Ranking the Writing Programs Best for You

D.W. Fenza | September 2012

Ranking the Writing Programs Best for You by D.W. Fenza

For the prospective student, the selection of a writing program is a four-fold choice. First and foremost, it is an artistic choice. Then, it is a financial choice, a professional choice, and a personal choice. Luckily, there are now hundreds of creative writing programs, and their variety makes it far easier for you to find the programs most helpful to your needs and goals. Attending a writing program will be a large investment of your time, work, and money, so it is best if you arrive at your own ranking of the programs best suited to your needs. Our Guide to Writing Programs will provide you with a convenient overview of the programs available to you.

When students learn that AWP does not rank its writing programs, some feel that we are being cowardly and too diplomatic; but really, we have your best interests in mind. In choosing a program, you are choosing a community for your own artistic mentorship. Selecting that mentorship is far more idiosyncratic an enterprise than choosing a business school or another school of vocational training (for which annual rankings may have some limited utility). After all, no brand-name degree or any amount of schmoozing with literary celebrities will necessarily make you a better writer. Ultimately, a writer’s career is forged in solitude, individual choice by individual choice, word by word, line by line, sentence by sentence. If you succeed as a writer, you will make millions of such choices; you can’t let others make your artistic choices for you. Just as a good writing teacher will help you see how many options you have in telling a story or shaping a poem, AWP’s guide will help you realize how many choices you have; but in the end, you must decide what is best for you and your work.

The most helpful rankings will be rooted in your own criteria—and in your own artistic aspirations, financial needs, professional plans, and personal preferences. This introduction to AWP’s guide will raise a few questions to help you define your criteria for ranking the programs best for you.


Your Artistic Goals: Consider Your Artistic Community

If you plan to write a historical novel related to the snubbing of women’s careers in science and medicine, you should probably choose a program where a strong practitioner of the historical novel is in residence along with writers who are experts in feminist narratives and criticism. If you plan to write science fiction or detective fiction, you should choose a program with practitioners of those genres. Or if you wish to write experimental poetry, you might only be punishing yourself if you unwittingly go to a program staffed mainly by practitioners of traditional verse. Your years of study in a creative writing program will be more fruitful if you can work with those writers whose works hold some affinities with your own subject matter and with your own aesthetics. Whose advice do you think would be most useful to you in helping you shape your first book?—that’s the big question.

You will probably not be familiar with all the writers at any particular writing program, but you should acquaint yourself with their work before you apply, and certainly before you make your final decision as to which program you will attend. Even though you may never hope to emulate the kinds of work some of those writers produce, do you still find merit in their work? The best advice here is paradoxical: be prepared to study with writers you like and with writers you don’t like, but in whom you still find substance, inventiveness, and intelligence. If you study only with writers you already admire, you may run the risk of becoming merely imitative or one-dimensional. Studying with a wide range of talents will probably serve you best, so look for both artistic kinship and variety in the faculty. You may learn, for example, to construct your own fine stories of ordinary life in the unadorned style of Amy Hempel or one of your teachers only by first studying the redounding rhetoric of Henry James, the witty satires of Dawn Powell, and the surreal narratives of yet another one of your teachers (all of whom you may have previously resisted). In the end, you may find yourself—master of influences—writing simply in your own voice. Or you may improve your free verse by studying with advocates of formal poetry and by writing sonnets and sestinas. By doing things unlike themselves, writers grow, mature, and become artists.

A program will provide you with the time and structure to stretch and write unlike yourself—better than your old self; but your experiments will be the most rewarding if you first select the faculty of writers whose works you admire most.


Your Financial Needs: Consider Each School’s Level of Support

“‘Nothing’ is the force / that renovates the world,” wrote Emily Dickinson. And every day, facing the empty page, the writer feels the burden and the exhilaration of that force. Unfortunately, it is also what writers are usually paid at first: nothing. Dedicating yourself to a career as an artist or writer is among the most challenging and risky goals because the wages can remain so modest. Meanwhile, the rising costs of tuition have outpaced inflation for many years now. The growing expense of higher education is another obstacle to attaining a secure middle-class life. As a result, it is important to consider how much long-term debt you are willing to carry in earning your degree in creative writing.

