MFA in Creative Writing Program Guide
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Whether focusing on poetry, fiction, or nonfiction, a creative writing degree prepares students for a multitude of career options. Spanning two years, a master of fine arts (MFA) program trains you to become a skilled writer, communicator, and editor who can receive and apply feedback effectively. This adaptable skill set enables you to work in industries like education, publishing, and journalism. Professionals in these fields flourish in business, where they can apply their skills to promote products, reach consumers, and maintain a company's brand. A creative writing degree can also bolster a student's chances of obtaining a publishing deal.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects growth for master's in writing careers through 2026, including an 8% increase for writers and authors, a 9% increase for public relation specialists, and an 11% increase for technical writers. This guide provides prospective students with the academic and career information necessary to find the MFA program that best suits their needs.
What are the best MFA programs? Here are our top 5:
|Arizona State University Campus Immersion
|East Carolina University
|Texas Tech University
|The University of West Florida
|University of Louisiana at Monroe
Popular Online Master's in Writing Programs
Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.
Should I Get an MFA in Creative Writing?
Creative writing degrees are highly versatile. Students of all academic and professional backgrounds may enroll in an MFA program to strengthen their writing, develop editing skills, and cultivate professional relationships. In addition to gaining in-depth knowledge of literary genres, students benefit from classes in technical, journalistic, and business-oriented writing. Regardless of what areas they specialize in, writers learn to articulate complex and artistic ideas persuasively, which enables them to pursue occupations with nearly any company or organization.
Master's in writing programs also incorporate experiential learning and professional development opportunities into their curricula. Students attend writing conferences, writers' retreats, and guest speaker sessions. These events allow them to meet other writers and professionals in the field. It also exposes them to career opportunities. Additionally, MFA candidates benefit from university fellowships and internships, which typically center on editing, publishing, and teaching.
Creative writing degrees represent one of the fastest growing university programs in the U.S. According to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) 2015 report, 30% of MFA full-residency programs enjoyed an enrollment increase. Distance education represents a viable option for students, especially low-residency programs that allow working professionals to earn their degrees while maintaining career and family responsibilities.
On the other hand, campus-based options offer opportunities for students to directly collaborate with a community of artists. This camaraderie empowers students and cultivates creative and professional relationships that last long after graduation. Traditional MFA programs especially suit learners who transition into graduate-level academics immediately after earning their bachelor's.
What Can I Do With an MFA in Creative Writing?
Through MFA programs, students develop creative writing, editing, critical-thinking, and professional leadership skills. Though common perceptions of writers paint them as loners, creative writing degrees necessitate collaboration. Students discuss famous literary works and each other's writing in workshops that help them become better orators and listeners. Even the thesis process requires communication because candidates must work with their advisers to revise their projects and prepare them for publication. Therefore, MFA graduates become exceptional team members, who give, take, and apply criticism effectively. These writers also possess strong grammatical and rhetorical skills, which they apply to diverse genres, including poetry, memoir, search engine optimization, and grant writing.
These writers create content for blogs, journals, magazines, films, video games, and television series. They can also sell their own fiction, nonfiction, and poetry through either a publishing firm or a self-publishing platform. Depending on their specific position, authors can work independently or in project teams with technicians, designers, and managers.
Median Annual Salary: $61,820*
Also referred to as technical communicators, these writers craft how-to manuals and instruction guides for companies and organizations. Technical writers ensure that these materials are standardized and dispersed across all of a company's channels. Though students can pursue this career with a bachelor's, an MFA opens more doors through advanced skill and leadership training.
Median Annual Salary: $70,930*
As a terminal degree, the MFA prepares students for work as college and university instructors. Professors teach courses in their own genre, such as conventional literature classes or writing-intensive workshops. They also pursue creative projects, research, and publication. Like other educators, postsecondary teachers develop curricula, assess testing standards, and support university administration.
Median Annual Salary: $76,000*
Public Relations Specialist
These professionals work in teams to cultivate and maintain a positive public image for their business or organization. Their work involves creating and implementing promotional and social media branding campaigns. Public relations specialists also handle press releases, field requests from news outlets, and write speeches for the company's top executives. MFA graduates typically need additional training to obtain this position, either through on-the-job experience or a certificate program.
Median Annual Salary: $59,300*
These leaders work with teams of writers, graphic designers, sales agents, and advertisers to create and actualize promotional campaigns. They also negotiate marketing contracts, maintain budgets, and train employees. Additionally, marketing managers analyze brand effectiveness using data-analytical methods. As a high-level career, these professionals need a graduate degree, extensive continuing education, and at least five years of relevant work experience.
Median Annual Salary: $129,380*
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
How to Choose an MFA in Creative Writing Program
When researching prospective master's in writing programs, students need to consider cost, length, and location. In general, graduate students can secure substantial funding through scholarships, grants, and fellowships. The most competitive MFA programs boast full tuition coverage and stipends. However, students should look at their financial situation practically, discerning how much they can afford without resorting to loans. They should also seek out private scholarships through local companies and professional organizations.
