This may be your ticket to a fully-funded two years of nothing but writing. So grab a steaming cup of tea, and settle in for a few. You’re gonna want to know this.
Last week I talked about how the How Writers Write Fiction course through University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop has got me all pumped to join a writing MFA program.
When we covered whether a Writing MFA program might be right for you, what I didn’t realize is how many readers had no idea what the heck a Writing MFA even is. I’ve gotten quite a few emails from readers asking: Mandy, what the heck is an MFA?!
Oops! I get caught up in my own world. And I have this autistic-like viewpoint where I think that everyone I talk to already knows everything that I know.
Will I ever learn? Meh, who knows. For now, let’s cover what the heck an MFA is and why a writer might want one.
Before you dig in, I should tell you the biggest thing about a Writing MFA that will make you care about Writing MFAs.
Good: some people think the Writing MFA will help writers get published.
Better: lots of MFA programs fully fund their writers, which means you get to write for two years without worrying about anything else.
Intrigued yet? Here are the details.
What Even is an MFA?
Okay, MFA stands for Master of Fine Arts. It’s basically a master’s degree, a post-graduate degree you can get after a bachelor’s. But instead of focusing on theory and term papers like you would in master’s degree coursework, with an MFA degree you actually do the art.
You can get an MFA in painting. You can get an MFA in dance. Or design. Or theater. It’s basically hands-on training for artists. And, yes, you can get an MFA in writing too.
So what’s the difference between an MA—the regular master’s degree—and the MFA?
Mostly, the MA in English Literature will focus on literary criticism. You’ll read iconic works and write essays about what those writers were trying to do or say. You’ll study literary eras like Victorian and Modernism and Post-Modernism. You’ll discuss what each writer’s work said about society at the time it was written.
What you probably won’t learn through an MA is the deeper story mechanics each writer used to pull it off: character development techniques, plot structure forms, approaches to the first draft. And you definitely won’t learn how to use those mechanics yourself or be asked to write a story as you would through an MFA program.
Basically, MFAs are more about your writing and less about everyone else’s. What you learn from iconic literature in an MFA class is always in service to your work. How you can use their techniques in your writing.
Pros of the Writing MFA: Why Get One
Community: Who wouldn’t want to be around other writers who take writing as seriously as you do? I hear from so many readers who feel like their passion for writing is somehow illicit. Their families think writing is stupid or a phase or could never pay the bills. So these writers get nothing but criticism. They end up stuck between feeling guilty when they don’t write and feeling guilty when they do. Who else but another writer would understand what this feels like and help you write through it anyway?
Networking: You know how they say it isn’t what you know but who you know that matters? Yeah, that counts in writing careers too. An MFA program is a concentration of writers and their established networks in the writing field. It’s where you’ll meet up-and-coming writers like yourself. You’ll meet established writers on the teaching staff. And maybe you’ll even meet editors and agents too. These are the people in the writing world who can help you advance your career. And the people you’ll help to advance theirs.
Cost-Free Writing Focus: Many Writing MFA programs fully fund their students. That means free tuition and a stipend to live on while you get to focus purely on writing for 2-3 years. If that doesn’t blow your metaphorical skirt up, I don’t know what will. Sure, you’ll often have to teach classes in exchange for the stipend. And that is work away from your writing. Still, the arrangement is nothing to balk at. When Harper Lee received a year’s worth of free wages, she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. That kind of support for your writing is precious. But it’s only possible if you choose the right program.
Grow and Develop Your Skills as a Writer: Perhaps the most obvious reason to pursue a Writing MFA is for the skills development. You’ll learn writing techniques in a setting built to teach you those skills. You’ll have access to successful authors for feedback. You’ll submit work on a deadline. Get a chance to practice every trick you learn. And then get feedback from a dozen other skilled writers, all focused on your writing alone. There’s no way you won’t develop as a writer in a setting like that.
Credentials: Some say the writing credentials you’ll get through an MFA program can help you get published. I’m not one who is over wowed by credentials. You can earn a grade and never learn a thing. Still, an MFA program can help you develop the skills that can help you get published. And you’ll develop connections with people who may be more inclined to spend time with your work. And that can help you get published.
Cons of the Writing MFA: Why Avoid One
Cost: I don’t know about you, but I’m drowning in student debt (I gave that interview almost a year ago, and it’s sadly still true). A double major in college plus a year of study abroad, and the thought of adding another dollar to my student loans makes me hyperventilate.
That’s why a Writing MFA program that doesn’t offer full financial support wouldn’t work for me. I bet it’s the same for you too.
