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Cheap, Distance Learning Alternatives to an MFA in Creative Writing

05/11/2015 04:11 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2016

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I've known for the past year of so that I would have a special opportunity coming up in my life. Namely, time away from work to do something for myself. I'm in the business of teaching, and it can be very challenging and draining, to say the least. That is, if you're doing things right. Given this fact, sabbaticals are often needed. I'm also moving between countries, getting married, and changing employers. To make this long story a bit shorter, I'm going to have a couple years off and a little money in my pocket. What to do?

I began writing when I was in high school. I wasn't very good then, and still lack talent in the eyes of many. However, my local newspaper began publishing my work and a writer was born. I'm self-taught, you might say. As trendy as that notion is these days, I've also longed for more formal education in creative writing. This combined with the special opportunity described above seemed to suggest the time was ripe to pursue an MFA.

I'm not doing an MFA though. I've decided against it for a few reasons - the oversupply of MFAs, the prohibitive cost (averaging around 40K), and the looming question of "what do you do with an MFA?" I'm not exactly going to study medicine mind you, I've decided to pursue a graduate degree in liberal arts at Johns Hopkins. This on top of the three degrees I already have. I guess I will be grappling with the question of "what do you do with an MLA instead?" But I digress. So it goes.

When digging around for creative writing programs, I came across some very interesting alternatives for those who don't want to shell out that fat forty for an American Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. The alternatives I suggest here are all distance learning or online programs. The reason is that there is no geographical restriction, which keeps the costs down on top of the savings in the tuition. Additionally, none of these programs have any silly residency requirements. What's the point of going to a campus for two weeks a year? Seriously? That's just added cost.

So, if you just want to learn the craft of good writing in a formalized setting, and aren't afraid of the virtual world, here's my top picks:

1) The Writer's Studio at Simon Fraser University (Canada). This unique program has been running for years in the on-ground format. It has even won awards. The in-person Skype sessions with your genre group might be a concern depending on your time zone. Otherwise, this program is a top pick for only $5000 Canadian dollars or just over $4000 US. If successful, you will exit with a Simon Fraser Certificate in Creative Writing. Unlike many universities, Simon Fraser allows you full alumni privileges from this certificate program. Simon Fraser is one of Canada's top universities.

2) The MSc in Creative Writing from The University of Edinburgh (United Kingdom). This program is a full degree program and, in the true Scottish tradition, awards a Master of Science degree (Master of Arts are normally awarded at the undergraduate level in Scotland). This program is a part-time program spread over three years. What I like most about this program is that it has a heavy literature component, as well as the standard creative practice elements. There will still be some face-to-face time, but they insist that they accommodate time zones as needed. The entire degree is about 12,000 British pounds or just under $10,000 US dollars. And, remember, The University of Edinburgh is one of the top 50 universities in the world. Not a bad deal, huh? To boot, UK universities rarely charge application fees, you can apply up to a week before courses begin, and admission decisions are usually delivered within a few days! Compare that to the mess in the United States. Oh, and you can also upload your transcripts directly to them yourself. Talk about convenient. The only thing I don't like is that there is no full-time option. You will need to commit to the three year plan.

3) The Post-Graduate Diploma in Creative Writing from the University of York (United Kingdom). Not quite a full degree, but more than a typical US-based certificate program. This post-graduate diploma is also a part-time program and is spread across two years of study. No face-to-face time required, everything can be done at your pace and convenience. You can pick a genre, but will also be exposed to, and required to work in, other genres also - something you will be thankful for down the road I expect. This program is $4,830 pounds spread over the two years. Total US cost - about $7,400.

4) The Master of Letters in Creative Writing from The University of Glasgow (United Kingdom). That's right, a Master of Letters! You don't see that too often in the United States. The Master of Letters is awarded on its own merit in Scotland, and is not a sub-phd qualification. Awarded by a select few ancient English and Scottish universities, this degree will stand out more than an MFA anyhow! The program looks solid and is from a well-regarded university. This program can also be completed in just one year if you are willing to study (and write) full-time. It can also be taken part-time. The total cost is 14,500 British pounds, or around $22,000 US dollars. Still an excellent deal when compared to US MFAs.

5) Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing from Humber College (Canada). This program awards an Ontario Graduate Certificate. More suited to writers with a working manuscript, this program will hook you up with some of Canada's best writers and mentor you through completion of your book. It's all carried out by one-on-one tutoring via phone, skype, and/or email. The total cost is about $3200 Canadian dollars or just under $3000 US dollars.

6) The Writing Certificate from Stanford University (USA). Yes, there is one US-based program on my list. I think this program looks very promising for a fiction writer with a solid manuscript underway. And heck, you get the Stanford name on your certificate. Like the Humber program, this is primarily a tutorship program. You will also take some basic courses as well. You will work through the program with a specific cohort of colleagues (like the Simon Fraser certificate). This is beneficial in building a writing community. I think this is an ideal program for someone who has been toying around with a novel for a while, but just cannot get it done on their own. The certificate costs a total of just over $8000 US dollars. Not cheap for a certificate, but it is Stanford, and you will have access to regular Stanford faculty throughout the program.

There you have it! Six alternatives to an MFA for you aspiring writers out there. Now, let me be clear. I am not suggesting that an MFA is a waste of time and money, or that they are useless degrees or anything of the sort. I am a huge proponent of education for education's sake. Learn because you want to learn; learn what you want to learn. Don't fall into the neo-liberal trap of thinking that university is only for vocational training. Job skills are still largely learned on the job. Get a real education and don't be afraid to study things like writing and classic books - humans have been doing it for millennia and will continue to do so, regardless of what your high school guidance counselor tells you!

I only highlight these programs because a full blown MFA in creative writing may not be for everyone. It takes serious time and commitment and some people may be happy with a program like Simon Fraser's Writers Studio instead. Finally, some people just don't have the money and taking on student debt for any degree (other than perhaps medicine) is a very risky business these days. In that case, the MSc from the University of Edinburgh might be on par with an MFA and be something that you can afford out of pocket more easily. Ultimately, the decision is yours. I hope these ideas simply provide food for thought - or, um, writing.

Michael Ernest Sweet is a Canadian award-winning educator, writer and photographer. See more of his blog posts through his website at MichaelSweetPhotography.com.