Most universities follow a two-year timeline as established by the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the first accredited MFA program in the U.S. However, creative writing represents a highly malleable field with different pedagogical philosophies and curricular design choices. Certain programs last three years, while others last up to five. Relatedly, prospective students should consider whether they want to enroll part or full time. Online and low-residency MFA programs often facilitate part-time enrollment, while traditional programs often require full-time participation.
Distance learners should note that remote creative writing degrees typically use a hybrid format, requiring them to attend conferences and summer retreats. Coursework and specializations reflect other important considerations. These factors fluctuate based on faculty interests and the school's overall direction. Some master's in writing programs highlight the American literary canon, while others focus on works from writers who occupy marginalized identities. And still others break with tradition altogether, emphasizing experimental writing styles and multimedia forms.
Finally, MFA applicants need to factor in location. For traditional students, this includes heightened tuition prices due to out-of-state residency status. Learners should also look into job prospects and cost of living. Many of the most popular programs are located in cities where rent is high and employment is competitive.
Programmatic Accreditation for MFA in Creative Writing Programs
To confer valid degrees, colleges and universities need to earn accreditation at the national, regional, and/or programmatic level. Schools with a religious or vocational focus typically seek out national accreditation. Schools may also earn the more prestigious regional accreditation from one of six organizations depending on their location. Students should look for nonprofit higher education institutions with national or regional accreditation. Students should confirm a school's accreditation status before starting the admission process.
In addition to national and regional backing, colleges and universities may also receive programmatic accreditation. For example, teaching programs usually need to earn the support of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation if they want to uphold state licensure standards. Creative writing degrees stand out because they do not subscribe to formal programmatic accreditation. However, many MFA programs are AWP institutional members. Students who enroll at participating schools benefit from scholarship opportunities, writer-to-writer membership programs, and conference discounts.
MFA in Creative Writing Program Admissions
Creative writing degrees generally require standard admission materials. These comprise academic transcripts, resume/CV, recommendation letters, personal statement, and standardized test scores. Candidates should consult their prospective schools' websites for details, including the admissions deadline.
Conventional requirements aside, the most important part of an MFA candidate's application is their writing sample. Programs typically require students to declare genre specialization in fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction. A student's choice dictates the bulk of classes they take and their thesis requirement. Specifics vary by program, but poets can expect to submit around 10-15 pages worth of poetry. Fiction and nonfiction writers usually turn in 25-30 pages of prose. Crafting an effective writing sample requires time, so students should plan accordingly. They should also look into the program's guiding aesthetic. Some MFA programs prefer traditional works, while others find experimental narratives more engaging and indicative of a writer's potential.
MFA applicants need to hold a bachelor's, but not necessarily in creative writing or even English. However, a student's prior coursework does factor into admission, especially if they have experience with writing workshops.
Master's in writing programs typically ask for resume or CV as supplemental information. Applicants should submit this information, particularly if they have teaching experience, as this bolsters their chances of obtaining a fellowship.
Some MFA programs do not uphold a minimum GPA. Others do, with 2.5 often representing the benchmark. GPA also influences a student's chance of receiving an institutional award, such as a dean's scholarship.
Candidates must submit a general application through an online user account. As a graduate program, creative writing degrees do not use the Common Application. Interfolio represents the equivalent program, but it is not nearly as widespread.
MFA programs typically require applicants to submit unofficial academic transcripts. Candidates can access and print out these records through their previous school's online student system. They can also request transcripts by calling or emailing the registrar's office.
Letters of Recommendation:
Applicants should prepare to submit three recommendation letters. These should come from professors and mentors who can vouch for a student's potential for creative writing and graduate studies.
Most writing programs do not require GRE scores, but some universities require them for enrollment. Students should contact their prospective schools for exact details, including if test scores affect financial aid opportunities.
Paying the substantial processing fee can add up, especially if students apply to multiple schools. To reduce costs, applicants should narrow down the pool of prospective schools to around five. MFA candidates should also contact their programs about discounts and waivers.
What Else Can I Expect From an MFA in Creative Writing Program?
