More Soapboxing about Cash

Lots of discussion flying about via facebook, email and in the comments form of the latest Tips for Writers post I did about money and getting paid.

I guessed it would be an emotive issue – especially as most of us don’t get that much of it – and it is something I wish MAs in Creative Writing would cover more realistically and thoroughly. While many MA tutors do a brilliant job of managing the expectations of their students, to my knowledge, not many courses include seminars or modules specifically geared towards what exactly you’re supposed to do for money when you graduate. Employability in the arts is the official name for it, isn’t it?

Creative writing students need information about applying for ‘time to write’ and project funding, setting up live literature nights, small press magazines, making money from blogging, teaching and editing, because this is where so many writers are currently working without knowing their worth. They need information about self employment, about tax, about how to plan their continuing development as writers and as literature professionals. A post graduate qualification in writing should include education about what to ask for in return for unpaid volunteer posts and internships and training in creating a strategy for managing your own career. Rather than just telling us to get an agent, they should be examining the options around self publication in electronic and print formats – which are real options for many writers. Or at the very least they should signpost their students via the careers service to the very good literature development organisations that provide these services and information for writers (see links in the sidebar for the organisations I rate).

It is so important and, in my experience, skimmed over in terms that are not applicable to every writer (get an agent, don’t pay someone to publish your novel) because the great dirty secret of creative writing courses is that unlike professional qualifications in, say, nursing, teaching, law, information management and IT, most of the graduates won’t end up making a living in the field. In a class full of accountants, most of them end up getting paid to be accountants after they graduate. Is that true of creative writing MAs? A university can’t guarantee publication, or promise that publication will create an income stream decent enough to live on, but they can train their students in making themselves as entrepreneurial as possible.

Most of the stuff I know about making a living, I picked up from making mistakes, flailing around, and picking the brains of people who were where I wanted to be.

Maybe I am wrong. It’s been a while since I did my MA (which I certainly don’t regret but which – and this is important – I got a full and generous fees and maintenance grant for from the AHRC so I wasn’t starting my writing career in debt) and I haven’t researched the offerings of every single creative writing course in the world. I know there are a few of you recent and current students reading this, so chip in any time. I am interested to know what others’ experiences are.

13 responses to “More Soapboxing about Cash”

  1. Sian says:

    Even for those who do get agents there’s a long wait before anything more happens and there needs to be another plan. It was a few years after my MA before I started making money as a writer. I have an agent and the novel is out on submission, but it took a while to realise that my writing skill is also valuable in other ways and there was no point treading water in jobs I hated while I was waiting for the book deal and some kind of attendant slew of new career options. Pretty thick of me, but wish someone on the MA had pointed these things out!

  2. There issues weren’t really touched upon when I did the MA – apart from when you came and did the guest lecture, Jenn! I think that they’d do well to replace some of the lit classes with career-development sessions that focus on more than agents and cover letters (and we had little enough of that. too). Most of the practical elements, including submissions and querying agents, were covered by guest speakers, not built-in to the curriculum. There was an internship option (we were the first year to get that) but it was sloppy; mine got cancelled before it began, for instance.

    I think there’s still an assumption, even at MA level, that writing is a hobby, that many or most of the students won’t persevere beyond the length of the course itself, that studying writing is an expensive indulgence rather than a career move – there’s little sense of professional development, like you’d get on a finance, plumbing, or hair-dressing course. Also, the AHRC funding structure changed last year, meaning that there was no financial aid available for anyone on my MA. Because, of coursem why would we need help? It’s not a ‘real career’, after all. Not like, say, history or theology. Grr, rant.

  3. AliB says:

    Just an aside – according to a report last week the graduates finding it hardest to get jobs are those doing IT! Of course these are probably first degrees, but maybe there’s hope for writers after all …
    AliB

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  5. leila says:

    Really interesting post, this. I did an MA in Writing some years ago, and now tutor on it. There was hardly any information about making a living as a writer when I did it, but there is more now. It isn’t built into the course, however.
    I think one assumption is that students will go on to use their MA in CW to do something like go into publishing, or librarianship, or something else bookish, rather than try to become a writer. And that the focus of the course *should* be purely on writing, because many students are mature students who already have a job, and want to concentrate on their writing for a year. But certainly there’s a lot of ignorance about the realities of working as a writer. One student asked me about the possibility of getting work as a literary reviewer after doing the course, for example.

