10 Things I Wish My BFA Writing Program Had Done

As the time for me to pursue a master’s degree approaches (and as I steadily consume and reconsume Gilmore Girl episodes), my thoughts turn to the BFA program I completed in college. It was a BFA in Creative Writing, supposedly one of only seven in the country. I enjoyed myself and my college years, but I left feeling vaguely dissatisfied. While my transcripts were heavy with a swollen GPA and a staggering amount of classes, my resume was shockingly thin. There had been no writing college or writing group, no internships or editorial forays, no jobs in the field, and no publications outside of my college’s semi-defunct literary magazine. I had no network of alumni to turn to and was woefully deficient in knowledge of writing magazines, literary journals, publishing houses, how to find freelance jobs, or how to query and approach agents and editors.

Since then, I’ve begun to fill the gaps in my knowledge through a steady consumption of magazines, journals, web sites, and books as well as a truly wonderful and widespread group of women’s writers. I feel stronger as a writer and more in-tune with opportunities, and I’m writing more than I ever have (except, perhaps, when I first discovered writing at age eight and would routinely sit at my little typewriter for hours at a time punching out stories of me and friends beating up and besting boys).

However, even as my confidence in my writerly self grows, my resentment towards my degree program deepens. While I may have had wonderful writing and literature professors, the program itself wasn’t really made to help turn me into a writer. We wrote very little and weren’t encouraged to build our own groups, have retreats, or be responsible for critiquing each other. Mostly, we filled our 60 credit hours of major work with three literature classes to every one writing, which resulted in some fairly in-depth understanding of Old English poems, Nordic sagas, and Jane Austen but not an actual portfolio or skill set.

Creative writing programs need not be that way, and there is always time to change and grow a program, especially if administrators are willing to listen. So, in the spirit of helping my alma mater and young writing students everywhere, I present 10 Things I Wish My BFA Writing Program Had Done.

