February 27th, 2017

Nicola Hill: Choosing an MA in Creative Writing – from self-doubt to elation in 5,000 not so easy steps

I have started writing three novels but each time crashed into a barrier of self-doubt around the 20,000-word mark. Even though three of my non-fiction books have been published, fiction seems much more personal. It’s a bigger risk to show it to anyone. As long as you keep it to yourself, you can harbour the fantasy of one day being a bestselling, prize winning author. But of course, that day will never come unless you expose yourself to feedback.

You can test an idea for non-fiction by sending some sample chapters and a synopsis to publishers. With a novel, you need to have a polished product of around 70-80,000 words, so I was stuck – do I carry on regardless? Do I seek feedback? Do I give up?

In order to test whether my ideas are worth pursuing, I decided to apply for an MA in Creative Writing. There is still time to apply for some MA courses, although some will have filled all their places for this September’s intake, so plan for 2018 if you aren’t ready to apply yet – take your time to perfect you writing sample. In terms of finances, you can take out a student loan or apply for scholarships – the cost is around £7,000 a year, which is spread over two years if you take it part-time.

To apply, you usually have to send in a 5,000 word sample of your writing, contact details of referees and a supporting statement. This should outline your plans as a creative writer, how your ideas fit in with contemporary fiction and how your past experience and skills will help you study for an MA. It’s a good way of taking yourself seriously and seeing if anyone else will. Deep breaths, take the plunge and don’t tell too many people you are doing it . . . until you get an offer.

There are nearly 200 MA courses in the UK  to choose from – the National Association of Writers in Education has a useful list – if you refine your search to MAs.


You can choose variations on creative writing such as life writing, scriptwriting, poetry, performance writing and even song writing. Look really carefully at the course options – do you want to focus on novel writing or combine it with other aspects? Is it more about the craft of writing or studying contemporary fiction?

Many of the courses are based on a formula of writing workshops where you read each other’s work closely, in advance and critique it in a tutor-led three-hour weekly session. This will be complemented with one-to-one tutorials and lectures on specific topics such as character development and plot. On top of this, the courses attract guest speakers, such as famous writers, publishers and agents to inspire you to become published authors. City University focuses solely on writing a novel and helps you to complete it. Others assess you through samples of writing and essays.

You can also choose to take most courses part-time or full time. I was encouraged to apply for part-time so that you can absorb the course and have more time for reading.

Research the tutors – what have they published? Do you like their work? Many of them have their own websites – do you like their approach, genre etc? Consider the format of teaching – is it weekly or intensive weeks away, evening or day time?  Check out the success of alumni – what have they published? Look at league tables but make sure you are making a personal choice to suit your needs.

League tables




Try to attend open days and get feedback from current students or alumni.  At the University of East Anglia’s (UEA) Open Evening, the tutors said they look at your writing sample first. Unless they can see potential, they don’t bother to read your statement or read your references. If you reach the interview stage, they look  for seriousness, determination and an openness to learning.

I applied to Goldsmiths, Birkbeck, City and UEA. I live in London so the first three were much more convenient but as UEA has a prestigious reputation I took a punt.  I also considered Bath Spa and Birmingham, which score well on league tables.  Kingston, Royal Holloway and the Open University were on my reserve list, if I didn’t get offers from my first choices.

I refused to apply to Oxford as they charged £75. I challenged them about this and they said it was how they covered some of the cost of the application process. None of the other universities on my list charged an application fee. If Oxford wants to preserve its dreaming spires for people who can afford to take that risk, so be it.

I was offered  interviews at Goldsmiths and Birkbeck. City offered a chat about my second choice of creative writing (non-fiction) and UEA said I had potential and suggested applying again next year with a different writing sample.

I went for the interview at Goldsmiths and was asked about my writing sample, my ambitions as a writer, what I liked to read and how I gave and took feedback. I had read some of the interviewer’s work, so gave feedback on that – a top tip from my lovely agent, Isabel Atherton, director of Creative Authors.

About a week later I received an offer of a place on the Creative and Life Writing course – I was absolutely thrilled. I considered very carefully taking up the offers of interviews/chats at City and Birkbeck but decided to accept the offer at Goldsmiths for a variety of reasons. It combines creative and life writing. Maura Dooley, the tutor who interviewed me, was very supportive and encouraging. I have heard great reviews of the course and the university, in general, from current students and alumni. One of the senior tutors, Francis Spufford, recently won the 2016 Costa First Novel award, aged 52 – now that’s inspiring! I can’t wait to start the course at Goldsmiths in September 2017.

The feedback from the four universities has given me a tremendous boost and inspired me to take my writing and reading more seriously. In preparation for the course, I have set myself a target of writing and editing every day as well as keeping a reading journal. I also enter short story competitions, watch tutorial videos on the Writers’ Workshop website and read books about the craft of writing.

Thanks very much to Isabel for encouraging me to apply, writing references and thoroughly endorsing her alma mater, Goldsmiths.

About Nicola

Nicola Hill is the author of THE PINK GUIDE TO GAY ADOPTION (BAFF May 2009). She is a co-founder of gay-friendly-wedding-venues.com, an award winning website that helps gay men and lesbians plan their big day.

A former Guardian journalist and graduate of the London School of Economics, Nicola has worked for a number of charities in fundraising and publications departments and runs a freelance editorial service. She lives with her partner, Laura McCaffrey, and her two children in north London.

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“Isabel Atherton helped me find the best place for my first picture book – the award winning ‘The Only Child.’ She is not only a experienced and professional book agent, but also a trusted friend, who guides like a friend and shares ideas. The process of book publishing with Isabel was a really sweet and smooth journey for me.”

Guojing, Creative Authors Client.