• Extended University
  • UTEP Connect
  • February 2019

If you love writing fiction or poetry, or would like to teach others how to develop their creative writing talents, consider earning an MFA in creative writing.


What is an mfa.

MFA is the common abbreviation of a Master of Fine Arts and is an advanced degree in a variety of creative areas. Specifically, an MFA in Creative Writing focuses on the art and practice of writing for those interested in publishing their own original works or in pursuing a teaching career.

A bachelor’s degree is required before beginning a master’s degree program. While master’s in creative writing programs may encourage applicants who have a bachelor’s degree in English or creative writing, degree seekers may come from any field where they want to improve their writing abilities. Writing samples of your own work will be required when applying to an MFA in creative writing programs.                                                       

Why would you pursue an MFA?

A master’s in creative writing provides a foundation of theory and form along with workshops to develop your skills and hone your craft. Whether you are looking to get published or to advance your career, an MFA in Creative Writing will help you develop your voice and become a more proficient writer. 

What can you do with an MFA?

An MFA in Creative Writing is preferred or required for a variety of careers. If you want to teach creative writing at any level, from elementary school through higher education, a master’s degree will be required, and a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing sets you apart from the competition.

Many other writing opportunities benefit from having an MFA in Creative Writing. Advertising, technical publications, local newspapers and magazines, and other organizations that require skilled writers often require or prefer applicants with an advanced degree in creative writing.

The salary potential for positions requiring or preferring an MFA in Creative Writing ranges from $50,000 to $75,100 per year.

If you want to become a published author, an MFA in Creative Writing provides advanced study in the craft. The earning potential for writers varies widely depending on genre and how long they’ve been published. It takes time to establish yourself as an author or poet, and many creative individuals build their audience while working in another job.

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the median pay for writers and authors is $61,820 per year in 2017. This includes a wide range of positions creating written content, including advertising, books, magazines, scripts, and blogs. Technical writers have a median pay of $70,930 annually.

What are the advantages of UTEP’s online MFA in Creative Writing?

UTEP’s fully-online Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing lets you earn your graduate degree from anywhere in the world. The curriculum has a strong emphasis on workshops, but there’s no residency requirement, so you can earn your master’s in Creative Writing from Texas without ever leaving home. And our program is the only bilingual MFA in Creative Writing in the U.S. and the world. Classes and discussions are held in English, but creative assignments may be submitted in Spanish, allowing you to write in your native language or expand your ability.

Our students come from a variety of fields, but they all share a common passion – an interest in improving their writing ability. Whether you are interested in establishing yourself as a writer or advancing your teaching career, our online creative writing program lets you gain essential credentials without uprooting your life.

What's Next?

We invite you to explore our online program and see what it will take to make that next step into your profession. If you are interested in learning more about our team and UTEP Connect’s 100% online master’s and graduate certificate programs, reach out. An enrollment counselor will contact you directly.



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BestValueSchools.com Staff

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Updated November 22, 2022 · 2 Min Read

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Ask five different people if a master's degree in creative writing is worth the time and effort spent in getting one, and you will get five different answers. That may be because people disagree about what makes a successful writer and about whether writing can actually be taught. J.K. Rowling has no formal creative writing training, but her books consistently top the best-seller lists. The value of a creative writing program also depends upon why someone earned the degree.

Writing Can be Taught

Education will not confer talent upon a writer, but it teaches a writer how to use his talent. There is an accepted writing form, and it can be learned. Periods follow sentences, semi-colons punctuate independent clauses and adjectives modify nouns. Aside from that, skill in using the right words can help writers craft powerful sentences that influence their readers.

Writing Skills Are  Transferrable

That doesn't mean you can take the courses and transfer the knowledge to your friend who stayed home watching soap operas while you studied. It means you can use your writing skills in other professions. You can become a better marketing specialist or a more proficient CEO. One staple of all writing degree programs, the workshop, teaches students to listen, to accept criticism and to learn from it. Crafting sentences using the right words and eliminating fluff can help writers manipulate people's opinions. If that sounds distasteful, a better word might be influence, which is exactly what a sales manager must do.