If you plan to float the cost of a Writing MFA yourself, think long and hard about getting one. The reality is, you can create a community of writers for yourself by starting a blog or joining a writing group. Study storytelling techniques on your own through books, articles, and iconic literature. Make friends with other writers who will share feedback on your work. Blogging is a great way to network with writing industry experts who can advance your career. Contests like Writers of the Future open doors into publishing. And DIYMFA covers all the writing practice and collaboration you usually get with an MFA too.
The Creative Writing MFA is only worth it if it’s worth it.
Style Homogenization: Some MFA grads complain that their MFA programs made them write like everyone else. So do your research and find an MFA program with a solid reputation. One that’s reputed for nurturing each writer’s style.
No Guarantees: Some writers are looking for a guarantee that the MFA program will make them a phenomenal writer or get them published. But no MFA program can make this guarantee. Writing success still comes down to hard work and luck, with or without the MFA degree.
Where to Get an MFA in Writing
You’ve probably guessed by now that the outcome of your MFA in creative writing comes down to where you get one. That leads many a Writing MFA hopeful to look for program rankings. But it turns out those MFA program rankings aren’t all that reliable.
The best resource I’ve found for MFA program quality is this article from The Atlantic. Yes, these particular Writing MFA programs are the most competitive and hardest to get into. But that’s for good reason. For me, if I can’t get into one of these programs, I’ll pursue the benefits of an MFA on my own, without the MFA.
How do you know if the MFA program is a good one? A few good questions to ask yourself as you sift through them:
- Is the program fully funded? Or will you have to mortgage your future in exchange for a questionable experience and a career that statistically doesn’t pay well? Because let’s be honest, we write because we have to. Not because it pays the bills.
- Who are the instructors in this program? What have they published and how successful was their work? Do their most prestigious faculty actually teach classes you can take while in the program? Or are these instructors merely decorative and inaccessible?
- What are the program’s course offerings? Are they well-rounded? Are most of the classes workshop- or theory-based, and does this balance weight in favor of your learning style?
What You Need to Get into a Writing MFA Program
Most Writing MFA program applications require:
- Writing samples
- A statement of purpose
- Letters of recommendation
- Transcripts from previous colleges
- An application fee. Some programs will dismiss this for students who cannot pay.
Each program will have its own requirements, of course. So check them carefully.
Resource Round Up: A Few More Weigh in on the Writing MFA
- Tips for getting into a Writing MFA program from John Griswold of McNeese University
- 27 Writers on Whether or Not to Get Your MFA
- An assessment of America’s top graduate writing programs
- That link again to Writing MFA rankings
Have you thought about pursuing a Writing MFA? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Thanks for linking to my site!
I do have one comment–you aren’t really being paid to write, even in a fully funded MFA program. You get a graduate assistantship that is supposed to take 20 hours/week and you’re paid for that. At my school, the stipend breaks down to about $15/hour. So you’re paid for 20 hours of work per week and as a bonus you get to take classes for free (or cheap). Some of these classes will have creative writing assignments; some will not. I had much more free time for writing while working a 40-hour, 9-5 work week than I do now as a graduate student and GA. I have to fit writing into an even more hectic schedule. I don’t regret it–my writing is improving by leaps and bounds–but it isn’t leisurely. I’m broke. I’m not being paid to write, and I have less time to write than I did before, while working full-time. Just want to throw in some reality there. 🙂
Thanks for sharing your MFA program experiences here, Jessica. Your schedule sounds pretty hectic. You mention that only some of your classes have creative writing assignments, so it sounds like your particular MFA program weights more on the literature criticism than the writer-workshop side. Did I get that right?
Which MFA program/school did you end up joining?
I’m at the University of South Florida. It is not a lit-heavy program. It’s a three year program that technically requires five lit courses, but two are teaching practicums and one is working on the lit mag so that leaves two required lit courses. An internship or film class can count for those, too.
From what I’ve gathered, my program isn’t as intensive as many others that have more lit requirements and/or foreign language/translation requirements.
There are readings every week in the craft classes and the workshop classes as well as, of course, reading my classmates’ writing and commenting on it. I enjoying being in an MFA program and like I wrote before, my writing is improving a lot, but people considering applying to them should know what they are. They are definitely not “time off” to write or being paid to write. Unless you get a fellowship with no work requirement and can forego a GAship, you’ll still end up working at least 40 hours/week through that and classwork. I think a lot of people romanticize MFA programs and underestimate what they require.
I think most writers understand that an MFA requires hard work. It’s a graduate degree. And writing is a lot of work, after all. So is studying the mechanics of fiction. What’s nice about the MFA program, though, is that all that work is in service to your writing and improving your writing skills. Most writers here would be grateful for that. And many would call that time away to write.