Graduate creative writing degrees center on three specializations: poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. However, MFA programs aim for a holistic approach to the writing craft. This means that a poet must also take fiction and nonfiction classes, whether they be literature seminars or intensive writing workshops. Students also pursue coursework outside the three genres. Beyond some core classes, topics vary greatly based on faculty specializations.
|This concentration provides students with insight into narrative arc, plot, tension, and character building. Students strengthen their skills through literary study, independent writing, and workshop engagement. While the vast majority of MFA programs emphasize the short story form, writers also learn about flash fiction, novels, and even graphic narratives.
|Creative Writer/Author, Editor, Postsecondary Professor, Technical Writer
|Due to online publication, creative nonfiction represents the fastest growing literary genre. It encompasses personal narratives, essays, memoirs, and certain forms of journalism. Like their fiction peers, nonfiction students develop their skills through extensive reading and craft analysis. In workshops, writers learn to listen to and apply productive critiques through revision.
|Creative Writer/Author, Editor, Postsecondary Professor, Journalist
|While poetry students may boast a natural talent for the genre, the MFA program helps them solidify this knowledge. Though craft classes, students learn about poetic forms and terms, such as blank verse, villanelle, and pyrrhic. Similar to the other two genres, poets also improve their art through advanced workshops.
|Creative Writer/Author, Editor, Postsecondary Professor, Marketing Specialist
|As an artistic form with ties to live theater, screenplay writing enables students to create spec scripts and full narratives for television and film. Furthermore, as video games become more story-driven, screenwriting experience translates into job opportunities in this lucrative industry. Course topics include imagery, dialogue, the three-act structure, and the monomyth.
|Screenwriter, Script Writer , Postsecondary Professor, Copywriter
|Regardless of their genre, MFA candidates cultivate teaching experience, whether it is through coursework or as part of their fellowship. Graduate fellows usually teach first-year composition or introductory literature classes. Coursework covers rhetoric, writing pedagogy, and differential instruction methods. MFA programs also connect students with teaching internships at local community and nonprofit organizations.
|K-12 Teacher, Curriculum Designer, Postsecondary Professor, Public Education Advocate
Courses in an MFA in Creative Writing Program
While coursework differs based on the individual program, an MFA degree plan typically breaks down into four parts: literature courses, writing workshops, independent study, and thesis hours. Students can expect literature classes to encompass both classic and modern works. Independent study allows students to take classes outside the three main genres. Possible topics include journalism, gender studies, technical writing, and grant writing.
Reading Across Genres
MFA programs operate under the philosophy that experimenting across genres builds better writers. In this class, students learn how to effectively interact with works in fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Learners also develop the skills to analyze how such fundamental ideas, like plot, character, and point of view, operate in each genre to achieve desired effects.
This class provides students who already write poetry with the knowledge and practice to advance their art. Unlike the workshop, this craft class emphasizes literary analysis that enables writers to break down a poem into component parts. Topics include meter, rhyme, rhythm, stanza pattern, and lineation. Students also delve into traditional and experimental poetic forms.
As one of the most popular creative nonfiction forms, the memoir tells the personal story of an individual or a community. In this course, writers learn the art of memoir through ideas like tone, voice, structure, and subtext. They also develop knowledge of subgenres, including the autobiographical memoir and those that deal with food, travel, family, addiction, and grief.
The Short Story
This narrative form represents the premier learning tool for MFA fiction students due to its relative brevity and popularity with literary magazines. This course provides writers with an in-depth study of the short story form, focusing on narrative arc, pacing, characterization, and internal/external action. Students also learn about short story history by reading the works of famous authors, such as Donald Barthelme, Alice Munro, and Octavia E. Butler.
While the structure of the workshop varies by MFA program and individual professors, this course always focuses on providing students with the feedback needed to improve their writing. Workshops also help students develop skills as editors and book reviewers. In addition to submitting creative work, students need to turn in written analyses of other students' writing.
How Long Does It Take to Get an MFA in Creative Writing?
Like other master's programs, creative writing degrees typically take two years, or 36 credits. Some schools follow a three-year curriculum. A student's enrollment status affects the timeline. Online and low-residency MFA programs provide more flexibility, allowing students to accommodate busy schedules by taking courses part-time. They may also offer accelerated degree plans that let students finish seminars and workshops in as few as 12 months.
Full-residency programs prefer a structured approach, similar to cohort learning, in which all students in the program take the same classes every semester, advancing through their degree work at a communal pace. Relatedly, MFA candidates who receive fellowships may not take more than the standard course allotment each term due to how university tuition waivers work.
Finally, the nature of a student's capstone project also affects their degree timeline. Many writers want their MFA thesis to be publishable manuscript, so they often take additional semesters to polish their work before submission and defense.
How Much Is an MFA in Creative Writing?
According to Peterson's, a higher education organization, graduate students who attend a public university pay $30,000 in average annual tuition, while those who attend private institutions pay $40,000 each year. However, prices vary with individual schools. The University of New Orleans and Columbia University offer two popular creative writing degrees. UNO's yearly graduate tuition is $8,892 for Louisiana residents and $13,462 for non-residents. Columbia charges $28,230 per semester.
MFA programs operate under the jurisdiction of the college of liberal arts or arts and sciences. This means they usually charge rates that match other graduate programs in that area. The most renowned and competitive creative writing degrees offer every student a full tuition waiver and monthly stipends. Other MFA programs provide institutional and departmental scholarships. Students should also seek out awards from professional organizations and businesses.