The Program has Perks

One writer said, "Publishing success may only come to a minority of creative writing graduates, but the most-noted writers do often come from…writing programs." If your goal is to become a published writer, even of non-fiction, creative writing degree programs can help you convey your message in a manner that is neither dry nor cumbersome. Students make contacts in the programs that are valuable tools in acquiring an agent or accessing an editor. The courses teach students to edit, which is a skill that comes hard to word-crafters who fall in love with their own work. Students also discount waiting for their  muses  and learn to write every day. That is another way to say they learn time management and work ethic.

There Are Nay-Sayers.

Some people feel that creative writing degree programs are a waste of time. Writing, they believe, is better learned by writing and by ravenous reading. They say what sets good writers apart is their passion, and that can't be learned. Still, passion is important for painters as well, but few question the relevance of a degree in visual arts.

How a Creative Writing Degree Pays Off

Your degree can help you land a position as an editor, a publisher or even teaching writing at a university. With a double major, you can combine creative writing and marketing. You could leverage your creative writing degree along with a degree in environmental studies to become a contributing editor for a magazine such as  National Geographic . You might become a media writer, create content for websites, or even write screenplays. Although the job category "writer" is nebulous, the BLS lists an average salary for a writer with a bachelor's degree as $60,250. Depending upon whether you write books or write copy, your earnings could be higher or lower than that figure. The salary for someone with a graduate degree is only slightly higher. Your master's degree may not get you bigger royalties for the book you wrote, but it may get you a managerial position on a editorial staff.

The biggest value in the degree program may be that aspect of transferrable skills. It could also lie in the personal satisfaction of honing your skills as a professional writer. Whether a master's degree in a creative writing program is worth the time and money spent acquiring it depends upon where you want to go with your degree.

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Apr 8, 2020


5 Bad Reasons to Pursue an MFA in Creative Writing

Thinking about pursuing an mfa in creative writing here are some reasons why you shouldn’t do it., an mfa in creative writing is certainly worth your time if you go into it for the right reasons., more from read. watch. write. repeat..

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MFA in Creative Writing Program Information

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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 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.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Ready to Start Your Journey?

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 English programs of 2020? Here are our top 10:

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*

Technical Writer

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*

Postsecondary Teacher

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*

Marketing Manager

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, creativing 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 heightented 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.


Bachelor's degree=, professional experience:, minimum gpa:, admission materials, application:, transcripts:, letters of recommendation:, test scores:, application fee:, 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.

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.

Poetic Forms

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.

Writing Workshop

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.

Writer's Digest

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

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.

Literary Marketplace

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.

Freelancers Union

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.

Explore More College Resources

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Ball State University

English studies concentration, rhetoric and composition concentration.

Literature Concentration

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Master of Arts in English

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Whether your long-term plans involve the pursuit of an MFA, a PhD, or a career in professional writing or editing, Ball State’s master of arts in creative writing is designed to prepare you for the next step in your writing life. You’ll study with a faculty of accomplished, published authors who’ll help you become a better writer, find a path to publish your work, locate teaching and other job opportunities, and hone your application materials for a terminal degree.

The only one of its kind in Indiana, our MA in creative writing is tailored for two essential purposes:

What You Will Learn

Learn more about what our graduate-program alumni do.

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We’re asked this question all the time. Our answer: A lot. You will learn skills that transfer across hundreds of possible careers and industries—some of which may not even exist yet. Our graduates go on to work in marketing, publishing, non-profit fundraising, speechwriting, as well as in countless other fulfilling occupations.

Explore Careers

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Program Benefits

Small, versatile, multi-genre program.

This program fills a niche in Indiana as the only MA of its kind in the state. It helps students find their next step in graduate school, their careers, and beyond.

The program encourages cross-genre study in:

Published, Expert Faculty

As part of our graduate program in creative writing, you will study with highly experienced, well-published, nationally recognized faculty with diverse areas of expertise and a deep commitment to teaching.

Their areas of expertise and interest include:

Read our faculty bios:

Assistantships and Professional Experiences

Our department’s teaching assistantships will help you fund your tuition and living expenses while giving you professional experience.

In this program, you’ll have the opportunity to participate in our annual Practical Criticism Midwest conference. You’ll also hear from visiting writers, including those participating in the English Department’s Visiting Writers Series and its annual In Print Festival of First Books .

Major Requirements

Our MA in creative writing includes courses, workshops, literature classes, electives, and a capstone creative project to round out your degree.

Total Credits

Our hallmark courses include:

For a complete list of all the courses you will take and their descriptions, consult our Graduate Catalog.

