Building an Author’s Platform | Getting a Writing Degree

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book editor Adina PortmanAdina Portman

What do publishers and agents mean when they talk about an author’s “platform?” Do I need to have one to get published?

What they generally mean by a “platform” is the subject matter the author writes about and the angle from which the author writes. It can be a political platform or an expertise, for example, or it can be an aspect of the writer’s identity, such as religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.

I recently spoke with a group of writers about this very topic. Zaina (who asked that I only use her first name), shared that, “Being Arab-American has certainly informed my writing; I first started writing journalistically about Middle East politics, and then culture. I’ve always felt that my ethnic duality gives me the ability to speak to both Western and Eastern audiences. As a creative writer, I’ve resisted the platform somewhat, because often editors want stories that are stereotypically Arab—they want to hear about Arab women’s subjugation, violence, oppression… It seems they’re asking me to essentially perpetuate the Otherness… I think of my work as subversive—I want someone to read a story I’ve written, one that could be about anything, and that, in the process/as a byproduct, normalizes Arabs, demystifies them, and breaks the mental association of Arabs and terrorism and religious fundamentalism.”

Rachel Yoder, another writer in the group, spoke about struggling whether to write about her Mennonite background. “My thesis director always wanted me to ‘write about being Mennonite,’ but the idea of a Mennonite short story struck me as a horrible, incredibly boring idea. In my 20s, I was trying to get away from that identity, and I didn’t really have anything to say about it. There were other experiences then that felt more pressing… Once I started writing some nonfiction, memoir in particular, I began exploring my Mennonite background and got really positive reactions from professors and the literary establishment. I kind of resented this: if I wrote about what felt emotionally immediate, like relationships or family, the reception was lukewarm, but give them something about the Mennonites, which felt like a cop-out to me, and everyone loved it. I’ll admit I used [my Mennonite background], most notably to get into a grad program, even though I really didn’t want to write about being Mennonite. But I knew it would make me a more desirable candidate, which both pleased and angered me. Now I’m exploring short stories that incorporate Mennonite characters. These stories aren’t all that different from my old, non-Mennonite stories, but I do think they’ll be more publishable because they have an angle, so to speak. I’m not happy about it, but it’s part of the literary game. And it does feel like a game sometimes… I don’t want to be ‘The Mennonite Writer’ but it seems inevitable to some extent.”

Ask yourself whether you want to be categorized and what that categorization might mean for you. One benefit of a platform is that your intended readers can find you more easily. A label of some kind can mean more readers for you, and higher book sales for your publisher. So, the impulse to categorize oneself is understandable. If your message is particular to what sets you apart from the majority, it can sometimes help you get published. But some authors feel uncomfortable with this classification. There may be pressure to only write about what people say makes you “different.” My advice would be to write about what you want to write about. Write about what excites you and your readership will follow. Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re writing from a platform, and then there it is right under our feet.

I’m considering getting an MFA in writing. Should I go for it? As a writer, does it help to have a degree?

As with most degrees, it can only be what you ultimately make of it. There are many successful literary figures who have not earned an MFA, and many folks who’ve earned an MFA haven’t “used” it in a professional way. The value of an MFA isn’t always the degree—it is the day-to-day work of writing and critiquing, and the relationships you form, that ultimately matter. Being in a workshop with writers who respect you and understand your goals is one of the most valuable ways to grow as a writer. In a perfect world, you would be surrounded by fellow writers who know when to challenge you and when to encourage you. You would work with professors who have your career’s best interest in mind, who have the time and energy to work one-on-one with you. An MFA program can open up the literary world to you in a way that few experiences can. You are introduced to a network of writers you can learn from, you may become more aware of publishers and magazines where you can submit your work, and you might get a better sense of the kind of writer you would like to be. That being said, an MFA is not necessary if you want to be a writer. What’s necessary is that you read and write.

I have not earned an MFA, and I don’t plan to. I enjoy my career and I wouldn’t want to step away from it to return to school. If an MFA feels like the most appropriate next step in your career, and your life has room for it, I would say go for it. But not just any MFA. Apply where your favorite writers teach. Apply where you would enjoy living. Apply where the literature excites you. Don’t go for the sake of getting an MFA. Have a list of specific reasons why you would go to each place you apply. Read the literature of the professors, the students, the alumni. Find out what opportunities exist in the community outside of your MFA work. It’s not necessary to get an MFA to be a writer, but you will likely be a better writer when surrounded by supportive colleagues who are also working for the love of it.

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