Writing 101: What I learned in an MFA Writing Program

Writing 101: What I learned in an MFA Writing Program

Posted on September 29 by Elle Wild
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Recently I attended a book signing event with Crime Writers of Canada, and someone in the audience asked the group, “Do you need to do a formal writing program to learn to write?”

This is something I’ve wrestled with myself, so I was curious to see how other authors would respond. The CWC novelists generally agreed that the best way to learn to write is to do lots of reading. The majority of the authors at the event had not studied writing formally, and came from varied backgrounds, with a great degree of success.  The only thing this diverse group of authors had in common was that they all began their careers as voracious readers.

That said, I learned a lot during my two years in the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia. I left my program before I had completed the degree because it was a five-year program, and that felt decidedly too long and too expensive to me, especially once my son was born and I was caring for him full-time. I had to make a choice – and I have never regretted that choice. Still, even without the framed certificate on my wall, I feel the time spent in a writing program was worth every penny. Why?

Here are my top five things you will learn in a writing program:


  1. You learn to trust your reader

You know how when you’re writing, sometimes you think, “maybe this isn’t quite working?” and then you convince yourself, “Bah… no one will notice!” You’re wrong. When one reader tells you something isn’t working, you might still be tempted to ignore it. When you’re in a class of twenty people and several people pounce on this same thing, you can’t ignore your reader. You learn that the reader is always right.


  1. You learn from experienced mentors

In a good writing program, you are gifted with an award-winning novelist to mentor you. Not only will they provide insightful feedback on your manuscript but, if you are lucky, they will also pass along useful writing tips. I had the good fortune of working with Giller-nominated author Gail Anderson-Dargatz (Cure for Death by Lightning, The Spawning Grounds) who passed along advice that she had picked up from (if memory serves correctly) Canadian novelist Timothy Findley. I still think about these suggestions when I am writing.


  1. You learn to be a better self-editor

When you start writing, you think there might be a fairy-godmother-of-an-editor out there who will come along behind you, wave a wand, and clean up your messy bits. When you start sharing work with other writers at a certain level, you realize that these writers have learned to tidy up after themselves. (Editors don’t want to work with writers who haven’t themselves learned the basics of editing: that’s just too much work for them.) Other writers in a good writing program will call you on any laziness: flagging any repetitive diction, excessive use of adjectives, tired comparisons, run-on sentences, and so forth. You learn not to be lazy. It hurts, yes – but no pain, no gain.


  1. You will find other writers who share your taste

This is important. (I didn’t realize at the time how important this would be.) I found myself a trusted reader in my class who I knew was an excellent writer. We worked well together as feedback partners. Since leaving the program, we have continued to share work with one another. This helps immensely, and I honestly don’t know what I would do without my colleagues.


  1. You gain confidence

In a formal program, you very quickly figure out what will fly and what won’t among your peers, so you grow as a writer in a short time. You gain confidence, which is something you need to take risks, whether it’s trying something different on the page or putting yourself out there in the world and entering writing contests.


Can you learn to be a better writer outside of a formal writing program? Absolutely! It just might take you a little longer. I loved my program. Perhaps one day I’ll return to finish my Masters. In the meantime, I’ll whittle away on my second book.

Elle Wild

Posted by Kendra on June 16, 2015
Elle Wild photo

Elle Wild

Elle Wild grew up in a dark, rambling farmhouse in the wilds of Canada where there was nothing to do but read Edgar Allan Poe and watch PBS mysteries. She is an award-winning short filmmaker and the former host of Wide Awake on CBC Radio One. Her debut novel, Strange Things Done, won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel. Wild lives on an island in the Salish Sea.