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Review our admission requirements, dates and deadlines, and instructions. Then complete our online application.

Applications for the fall semester will be accepted until July 10; applications for the spring semester will be accepted until November 1. To ensure full consideration for academic-year graduate assistantships, applications must be complete by January 31.

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If you would like to learn more about this program or about Ball State Graduate School in general, please complete our online form to request more information. Or if you’d like to speak with someone in our department directly by phone or email, please contact us.

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Academic programs -->, english studies concentration -->, rhetoric and composition concentration -->, creative writing concentration -->, literature concentration -->, ma in teaching english to speakers of other languages (tesol) and linguistics -->.

Jane Friedman

The Benefits of MFA Programs: Q&A with Alan Davis

Photo of Alan Davis with quotation: "Publication, literary fame and monetary compensation either come your way or they don’t. Either way, writing well is always the best reward."

For a long time, now, I’ve seen writers on social media either asking questions about the real-world benefits of MFA programs or complaining about the MFA’s focus on literary fiction. Recently, I happened upon a long Twitter conversation that questioned the logic of MFA programs not including a course on the publishing process. Because I think these are important questions and valid criticisms, I asked one of my former MFA professors, who is also my writing mentor, if he would address those questions and criticisms—some of which are also my own. Our exchange follows.

Alan Davis is a writer who has published three prize-winning collections of short stories: Rumors from the Lost World , Alone with the Owl , and So Bravely Vegetative . He co-edited ten editions of American Fiction and Visiting Bob: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Bob Dylan.

Davis was born in New Orleans, grew up in southern Louisiana, and now lives in Minnesota, land of the wind chill factor, where he taught, collaborated in the creation of an MFA program, and served as editor for over fifteen years of an iconic literary small press that he helped revive as a teaching press associated with Minnesota State University. He teaches in a low-residency MFA program at Fairfield University and writes, often spending winters in the Sonoran desert.

Kristen Tsetsi: What is good writing, and can it be taught?

Alan Davis: Anything can be taught except inspiration, vision, and voice. Craft is pedagogical.

Taking a writing workshop buys a student time, first, and a mentor (or mentors), second. A student’s peers also take writing seriously and often respond passionately to work-in-progress.

Craft is easy in the sense that it’s pedagogical; it’s difficult in the sense that it’s an all-at-once process, with momentary decisions (word choice, syntax, rhetoric, rhythm, alliteration and assonance, metaphor and metonymy, etc.) too numerous to count, and with workshops providing a barrage of often-contradictory critiques.

Writing, as I like to define it, is speech frozen on the page. A writer can return to a draft and revise until time runs out (a deadline, a semester, a lifetime), but craftsmanship without inspiration, voice, and vision, although it can get you an “A” and get you published, will leave a reader, finally, unsatisfied if the story is only discursive (one page after another) and not recursive (words calling out to words, theme holding forth dramatically, voice serving vision and capturing the attention of a busy reader in a world full of ridiculous distractions).

And good writing is meaningful. Bob Dylan once said, of his own mentor, “You could listen to Woody Guthrie songs and actually learn how to live.” That’s high praise.

Most MFA programs emphasize literary fiction. What does literary fiction do that other fiction doesn’t?

It speaks to the heart, brain, and soul all at once. It teaches you how to live. It does more than merely entertain. Unfortunately, crass entertainment often drives out art. That’s not to say, as Joseph Heller pointed out, that one of his contemporaries, Mario Puzo (author of The Godfather novels), didn’t get up as early in the morning as he did and work as hard at his craft every day as Heller did when writing Catch-22 or Something Happened (a very long novel in which almost nothing happens).

There’s no dishonor (quite the contrary) in writing popular or genre fiction if plot emerges from character; I love the mystery novels of James Lee Burke and I consider the best science fiction novels by Kim Stanley Robinson to be literary achievements of the highest order. Shakespeare elevated sordid stories or common tropes into art through his use of language until stereotypes were transformed into unforgettable characters still with us centuries after his time.

My point is that literary fiction is a hybrid designation; it’s not limited to realistic writing about contemporary or historical characters. It’s related not only to craft, which is essential for any good writing, but to vision and voice, whereas most bestsellers, as Ursula K. Le Guin pointed out, “are written for readers who are willing to be passive consumers.” She continued: “The blurbs on their covers often highlight the coercive, aggressive power of the text—compulsive page-turner, gut-wrenching, jolting, mind-searing, heart-stopping—what is this, electroshock torture?”

