Can Writers Get an MFA Experience Without the Expense of College?

In many ways, writers are lucky. Our community has many knowledgeable people to help us learn and grow so we can turn our writing into a sustainable career. One of the most generous and innovative people Becca and I know is Gabriela Pereira: an author, TEDx Speaker, past Resident Writing Coach here at Writers Helping Writers, and the creator of DIYMFA.

I asked Gabriela to swing by today and explain the DIYMFA concept because it truly is a great alternative to a MFA degree if college is out of reach right now due to the high cost and time commitment. So if you’ve been looking for a powerful path forward, please read on.

I remember the exact moment when DIY MFA started. I was sitting in graduation (for my traditional MFA, no less) when I had a crazy idea: What if you could DIY your MFA?

Like most writers who have “crazy ideas,” I needed to run home and write about it, immediately. At the time I had a small personal blog with a total of twelve followers (one of whom was my mother) so when I decided to write a blog post that crazy idea I’d had at graduation, I expected the post would simply evaporate into the ether, never to be heard from again.

But it didn’t.

When I woke up the next morning, I found dozens of comments on my blog and emails flooding my inbox. Apparently, my crazy idea had hit a nerve.

When I first dreamed up DIY MFA, my goal was to give writers a framework so they could recreate the traditional MFA experience without going back to school. It turns out that it’s fairly easy to DIY your MFA, if you follow a few simple steps.

1. Improve your process, not just your writing.

Most MFA programs focus on the workshop model: you write something, get feedback from peers and a teacher, then fix it. The problem is this approach assumes you are already good at getting words on the page. But what if the first draft—the raw material—is the problem? Aside from giving you a deadline, workshops don’t do much to help write those words in the first place.

This is where iteration is so important. Instead of just improving your craft why not work on improving your process as well? Just as tech startups beta-test a piece of software and adjust it as they get feedback from users, so too can you hone and improve your writing process.

Treat each writing session as a mini-experiment. Track of how long you wrote, and how many words you produced and also note other environmental variables, such as where you were and what time of day. Over time, you’ll start to notice patterns and you’ll see when and where you do your best writing. This way you can work on both the quality of what you write, and the quality of your writing process.

2. Read in a way that serves your writing.

Most writers are readers first, but how do you read without taking time away from your writing? This is where the DIY MFA approach to reading comes into play. When you read with purpose, you’re doing double-duty because you’re still reading but you’re doing it in a way that fuels your writing.

This begins with choosing the right books.

There are four main categories of books that support your writing. I call these the Four C’s and they are: competitive books (i.e. comps), contextual books, contemporary books, and the classics.

Competitive books are ones that most directly “compete” with your current project. You want to be aware of these comps as you write your book, and they’ll also come in handy when you pitch to agents or build your platform later on. Contextual books include anything that informs or lends context to your work-in-progress. This includes books you read for research, as well as books with similar themes to your own.

Contemporary books help you keep your finger on the pulse of what’s current in your genre or niche and classics give you a window into which books have staying power. Keep in mind that “classic” doesn’t necessarily mean old, and you can view a relatively recent book as a classic if it sheds a new light on that genre or niche.

3. Build a circle of trust.

Writing is a lonely business. We often spend more times talking to imaginary characters in our heads than we do interacting with real people. Yet if we’re going to survive and thrive as writers, we need to assemble what I like to call a “Circle of Trust.” This is a support network of real humans who help us grow as writers. Websites like Writers Helping Writers are a great place to find potential members for your circle of trust.

As you create your support network, make sure you have at least one person who fulfills each of the following four categories. These essential categories are: critique, accountability, support, and advice. While some people will overlap with more than one category, it is rare to find one person who will fulfill all four.

The beauty of a writer’s education is that it’s a lifelong journey. I interview writers on the DIY MFA podcast are well-established mega-bestsellers and they still strive to improve their craft and challenge themselves. As writers, there is always room for us to learn and grow.

Which of these techniques are you excited to put into action first? Let me know in the comments!


Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Critiquing & Critiques, Experiments, Focus, Guest Post, Motivational, Publishing and Self Publishing, Reading, The Business of Writing, Time Management, Uncategorized, Writer's Attitude, Writing Craft, Writing Groups, Writing Resources, Writing Time. Bookmark the permalink.
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Ingmar Albizu
2 years ago

Great article, Gabriela.
I am still trying to find ‘my circle of trust’.
Perhaps I read too much but I love reading. The problem is when you spend too much time doing “research” and your work in progress lags.

Gabriela Pereira
2 years ago
Reply to  Ingmar Albizu

So glad you enjoyed it, Ingmar! The circle of trust can be a tricky one, but I find that local writing events can be a great way to do it. Writing conferences are another great place to meet fellow writers.

Also, you’re totally right that research can get in the way of the writing, so what I often do is make notes to myself as I write of things I’ll research later. That way I can keep my writing momentum going, but I can come back and fill in the research afterwards.

Traci Kenworth
2 years ago

This is what I’ve been doing. Learning as much as I can of the craft by doing, studying, and reading.

Gabriela Pereira
2 years ago
Reply to  Traci Kenworth

Love it, Traci! Craft is definitely something we learn by doing, but the reading is also so much fun!

2 years ago

My process, then the reading. Enjoyed reading this article

Gabriela Pereira
2 years ago
Reply to  Lisa

So glad you liked it, Lisa!

Rachel Leigh Smith
2 years ago

I’m actually playing with my process right now. Which is mostly experimenting with a return to writing largely by hand. My day job is 100% keyboard work and by the time it’s over, I’m tired of being at my computer.

My most prolific period was when I was wrote entirely by hand, all the time, and went through ballpoint pens like crazy. I’m now a fountain pen addict. When I write with them, on a novel, it’s like I’m connected to all the great writers who have gone before me and wrote amazing books with similar tools.

So far it’s working out very well. My muse is happy, my hands feel better, and I’m not at my computer for too long every day.

Gabriela Pereira
2 years ago

OMG Rachel, I think we’re of the same mind! I love writing with fountain pens because it feels like I’m channeling my inner Jane Austen. 🙂 Love how you’re using iteration to find the writing tools that work best for you!