  1. Skew the program more towards writing classes and less towards literature ones. While I am fully aware that reading and reading extensively is key for a writer’s development, the writing is still more important than reading — it has to be, if you’re going to have a portfolio. In college, many of us had inclinations and aspirations but no real discipline. We think that cranking out a story the night before is good enough, even if it’s riddled with plot holes and inconsistent characters. If classes were geared more towards writing, we would be forced to develop discipline and a regimen, which would only serve us well in the future (And there could easily be reading involved in the writing class such as writing John Gardner’s work or a specific article. This happens all the time. It’s not like we’re not going to be reading.).
  2. Give students daily and weekly writing assignments in addition to large, semester-long ones. In most of my classes, we were only required to write two or three pieces a semester. Of course, those pieces could be as long as we wanted, and some of us routinely brought in multiple chapters to workshop, but for many that meant they might go weeks at a time without producing anything (waiting for the aforementioned “night before” to get anything done). While it’s not necessarily reasonable to expect us to write a chapter a night (though NaNoWriMo expects just that), giving us frequent writing assignments would help us get out the 10,000 words of crap and get us in the habit of writing. We would also be working harder and faster and learn how to work on a deadline, which is an invaluable writing skill.
  3. Purchase subscriptions to writing magazines for us as part of our tuition. One of the banes of college is that it’s riddled with fees — lab fees, technology fees, computer fees, printing fees, health fees, parking fees, etc, etc — so adding a writing or reading fee wouldn’t be an unreasonable or undue expense, especially in relation to how much everything else costs. Students could be charged $100 a year (so $50 a semester) for a one-year subscription of three magazines. Departments could choose one as mandatory such as Poets & Writers or The Writer’s Chronicle and then let students choose the other two on their forms (perhaps dividing them into “genre magazines” and “literary journals”). If professors want to make sure students are utilizing these magazines, they could periodically do assignments on them like, “Write an editorial to an article; submit both the article and the editorial” or, “Submit a list of three contests you will enter. Submit the names of the contests, your query letters, and your work,” or “Write a story mimicking the style of another writer. Submit both your story and the original writer’s story.” Doing so would give students access to four years’ worth of magazines, which they might not be able to afford as a recent graduate, and it would boost magazines’ sales. It’s a win-win.
  4. Make internships and practicums a mandatory part of the degree program — and a readily-accessible one. Almost no one in my program did an internship while in college, and that was harmful for us, both in terms of us getting a job afterwards and figuring out what the writing community wanted from new employees. Now, this doesn’t mean that we all need to be flying over to New York to work at the Big Five or schlepping over to the local newspaper and demanding they let us cover the newest school dance. Instead, we should find online opportunities. Many web sites and blogs such as The Huffington Post and Salon are non-paying and start-up sites like 3 Elements are non-paying too. However, they all need writers and some need editors and off-site assistants. Recent graduates don’t have the time or luxury to take non-paying writing jobs but they need to build up their network and their portfolio. A great compromise would be for college students to do an internship or practicum at some site, contributing a weekly column, going through slush piles, or doing conference calls on how to improve the site. Students would be getting that network, that experience, that portfolio, and college credit while sites would be able to keep their overhead down and tap into the rising generation of writers. That’s another win-win right there.
  5. Focus and narrow the degree program. As you’ve been reading these suggestions, you might be thinking, ‘Okay, sure, these are decent ideas, but when will the students sleep?’ I admit that these suggestions will put quite a bit of responsibility on the students (and probably on the professors as well), but that’s why we need to start focusing our writing programs — and college programs in general. To graduate from my university, I needed 120 credit hours, which, if I wanted to graduate in four years, either meant 15 credit hours (5 classes) every semester or some summer courses. A full 60 of these hours were general education, which meant I had to take so many science, math, humanities, and elective classes. Now, I understand the importance of a rounded education and how many students don’t come to college knowing exactly what they want to major in, but that’s still an unconscionable amount of unfocused classes which would only detract from a student’s true goal. Writing programs should start fighting for their students to become unburdened by so many extraneous classes — that, or allow these general education classes to function as duel credit in their degree program. Scientific writing is fascinating and could lead to really interesting essays, as writer Mary Roach has shown. Every writing student has already graduated from high school, which is about providing a well-rounded, general education. Once in college and in the degree program, writing students should be able to focus on their career and their craft and get the most out of their experience.
  6. Create business, public relations, and advertising classes for students — and make them mandatory. One of the least talked about but most important aspects of a writer’s life is knowing how to approach agents and editors, handle contracts, build a self-publishing campaign, build your platform, and help sell your books. In fact, this is becoming increasingly more and more important, as publishing employees tell us repeatedly in interviews. However, writing students often get no real instruction on how to do these things and find themselves turning to the Internet to glean information. Periodic seminars and workshops on these sorts of things would be extremely helpful.
  7. Make learning editing and book design mandatory. Too often, writers think that they don’t have to edit — after all, that’s what an editor’s for. However, editors no longer have the time to shepherd every new writer (look at Stephanie Meyers and E.L. James’ book — such atrocious editing), and they won’t even look at a shoddily edited manuscript. Students should be learning the Chicago Manual of Style and editing each other’s manuscripts (which could have been workshopped in another class) as well as helping design the book. This would be helpful in getting freelance editing jobs and being able to self-publish your own book, which requires good editing and good design. It’s important that professors frame the class in this way as well, highlighting how important it is for the student. I had a freshman year class (which was waaay too early in the program) on editing that was pretty universally hated, even among the editor majors. We all had to edit a chapter of a professor’s book and hated it. Why not edit our peers’ work? Why not design book jackets for our own books? Getting to choose the book you edit (which is what editors do anyway) would help compell you to do a better job. That’s just common sense.
  8. Have agents and editors visit the college periodically. While most colleges offer some kind of reading programs for visiting poets and writers, very few seem capable of attracting agents and editors, which is a huge disservice to students. Agents and editors aren’t readily available just to answer email questions about the writing world and won’t mentor a writer that hasn’t sent them anything decent. Students would benefit from a series of different visiting agents and editors that could culminate in pitching their novels or collections, Q & As, and dinners.
  9. Make attending a writing conference mandatory — and make it affordable for students. There are so many amazing writing conferences, retreats, and fellowships out there that students don’t know about or think they can’t afford. However, if writing programs would partner with these programs, volunteering students and negotiating for scholarships, then students would be able to access them. Being able to use a portion of your financial aid for these things would be really helpful too. I mean, students are routinely leaving college with $50,000 in debt — what’s another $1000 for being able to actually attend a conference? I know that I would have done it, and I can name several dozen more who would have too. This is also something recent graduates can’t necessarily afford so it would be a great opportunity.
  10. Shift the focus towards getting published. Writing students want to be writers because they have something to say, some precious little story that needs to be told or demon that needs to be exorcised. However, we often consider these stories and characters too precious to subject to the brutish outside world and keep them to ourselves, either refusing to write them down or refusing to show them to anyone. We also focus too much on this one story and forget to plan for something afterwards, which doesn’t help agents or ourselves. If senior projects could go from “Write 10,000 words” to “Publish something,” a lot of the fear and obstinancy would go out of writers. We would also learn how both shockingly easy and shockingly hard it is to publish something, amassing a portfolio of query and rejection letters and a list of magazines, web sites, and publishers that rejected us. We would know how to research submissions and how to deal with them while still being part of a community of writers who are going through the same thing. Being able to walk into class and say, “Well, I got my 19th rejection letter today,” and having everyone else hold up their third or 12th or 82th letter too would be so helpful. We would also be able to cheer on those that actually did get accepted, learn from what they did, and keep them as a contact.

Making these changes to writing programs would go a long way towards making students into viable writers and sought-after members of the writing profession. Yes, it would be hard, but writing is hard, as any professional writer will tell you. It’s not as well paid as F. Scott Fitzgerald might have you believe, and it’s much more stressful than Ernest Hemingway claims. It’s lonely and isolating, and so many people stop doing it because they didn’t have a good enough foundation and weren’t mentally and professionally prepared for its reality. If writing programs could make these changes, really focus on the act of writing and publishing (and universities could easily transition students who want to stop being in the program and, hey, make themselves more affordable in the process), then the next generation of writers could be an unstoppable force of discipline, focus, intersectionality, and professionalism — which could only be a good thing.

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