Unlike pop fiction, literary fiction is news that stays news, whereas it’s usually quaint and tedious to read some throwaway popular novel that was a bestseller in its day. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004), a what-if book in which the Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh becomes President and a minority (in this case, Jews) fear relocation and the grotesque handprint of fascism and bigotry, is powerful fiction about a particular family in New Jersey that’s timeless. I read it last month and it made my neck prickle: it was that good and that relevant to our contemporary problems with authoritarians and bigots.

Schools offering MFA programs will often list as one of the advantages of an MFA the connections that can help a writer’s career. This sounds like, “Having an MFA can help you form networks that will be useful *wink wink* when you want to publish a novel.” How true is this, realistically, for the average MFA student?

Networking is a thing in every profession, but the degree itself won’t get you very far, so the quote in your question is not very true, given the number of such programs and the proliferation of such degrees. (It goes without saying, some degrees are more prestigious than others, which is true in every profession.) It’s a union card: a terminal degree if you want to teach at a post-secondary institution. It’s also a chit, though, that tells an editor or agent you’ve put serious time (and probably a decent chunk of change) into acquiring the skills needed to write a good book.

The connections, though, are very real: your mentors, if willing, can make the case for your books, introduce you to agents or editors (or at least recommend where to send your work), and invite you to events where you have the chance to make acquaintance with publishing professionals. Most, if they know your work, are willing to write advance comments (or blurbs) when needed.

It’s inspiring to think that a work of fiction or creative nonfiction can speak for itself to agents and editors, and that sometimes happens, of course, but writing is a business, sometimes a corporate business, where logrolling and backslapping can be legion (as well as offensive to those of us not good at it).

A writer without such connections who’s earned an MFA and who’s introducing herself to prospective representatives and publishers should mention the degree, and if a mentor or two who knows the book is willing to speak up for it, those names are worth mentioning (and any advance comments worth including), but it’s the work itself that makes your best case.

I read something recently by a writer who, in her piece, admits she’s bitter about seeing her peers’ names in impressive places while hers is comparatively less prominent. She blames herself: she chose to write what she wants to write rather than what her agent has told her might sell better, and the consequences are what they are. But that it was her choice doesn’t necessarily make the reality easier to accept.

This probably happens a lot: writers who are writing well, but not what will sell, and who are therefore feeling a sense of relative failure. What do, or would, you say to writers who are just starting out about this potential future frustration?

If you’re writing to become the next Jennifer Egan or Jesmyn Ward or George Saunders or Marlon James, good luck. I recently read a Ted Gioia essay about the late singer Eva Cassidy, who died 25 years ago, at the age of 33, and whose now famous album, Live at Blues Alley , was self-financed; she cashed in her pension to rent the venue and pay the musicians. She died unknown except to a coterie of fans; since then, she’s sold more than 10 million records (and, I might add, deservedly so).

It’s a heartbreaking story—she came close on at least one occasion to a record contract—but paradigmatic. She sang what she loved without regard for fashion.

Publication, literary fame and monetary compensation either come your way or they don’t. Either way, writing well is always the best reward and, sometimes, the best retaliation against those incapable of recognizing the worth of your work. We all want our work to survive and join the literary conversation that takes place over time, but a life’s work is a life’s work, whether it takes place in the spotlight or in the contemporary equivalent of a garret. Keep at it. Don’t let the naysayers get you down. Keep at it. And join that conversation. Write and read widely.

Has there been any evolution in the MFA program toward evenly blending literary and commercial/genre fiction studies not only so students can learn the techniques and approaches of each, but also to ensure the instruction offers equal value to those who will go in different directions with their writing post-graduation?

Yes. Many MFA programs, especially low-residency ones, accept students interested in writing popular fiction, including fantasy (and, in at least one case, romance), sci fi, mystery and thrillers, and, of course, leprechaun fables. Most low-res programs make it a point to invite editors and agents to residencies and often incorporate the option of internships in publishing. As competition for students grows fierce, the business of writing increasingly receives attention in such programs.

A perplexing aspect of the MFA experience is that the program emphasizes the writing—attention to the craft, what effective writing looks like, why certain writers’ novels have lasted through the ages, etc. A student writer might think, “This is great. All I have to do is produce something good, and I’ll be golden.”

