Creative Writing MFA 101

A quick and dirty guide to creative writing MFA programs
By Hillary Casavant | Published: October 31, 2014


Workshop in progress taught by Elizabeth Searle at Stonecoast.

Stonecoast workshop in progress taught by Elizabeth Searle.

A creative writing MFA degree provides the opportunities, time and resources to pursue your passion. You’ll work closely with experienced instructors whose repertoires include advanced degrees, journal publications and perhaps a book deal or two. MFA classes, instructors and fellow students can guide your development as a writer and make all the difference in your future career.

Ready to take the plunge? Consider this your crash course.

The perfect creative writing MFA program

Not all degree programs are created equal, but they do all offer one certainty: a structured environment in which to write. MFA programs are available in a variety of formats to fit your schedule and needs. Here are the three most common options.

  • Traditional MFA programs offer one to three years of coursework, with semester-long workshops and classes held at a university campus. This option is more immersive, but perhaps less practical for a writer with a full-time job or commitments that don’t allow for relocation.
  • Low-residency programs combine online courses with short residencies on a campus or abroad. Distance learning may require more self-discipline and organization. You should also be prepared to travel to residencies one to four times a year.
  • Non-residency programs are fully online and allow students the most flexibility in pursuing a creative writing degree. However, interaction with students and instructors is limited, without the face-to-face feedback of a traditional or low-residency program.

Once you’ve decided which format is right for you, look closely at each program’s website. Review the course descriptions. Determine if the program teaches the particular workshops, tracks or specialized courses you need to meet your writing goals. While the classic MFA caters to writers of literary fiction, nonfiction and poetry, many programs now offer specialty topics such as popular genre fiction, graphic novels, novellas, screenplays and writing for children or young adults.

Look for a list of alumni and their publications, if available. Then review the program’s financial aid page. Some MFA programs provide free tuition for all accepted students. Other programs offer opportunities for teaching fellowships and scholarships. Check the program’s costs and note the application’s deadlines and requirements. All programs ask for a writing sample, but many also require reference letters, a personal statement, college transcripts and GRE test scores.

Most importantly, read the instructors’ bios, websites and published work. Ask yourself if your writing is compatible with the instructors’ styles and personal experiences. The right professors will make all the difference in your MFA experience. Regardless of a program’s ranking or legacy, the best one for you will most closely align with your goals and aesthetics.

What to expect

The typical creative writing MFA roster includes several semesters of workshops in a chosen genre. Some programs will offer or require additional courses in literature, publishing, teaching or other electives. While taking workshops, be prepared for a rigorous regimen of writing, critiquing and revising. Most programs culminate with a master’s thesis, often a collection of short stories, poems, essays or a full-length novel or memoir.

Graduates may find careers in journalism, publishing, editing, communications, advertising, nonprofits and businesses that support writing and the arts.

Although an MFA in creative writing is a terminal degree, teaching opportunities for creative writing professors are limited and highly competitive. Many MFA grads now obtain a PhD, either in English or creative writing, and develop a strong publishing career before they secure a tenured position in academia.

For most grads, the classmates and instructors encountered during an MFA remain vital connections throughout their writing careers. Ideally, MFA graduates leave the program with the resources, experience and manuscript necessary to make a professional writing debut.

Hillary Casavant is a writer in the Boston area and editorial assistant for The Writer magazine.

Test the waters

Many writing organizations offer different non-degree workshops and multi-week intensives, both in person and online. Before pursuing a creative writing MFA, try one of these on for size.

Gotham Writers Workshop
writingclasses.com

Grub Street
grubstreet.org

Lighthouse Writers Workshop
lighthousewriters.org

The Writer’s Workshop
thewritersworkshop.net

Stanford Continuing Studies
continuingstudies.stanford.edu