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. Of course, I can’t speak to all MFA programs, but in many cases, they focus almost exclusively on writing skills and don’t give writers the concrete skills they need to make money writing and publishing. 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 at 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 in both traditional publishing and self-publishing. There is often an assumption that if you’re in an MFA program, you’ll be seeking a traditional publishing deal. But most programs also don’t teach 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—contracts with designers who are working on your books, contracts with podcasts or magazines publishing excerpts of your work. In my MFA program, students who were publishing were left to talk with each other to try 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 to navigate these business interactions, to negotiate writing rates, and to understand what rights we may be signing away 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 considering the self-publishing route, learning how to understand current 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 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 business, open a business bank account, and file taxes appropriately for your writing work. As a self-published author, you also may need to keep records tracking orders and inventory.

Most authors are not 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 as 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 they will be.

Sassafras Lowrey writes fiction and nonfiction and was the recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Award for emerging LGBTQ writers.