However, once out of the program, what begins to look more important is whether the writing—no matter how good—is traditionally published. The same people who profess to have a profound interest in and respect for, first, The Craft are also some of the first, if not the first, to decline to even acknowledge self-published writing—regardless of its quality—simply because it’s self-published. Can this be explained?

Yes. Once, universities scoffed at MFAs. Now, in many cases, it’s their meat and potatoes. Self-publishing, in contemporary terms, is in its infancy. Most readers like gatekeepers so they can avoid reading dreck. Publishers have been traditional gatekeepers. And publishing is also a business. There are lobbies, interest groups, corporations, logrollers, hierarchies with vested interests. Those with power, even limited power, won’t relinquish it without a fight.

It’s a dirty little secret in literary publishing these days that many competent and applauded presses require subventions, either the purchase of a minimum (but large) number of copies of one’s book or a sizable subsidy to cover publication costs, sometimes with the tradeoff that the writer receives a higher royalty rate. I’m not talking about vanity presses, though they exist; I’m talking about reputable presses (you would recognize their names) that have adopted a hybrid model (sometimes openly, sometimes under the table) to make ends meet. For years now, reputable presses have required contest or reading fees, and many prestigious literary magazines won’t read even a regular submission anymore without a fee attached.

I feel obligated to point out that self-publishing gets a bad name because some who self-publish write dreck or don’t even copyedit or proofread, but self-publishing is an honorable and honest means of publication.

If I decide to self-publish, I have a track record, reviews and advance comments and the like, and can point to my deep and long editorial experience as a gatekeeper myself to establish credibility. The question then becomes, however, how to do for myself the many things—distribution to bookstores, publicity and promotion, review copies, foreign and other rights, etc.—that an agent or publisher would otherwise take care of.

Part of what I was getting at with my question is that a self-published writer can have a track record, reviews, and advance comments (and from authors whose names or opinions should carry weight), and even that won’t satisfy—because the work is self-published. Period. A writer I recently interviewed, for example, admitted to having “an old-fashioned bias against self-published work.”

Can you speak to this attitude, having spent so much time in the community of professional literary writers? Is it as simple as snobbery?

I think genre fiction that’s self-published has an easier time finding its audience online (as ebooks and sometimes audiobooks) than literary fiction. Literary culture is nothing if not snobbish. Snobbery is its middle name. We take ourselves very seriously. Recently, I was one of three finalist judges for the Minnesota Book Awards (Novel and Short Story category). I don’t have a list of the preliminary titles that other panelists pruned, but I can guarantee you that none were self-published.

To be fair, it’s not as simple as snobbery. There are only so many hours in the workday. When I was co-editor of the annual American Fiction , at a time before my co-editor and I had assistants, I read 500–600 stories and my co-editor did the same, to find the 20 or so we’d publish and send to our Judge (Ray Carver, Anne Tyler, Joyce Carol Oates, etc.) to pick three prize winners. I had wonderful assistants and interns I trusted, but the reading burden, in retrospect, was so time-consuming that, as mentioned above, my own work suffered. (It’s almost like PTSD to think about it.) Readers of American Fiction didn’t have to read 1,200 stories to find the 20 or so that stood out.

Stakeholders have often wagered their professional lives on the chits, awards, grants, book contracts, and sinecures handed out by gatekeepers, whose own professional lives are defined by such gatekeeping. The idea that a writer can decide for herself that a manuscript is ready to hit the streets, and publish it forthwith, goes against everything they hold true and dear: Mom, Pop, apple scones, and whatever flag they fly.

I’m no expert on this stuff, but my considered view as a seasoned writer and editor and teacher is that the publishing industry at present is clearly a work in progress and the only thing to do is write often, write as well as you can, and insert yourself, by hook or crook, into the literary conversation. Write for the internal listener you know so well by now. Tell that listener the story that only you can tell.

Many writers entering MFA programs must have publishing as a goal, ultimately, but most programs don’t include a course covering the path to publication—how to research agents, how to write query letters, traditional vs. self vs. hybrid publishing models, etc. Why do you think most MFA programs don’t offer such a course—and is it something you can see them adopting?