I guess it comes down to how a person defines “work” and what it means to give most of your time to writing.
Thanks again for sharing your insights, Jessica. Especially your experience with graduate assistantships, the breakdown of the stipend amount, and that working on the university’s literary journal or teaching counts toward the MFA requirements.
Sarah Hernandez says
Not sure how to address this so, I’ll just jump in. Not all MFA’s are alike, in fact, more often than not, you DO analyze and critique literary works, A LOT. The program I did, I was required to close read no less than twelve works and WRITE an annotation essay on each one. You are required to read no less than fifty books during the course of your program, This was apart from the writing I had to do on my own piece of work I’d chosen to work on throughout the program. I was also required to write an Essay on Craft, which basically is an extended, in depth thesis on a particular craft element, literary novel, a combination of both or any number of topics related to writing. Oh, and this was all separate from the minimum 25,000 word thesis I had to write of which had to be my own original writing pertaining to my genre. The professors, or mentors as they prefer to be called, are ALL accomplished, award winning, successful writers in each of their genres. During residencies, they lecture on multiple writing topics, invite other successful award winning writers to guest lecture and read, conduct workshops on writing and require ALL students to do one reading of their own work. I was also required to critique fellow student’s work submitted as mine was at the start of each module.
I was not paid for any of this, in fact, I paid out quite a hefty sum for the terminal master’s degree. MFA’s, like novels, are ALL different. Finding one that works for you is key to your success, as is the time, effort and work you put into it. If you ARE interested in a program that absolutely works, I highly recommend the program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. http://www.writingfdu.org/, but, understand, you will be required to work and to write. But, if you are serious about your writing, there isn’t anything better out there. Trust me, I did my research before I applied.
Sarah Hernandez says
Oh, I almost forgot to mention. Apart from the residency, all work was done online. This is great as it allows you to set your own schedule, but I was working a full-time job while doing this program, and when I say full-time, I mean a job requiring minimum of 50 hours per week as well as maintaining a family. Can it be done? Absolutely, but as with anything else, what you put into it is what you’re going to get out of it.
Sanket Alurkar says
Hi I am a Computer Engineering Major from Mumbai University India. I am aspiring to join an MFA Program. Can a engineering major get admitted into an MFA program?
Mandy Wallace says
I don’t see why not. Check each program’s admissions requirements to find out for sure. And good luck!
Sanket Alurkar says
Okay surely, thankyou ma’am!
John Hamilton says
I have a bachelor degree in electronic engineering I got in 1993 and I was able to get into Full Sail University for their MFA-Creative Writing online program with a focus on screenwriting. I had to submit a writing sample script among other requirements.
No matter where you go, you will have to understand story structure and English Lit and Comp. If you don’t have a strong writing knowledge and some experience in writing, I suggest going through a bachelor degree program first. It will teach you the theory and mechanics in order to manage and understand writing in the MFA courses.
John Hamilton says
Thanks for the sharing the article.
I agree that there are ways that you can get your education for free in any MFA program. The one way that I want to get my education loans paid for is to teach for the number of years required. That’s one of the biggest benefits of having a terminal degree. Granted, it’s best if you have been published or at least have some professional experience either online or in some other form.
I’m taking a MFA Creative Writing online program with a focus in screenwriting. I plan on building up my portfolio and work on getting an agent before I graduate to start writing as a professional. I wrote a handful of screenplays and plan to write a few more and add that to my portfolio in addition to the writing that I’m doing and will do in the remainder of the program. It’s only 12 months and I’m in my 3rd month. It’s tough because they stuffed what most do in 2 years into a year-long program. Lots of reading, analysis, discussion, and feedback, along with the required writing assignments.
I’m learning a ton from professional writers and learning about different markets where screenplays are used, like film, TV or episodic, comics and graphic novels, and video games. The knowledge of story structure and format also helps those who want to write manuscripts, though that’s isn’t the focus. So, it works well for those who also want to be an author.
I have written song lyrics, poetry, screenplays. I have also unfinished fiction and non-fiction books that I plan on writing and publishing before I graduate. Well, at least one of them. So, if I write a couple more strong screenplays I can find a literary agent for representation and start writing professionally while I’m still in school. All of this I’m saying is so I have some credibility to teach a writing class in college. It can be an associate, bachelor, so I don’t need a lot, but I do need something. I think it is essential for instructors or professors to have credibility.
Sounds like you have your work cut out for you and that you know what you want. That’s wonderful! Best wishes!