If you already have a large amount of debt from your undergraduate studies, it may be best to minimize your expenses for graduate school, or to pay down your debt for a few years before you enter graduate school. Many programs offer teaching assistantships (TAs), fellowships, scholarships, and tuition waivers to help reduce the cost of attendance. Some public universities require one year of residency or more before granting lower, in-state tuition rates, while some universities extend in-state tuition rates to graduate students who are awarded TAs or other support. Make sure you confirm which tuition rates apply to you if you select a state university.

In regard to support, past rankings and many blogs have been especially misleading. One highly ranked school may admit as few as seven graduate students a year, while it awards TAs to all of them. Another unranked school admits fifty students a year and awards TAs to half of them. The small program is ranked more highly because it gives support to all those accepted. But which is the better prospect for you? The program that awards seven TAs annually? Or the program that awards twenty-five? If support is crucial to you, you should apply to at least a few of the larger programs.  


Your Professional Plans: Consider the Curriculum Best for Your Art & Your Work

In choosing a writing program, you may also want to consider the practical side of writing: what to do for a living, until both your avocation and vocation become one and the same. Please keep in mind that—although academe has never been more hospitable to living authors—the competition for full-time teaching jobs is fierce. In a typical year, the academic job market generates 300 tenure-track jobs in creative writing while our writing programs confer advanced degrees to another 4,000 graduates. The academic job market is one of the most exploitative, with a growing underclass of part-time workers. The percentage of adjunct positions has increased from 30% in 1975 to 48% today. These positions offer low pay, poor benefits, and no long-term job security.

There are, however, many vocations that require a writer’s skills and creativity, and many graduates of creative writing programs have enjoyed successful careers in advertising, public relations, journalism, publishing, arts administration, and technical writing. Many programs provide internships, editorial opportunities, and courses in various kinds of professional writing that might improve your prospects in securing professional work in these fields; but if wealth and job security are your main goals, an MBA will serve you better than an MFA. Your main goal in attending a writing program must be artistic, or you will be disappointed. If you aspire to become a literary writer, you will benefit from attending one of the programs listed in our guide.

If you plan to brave the academic job market upon graduation, keep in mind that there are two assets in that arena: first, excellent work published by reputable presses; and, second, expertise in various niches of literary scholarship and cultural studies. In addition to finding the artistic company that will facilitate your best artistic work, you should also become an expert in a few literary eras, authors, and theories. With budgetary cutbacks in higher education, departments of English increasingly value versatility in faculty members—those who can teach various courses of study. If your background in literature is weak, it may be best to consider a three-year—or longer—course of study in order to give yourself more time to develop expertise in teaching other courses of literature besides those in creative writing.

If you already have a professional career, you should be aware that our low-residency MFA programs provide a great alternative to the programs that require residential study. Low-residency programs offer you mentorship and structure without the requirement that you quit your job for residential graduate study. These programs combine brief residencies (usually of ten days, twice a year) along with extended, independent studies that are directed through written correspondence with instructors.

You should keep in mind that one writing program may differ greatly from the next, even if both programs offer the same degree. The basic requirements are listed in this guide so you may decide which curriculum is best for you. In some programs, students must satisfy many traditional requirements for literary scholarship: proficiency in one or more foreign languages; distribution requirements in the arts, sciences, and humanities; an overview of literature from three or more centuries; and a command of scholarly research and documentation skills. Other programs have few of these requirements, if any, as the emphasis is mainly on the progress of the student’s writing. Most programs offer writing workshops in two genres only: poetry and fiction. A few programs offer workshops in only one genre, and an increasing number of programs offer workshops in a multitude of genres: creative nonfiction, playwriting, screenwriting, technical writing, translation, young adult fiction, and writing for children. For admission, some programs require previous study in literature, a high grade-point average, and good scores on aptitude tests or graduate examinations; other programs will require only an original writing sample that demonstrates talent and promise.

If you will soon graduate from high school and you are seeking a college with a strong course of study in creative writing, you should keep in mind that every great writer was, at first, a voracious and omnivorous reader. Many great writers, as part of their apprenticeships, also became fluent in two or more languages. Nothing makes one’s mother tongue more vivid and mysterious than seeing its limitations and powers from the vantage point of thinking and speaking in another language. With each passing year, the world grows smaller, and literature, to remain relevant, becomes more global in its reach. You must first become an expert and wide-ranging reader before you can hope to become a serious writer. You may benefit the most from an undergraduate course of study in which the majority of your work is in classes of literature and languages, rather than in creative writing workshops. You should seek a college that features a strong and diverse curriculum in the liberal arts in addition to classes in creative writing and a lively series of visiting writers.