Yes, you see such programs and tools offered much more frequently now, especially in low-res programs. As competition for MFA students increases, more programs will do as you suggest. The truth, though, is that most disciplines teach students how to do a job or have a career, not how to find work, and send them to career centers if networking and logrolling and the like doesn’t get a particular graduate a sinecure (or, in this case, a book contract).

Many students attended (and attend) traditional MFA programs not only to write a book (or books) but to get a terminal degree and teaching experience to find work in academia. The MFA industry was once a growth industry, but I don’t know, given the proliferation of such programs, if that’s still the case. Demographics and a dearth of jobs in academia argue against traditional MFA programs (if a teaching career and not publication is the significant goal); students earn a degree and often work as TAs, teaching mostly freshman composition and rhetoric, hoping for employment after graduation as college or university instructors.

The camaraderie of such programs is lovely and often life-changing—students make lifelong friends, find long-term mentors and fellow travelers, and write a book—but many end up, if academia is the goal, as adjuncts working for slave wages and sending their revised MFA theses to numerous contests and publishers each year, hoping for a break.

Low-res MFA programs, by contrast, draw students from all walks of life who often already have satisfying careers but want to write books on the side and get them published. You can be 25 or 30 or 50 or 70 or even 80 and decide to enter such a program (without relocating) to help you along in your journey towards telling your story.

Meanwhile, you can find numerous courses and workshops online about paths to publication. This blog is a good place to start, and Jane Friedman’s books, among many others, offer the guidance you mention.

Many writers want to enroll in MFA programs, but either they aren’t accepted, or they don’t bother applying because they can’t afford today’s college costs or the high interest loans. What books on your syllabus should DIY-MFAers buy or check out from the library, and what should they pay attention to as they read?

Good craft books are legion these days. One such, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing , by the New York Writers Workshop, promotes itself (on Amazon) like this: “Get the core knowledge of a prestigious MFA education without the tuition. Have you always wanted to get an MFA, but couldn’t because of the cost, time commitment, or admission requirements? Well now you can fulfill that dream without having to devote tons of money or time. The Portable MFA gives you all of the essential information you would learn in the MFA program in one book.”

Every workshop leader has favorite craft books. Many community education programs offer inexpensive writers’ workshops. There are numerous affordable summer writing conferences. Online workshops are also affordable, as are reputable writing consultants. Blogs like the one where this interview appears can be invaluable to find resources and advice.

Most important, read the kind of books you’d like to write yourself and develop a writing practice. Read as a writer, noting chapters, scenes, details, and structure. Write as many days a week as possible at a fixed time. A devotee of meditation meditates. It’s the practice that counts. Writers write, and organize their lives around writing, which means convincing yourself and your loved ones to take your devotion to writing seriously rather than as something you can put aside when your partner needs a floor scrubbed or repairs made. It might not make money but it’s not a hobby, it’s a vocation, and you, and those who love you, should treat it as such. (But don’t use writing as an excuse, especially if you’re a guy, to avoid your fair share of household duties!) Finally, when you’ve written something that’s reached a point where it requires somebody else’s attention, find a reader you trust or a workshop group to join.

Kristen Tsetsi

Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the post-Roe v. Wade novel The Age of the Child , called a novel “for right now” and “scathing social commentary.” She’s a former adjunct English professor, former reporter/columnist/feature writer for a daily newspaper, former writing instructor, and a former editor of the literary journal American Fiction (New Rivers Press). She lives in Connecticut.


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Program Goals & Benefits

An MFA in Creative Writing from Cedar Crest College enables you to hone your artistic talent in the craft of your chosen genre—fiction, poetry or creative nonfiction. And our focus on locale inspires you to think about the importance of place and artistic tradition.

An MFA in Creative Writing can also benefit many types of careers. Strong writing skills and the confidence they engender will serve you well in writing for print and other media. They will also enhance your ability to communicate in other venues—both professional and personal. Here is an overview of the program goals and objectives of our MFA and how earning this degree can benefit you.

Program Goals

The Cedar Crest College MFA in Creative Writing is designed to assist you in the following:

Additional Benefits of Our Program

Today’s explosive growth in publishing, particularly on the Web, translates to a virtually unquenchable demand for high-quality content: Content that needs to be written by talented, creative, and capable writers. Many other career paths also require high-quality written materials. The Cedar Crest College MFA in Creative Writing will also assist you in the pursuit of many goals by:


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