward for over a decade. I often found myself answering questions for my classmates about what publishing was really like. It simply wasn’t being taught, sometimes because faculty themselves were struggling with how to navigate writing as a business. An MFA program may be the right choice to help you become a better writer, or because you want the qualification to teach writing in a college. It may not give you insights into navigating the publishing landscape. Here are some of the professional development skills you may need to gain outside of the classroom on your writing journey. 

Getting Published

Many MFA programs don’t talk to authors about the good, the bad, and the ugly about both traditional publishing and self-publishing. There is a bit of a perspective that if you’re in an MFA program, you’ll be seeking a traditional publishing deal. But most programs also don’t give writers the skills to query small presses or agents who can query large presses. Even as self-publishing has become an increasingly popular publishing choice, many MFA programs aren’t giving students a clear picture of what it involves.


My MFA program was great, but never once during my studies did I hear anyone talk about how to read, negotiate, or understand a contract.  As an indie author, you’ll have fewer contracts to interact with than authors who choose to traditionally publish their work, but contracts will still come up. These may include contracts with designers who are working on your book. You may also be asked to sign contracts if podcasts or magazines publish excerpts of your work. Instead, those students who were publishing were left to talk with each other trying to understand how contracts work. Most writers aren’t legal experts, and we benefit from having either a private attorney or an attorney through an organization such as the Author’s Guild review our contracts. I would love to see MFA programs better prepare writers for how to navigate these business interactions, how to negotiate writing rates, and how to understand what rights we may be signing away to our work with a particular contract. 

Writing to Market

The culture of MFA programs often shames or diminishes the idea of writing to market, and instead prioritizes creating literary art for the sake of art. This is a completely valid way to approach your writing life. However, if your goal is to publish your work and sell books, understanding the market and how to write books that appeal to readers is important. There’s nothing wrong with writing books with mass-market appeal, but, depending on the program you attend, you may not hear that in classes. Especially for writers who think they may want to pursue self-publishing, learning how to understand current publishing trends and how to write books that connect to them is invaluable.


Writing is your passion, and seeing your name in print might be your dream, but when it happens, your writing also instantly becomes a business. Understanding how to manage a writing business is something that most new writers won’t have a lot of experience with. For example, when you get paid from book sales, speaking arrangements, or most anything to do with your books, taxes aren’t going to be withheld. Instead, you’ll need to put money aside to pay your taxes. MFA programs generally don’t cover these details or highlight the importance of hiring an accountant or tax professional to help you with setting up your writing business. You may need to form an LLC for your self-publishing writing business, open a business bank account, and, of course, file taxes appropriately for your writing work. As a self-published author, you also may need to keep records about book ordering and tracking inventory.
Most authors, traditionally published or self-published, are not likely going to be able to make a living from books alone. Many writers are balancing a variety of different content creation and income streams. This may include teaching at a college or university, for which a terminal degree such is an MFA is required, freelance writing, and independent teaching to name a few possibilities. The more writing programs can give MFA students the tools they need to understand the business side of their work, the more successful writers will be. In the meantime, if you’re pursuing an MFA, you’ll want to be prepared to learn the business of writing outside of school.
Sassafras Lowrey writes fiction and nonfiction and was the recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Award for emerging LGBTQ writers.