  6. Argh! I’m going to stick my oar in as an untrained, non-MA writer… I gave up my rubbish job washing plates in a school kitchen to have a good old crack at what I really wanted to do – concentrate on my novel and write short stories, and I justified it to myself on the grounds that as I was earning next-to-nothing anyway, surely it couldn’t be that hard to earn at least the same?
    Well, you all know the answer. And feel free to laugh at the fool! But another of the hardest things to contend with is the fact that everyone, and I mean everyone I know, considers writing to be, as Valerie says, ‘a hobby’. So even though I’m working my socks off, because I’ve earned nothing (apart from the princely sum of $3)I am a work-shy layabout.
    I’m not scribbling this down for sympathy, just to agree with Jenn’s remarks while having a nice break from perusing the job centre’s online pages.
    Ho hum…

  7. …and I just remembered something else! While dealing with another ‘aye-up lass, not working any more?’ enquiry from one of my neighbours, I decided to shut him up by pointing out I’d had a few stories published here and there.

    ‘How much do you get paid for a story?’ He asked.
    ‘Nothing.’
    ‘Well that’s rubbish,’ he said, this adding to his conclusion that I’m obviously soft in the head. ‘No way I’d ever work for nowt.’

  8. @Sian that’s true. A Kind of Intimacy took a year to find a publisher after I’d found an agent, and that wasn’t what I expected at all. While I was working full time as a librarian, something I really enjoyed, when I left that to write and go freelance, I had no idea at all what I was doing, and no sense until several years after I finished my MA that being able to write well was a really transferable (and floggable) skill…

    What other kinds of writing work are you doing (if you don’t mind saying?)

    @Valerie I wonder if you’d remember my guest lecture. MAs getting working writers in to teach, plan and speak on MAs is the key, I think. Although generally, it depends on what the uni thinks an MA is for. Back in the day when you could apply direct to the AHRC for CW MA funding, you had to choose a ‘vocational’ or an ‘academic’ form – the confusion over what, exactly, they are preparing you to do, remains, I think.

    @AliB I didn’t know that… I wonder why that is? Perhaps there are too many of them?

    @leila yes, I agree – the focus should totally be on writing better. But I still think a ‘career and money module’ would be a brilliant idea – even if most of the graduates will go into booky jobs(I went and chartered as a librarian) learning to transfer their skills will still be important to them.

    I CANNOT BELIEVE I wrote ‘transferable skills’ on my blog. My Own Blog.

    Cheesy Peeps!

    @Sam you’re certainly not a fool and your neighbour is very wise. It’s a sad fact though, that many things that are worthwhile don’t make money. Being able to sell things is a different skill, I think. And you don’t have to get the MA to be a writer. I bet most good writers don’t have one.

  9. Sian says:

    I’m doing (for money) some educational case studies, copywriting and blogging, and (not yet for money) reviewing and feature writing. I also heard the ‘hobby’ thing the other week. All I can say is it’s one expensive, hardcore hobby! 🙂

  10. Danielle says:

    Thank you for such an interesting blog post. I am in the final year of an English and Creative Writing Degree and i’m thinking about doing a masters
    x

  11. Leila says:

    Jenn, I’m going to drop you an email about librarianship, if I can find your email on this blog!
    Leila

  12. @sian I keep comming up against this idea of writing being a hobby – I’m writing a guest post all about it so I won’t go into more detail here, but it’s certainly irritating.

    @Danielle no problem. I think the thing to bear in mind as you look for a MA is to be very clear about what you want to get out of it – and if you want to publish and work as a writer, improving your own writing practice as far as you can is the first step, but also important is learning as much as you can about the buisness of writing. MA courses, as far as I can see, are sometimes good at helping you with the first and rarely good at offering you the second.

    @Leila jenn dot ashworth at gmail dot com, via facebook or through the comments page on this website (link in the footer)

  13. Neil says:

    I am a professional writer – freelance magazine articles, writing for big businesses, etc – and make a nice living out of it, thanks very much. I’ve done this for 20 years.

    I also write short stories, several of which have been published, none of which I’ve been paid for. I don’t have an MA, but I did study creative writing at university for two years as a mature student – this was maybe five years ago.

    I was quite surprised that only one of my course mates had given any thought to how one might actually make a living from writing. They either had well-off spouses, so didn’t need to work anyway, or couldn’t think beyond trying to get an agent.

    If you can write well, there are endless ways of making money. I’m not in a position where I could ever make as much money from novels and short stories as I do from journalism and copywriting, but I don’t see that as a problem.

    I am a writer, so I write. Some of my writing pays very well, some of it doesn’t pay at all. Doesn’t mean that the stuff that pays no money is worth less, or is a “hobby”.

    @Sam, I disagree with what @Jenn says about your neighbour. He does not sound “very wise”; he sounds like an idiot. Let him carp over the garden fence – you are trying to be creative, and doing something that has real meaning for you. What better way to spend your time?

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