If you are selecting a graduate program, decide how much coursework you need in the study of literature and how much coursework you need in creative writing. Most graduate programs will require that you complete coursework in literary scholarship and theory, in areas outside of creative writing; in regard to this requirement, the programs vary the most. One graduate program may require 48 credits of total coursework, 24 of which may be writing workshops. Another program may also require 48 credits of total coursework, but only 12 of those may be workshops, as most of the credits must be acquired in literature courses.


Your Other Personal Preferences: Consider the Various Artistic Environments

What environment is best suited to your temperament and needs? A small program of fifteen students? Or a large program of one hundred? Some students thrive in the competiveness and social swirl of large programs. Other students find that competiveness and society to be unhelpful.

Would you like, in addition to your own creative work, to complete some scholarly research? Are you looking for teaching experience? Editorial experience? Can you devote a year, two years, or three or more years to educate yourself in your craft? Would your writing benefit from your living in a city? Beside an ocean? Close to mountains? Or a desert? A small town? Would you prefer to study in the US, Canada, or the UK? Happily, the programs listed here are as varied as the answers to these questions. For some students, the diversions and expenses of a big city will only dissipate their talents, while others will find them enriching. It once was that artists had no other choice but to live in big cities for the company of other artists and mentorship. Writers today have many more options, now that artistic communities have grown more numerous and decentralized. This has been a good thing, because there are more stories and songs than those of New York, London, Paris, and San Francisco. Nonfiction writers who write as naturalists or as documentarians have especially benefited from literary programs located near the landscapes, communities, or wildlife that are the subjects of their writing.

What subjects of writing attract you the most? And what writing environment will help you the most in becoming a master of that subject?

Again, the questions raised here cannot be answered by rankings produced by anyone other than you. In building a stronger and more resourceful artistic character, you must value your independence and your own discernment.


Be the Best Possible Steward of Your Talents

As is the case in the study of music, dance, theater, painting, or sculpture, an advanced degree in writing will not ensure your artistic success. No enterprise is more challenging than the effort to become a successful artist; but no enterprise is more rewarding or more sublime, even if you fail—and failure is surely part of the process when it comes to making art, even if you do finally succeed. While the poet Frank O’Hara was still in college, he wrote, “Life for all its travails has far more zest than any ideal utopia ever would.” O’Hara could just as well have been referring to a writer’s career. If you love literature, it’s worth the trouble and the risk. If you love literature, there is no better way to spend a year or more of your life than in the study of the art of making stories and poems. To be surrounded by people who love books is a thrilling experience—life-changing for many. In a mind-derailing age that keeps accelerating its intrusions of consumerism, celebrities, and spin, the slow and profound pleasures of reading and writing are glorious subversions. The communities created by these programs have enabled many of us to develop lifelong friendships based on a shared devotion to literature. This support sustains many writers long after they have graduated. And for those graduates who finally choose other careers, the study of writing and literature remains an enduring personal asset.

“Character is higher than intellect,” declared Emerson. Writers know this to be true because character includes intellect. Academic study alone will not make a great artist, nor will unique experiences alone, smart ideas alone, mastery of style alone, or passion alone. It has been the wisdom of writing programs to include many kinds of writing, learning, thinking, and feeling. Writing programs may or may not be able to convert a mediocre scribbler into a lasting luminary, but they can certainly improve a writer’s heart, intellect, or both. Ultimately, your success is your own responsibility, though our programs can help you practice the habit of art and provide you with supportive peers along your way. For those of us who work in these programs, we see that talent is not a particularly rare quality. What is far more extraordinary is the emergence of an artist who fuses talent with the discipline, perseverance, and dedication to make the most of one’s gifts. Consider your choice of a program as one of many steps you will take in becoming the best possible steward of your talents and your character.

What kind of artist would you like to become? While you survey our programs, address that question to yourself. The world does not need another writer who follows popular consensus. The more comfortable you become with exercising your independence in solitude, the more likely you will become successful in the development of your own audience. This is your cherished paradox as a writer: you help to build a literary community through work in solitude. The more independent decisions you make, the more likely it will be that you will have a great experience at the creative writing program of your choice.

Writing programs can exercise and develop a stronger character—a greater range of sympathies, resourcefulness, and playfulness. Writers today have more means than ever by which they may sharpen their pencils and wits. And we as readers, too, are richer for that.

—David Fenza
Executive Director
Association of Writers & Writing Programs

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