Beyond tuition and related fees, students need to consider cost of living, particularly housing. Websites like Payscale and Numbeo allow students to calculate living expenses using city-specific data. They can also compare prices between locations. MFA students should set aside money from conference attendance because these events represent important professional development opportunities for new writers. Research and technology costs also warrant consideration. Fortunately for writers, their field does not require expensive machinery or software. However, they should prepare to face high printing costs.
Certifications and Licenses an MFA in Creative Writing Prepares For
American Grant Writers' Association (AGWA) Certified Grant Writer
Organizations highly value grant writing, making it one of the most lucrative professions for freelancers. AGWA's certification series offers courses on proposal writing, program development, and review. Candidates take the exam in person, which comprises handwritten and computer-based sections. Candidates must hold a bachelor's degree to qualify for the program.
American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) Medical Writer Certified
AMWA operates an intensive, exam-based certification program that enables writers to demonstrate their knowledge and improve their marketability. The in-person test consists of 125 multiple-choice questions and takes 2.5 hours. To be eligible, applicants need to possess at least a bachelor's degree in any field and two years of paid medical communication experience.
Society for Technical Communication (STC) Certified Professional Technical Communicator
Operated by STC, this program offers technical writers three certification levels: foundation, practitioner, and expert. The foundation certification exam covers such topics as project planning, analysis, content management, organizational design, and written and visual communication. The exam costs $250 for STC members and $495 for nonmembers.
American Writers & Artists Inc. (AWAI) Copywriting Certifications
AWAI offers multiple training and certification options for copywriters. These include an accelerated foundation program, a master's program, and an advanced training program for seasoned professionals. Copywriters can also pursue training in specialized topics, such as web/online content, business-to-business copywriting, grant writing, resume writing, and event travel writing. Furthermore, AWAI offers membership that comes with benefits like discounts and a career database.
American Copy Editors Society (ACES) Certificate in Editing
Through ACES, writers can enroll in fundamental and advanced certification programs. Fundamental level classes cover topics like clarity, accuracy, and search engine optimization. The advanced program comprises courses in copyright/fair use, fact-checking, and numeracy. To obtain the certificate, students need to pass individual assessments that come after every module.
Resources for MFA in Creative Writing Students
Duotrope provides the tools writers need to locate agents and publishers. The website also operates a massive database of literary magazines and journals, which writers use to submit and track work for publication.
Poets & Writers
Poets & Writers offers the resources writers need to publish, promote, and develop their art. The organization also operates writing contests, workshops, networking events, and a database of MFA programs.
This organization regularly publishes articles on writing tips, literary discussions, and new books. Writer's Digest also operates numerous writing competitions, including those for poetry, fiction, and self-published books. Writers can strengthen their craft through free webinars and paid workshops.
Literary Hub provides an interactive platform for writers to discuss craft, design, and literary criticism. The website also highlights relevant pop culture and political issues. Additional resources include book reviews, daily fiction, and podcasts.
Facilitated by Information Today Inc., Literary Marketplace operates the world's largest searchable database of publishers, literary agents, and industry events. Users benefit from 180 search terms, enabling them to find publishers by size, location, and genre.
Professional Organizations for MFA in Creative Writing Students
MFA programs offer valuable academic training and networking opportunities, which new writers can bolster through engagement with professional organizations. These organizations facilitate literary databases, award competitions, topical webinars, and in-person writing workshops. Furthermore, students can take advantage of insider information and first-hand accounts to find the master's in writing programs that best suit them. Perhaps the greatest benefit of writer's organizations is their networking and community-building events. These include readings, guest speaker series, and annual conferences, like the AWP Conference and Bookfair which draws over 12,000 attendees each year.
Association of Writers and Writing Programs
Individual membership provides access to the writer's calendar, job list, and the writer to writer mentorship program. Members also enjoy career guidance and discounts on literature and conference attendance. Students can take advantage of the organization's comprehensive guide to writing programs.
Academy of American Poets
As the largest professional organization for poets, the academy offers up-to-date publishing news, award programs, and job opportunities. Members also benefit from a variety of creative networking events.
National Writers Union
Established in 1981, the NWU advocates for the rights and economic advancements of its members, who work in diverse writing and education fields. Operating 12 regional chapters, the union provides members with legal advice and promotional support. Emerging writers benefit from a searchable talent database.
The Authors Guild
As the oldest and largest professional organization for writers, the Authors Guild offers legal assistance, online seminars, media liability insurance, and an expansive resource library. Members also gain access to discounts, conferences, and awards.
The organization supports independent workers through government policy advocacy and community engagement programming. Members benefit from health, dental, and life insurance assistance. Freelancers Union also provides retirement support. Membership is free.