While technology has redefined much of how media is consumed today, the fundamentals of creating content for books, film, television, magazines, and other creative outlets remains the same. Writers use their imagination and technical skills to craft original pieces of work for audiences of all types to consume and enjoy. The creative process is one that can be developed and refined, allowing for an endless array of innovative expression through the written word. This expression goes beyond genre (e.g., fiction) and touches areas that span from social justice to television comedy. Understanding how to create that expression through different modes (e.g., poetry, nonfiction) is the responsibility of individuals skilled in creative writing.

Classification of Master’s in Creative Writing Programs

Drawing on multidisciplinary instruction in rhetoric, literature, pedagogy, and writing, graduate programs in creative writing help students hone their professional writing skills in areas ranging from fiction to poetry. There are several different types of master’s programs in the field, with the most common being a terminal degree, the Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) in Creative Writing. However, there are also Master of Arts in Creative Writing programs, and Master of Arts in English programs that offer specializations in Creative Writing. Traditionally, these programs can be found in a university’s Department of English, or School or College of Liberal Arts.

MFA in Creative Writing versus MA in Creative Writing Programs

As noted above, the M.F.A. is considered a terminal degree. While there are Ph.D. programs in the field, they are not as common and more research oriented, whereas the M.F.A. is traditionally regarded as a practitioner’s degree. With an M.F.A., individuals can pursue college-level teaching and writing positions in areas such as English, journalism, communication, and related fields. For many, the M.A. in Critical Writing is a stepping stone to prepare for work in doctoral programs, transition into an M.F.A. program, or to gain advance professional skills.

The distinction between an M.F.A. and an M.A. in Creative Writing may seem subtle at first, but the two degrees are typically quite different in terms of focus and the type of careers they prepare students for. In most cases, the M.F.A. is intended specifically for those looking to hone their writing skills and become a professional writer or novelist. Along with refining their written work throughout the program, M.F.A. students take courses in various areas of publishing and business that pertain to the writing profession, such as the stages of book publication, and how to use social media to market yourself as a writer. The M.A., on the other hand, includes more analytical courses in English language and literature, focusing on areas outside of creative writing itself, such as genre study and literary theory.

For example, Southern New Hampshire University offers both a Master of Arts in English and Creative Writing, and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. The M.F.A. program requires more credits to complete, and includes courses such as The Business of Writing, Storytelling, The Publishing Ecosystem, Finding and Reaching an Audience, and Editing and Coaching. Students in the M.A. program also study storytelling and various other writing skills, however, their curriculum includes courses in English Language and Literary Theory, instead of the more practical subjects covered by the M.F.A.

Additional examples of master’s in creative writing programs can be found at the following universities:

Online Master’s in Creative Writing Programs

Professionals in fields from technical writing to creative nonfiction may benefit from a master’s degree in creative writing; however, it might not be possible for some to leave from their current career in order to pursue a graduate education. Online master’s in creative writing programs are a great option for these individuals, as they generally provide a greater level of flexibility when it comes to class scheduling than on-campus programs. They also give students a wider range of degree options to choose from, particularly for those that live far from any school offering a campus-based program in the field. Yet, prior to selecting an online program, prospective students should recognize the differences in instructional formats typically used in online education, namely the distinction between asynchronous and synchronous instruction.

Learners seeking the greatest level of scheduling freedom, who are disciplined and self-motived in their studies, may find asynchronous instruction to be the best fit. This format uses guided, but independent instruction. Students in these online programs do not have to log into a learning management system at any specific time during the week. Instead, they review class materials and readings on their own schedule, and complete assignments in accordance with due dates on the syllabus. They participate in class discussions via class message boards, watch recorded lectures, and more – all at any time, day or night.

Students that need or want more interaction with peers and instructors might want to consider an online program that uses synchronous instruction. In this format, students are required to attend classes during specific times (typically in the evening), logging into a learning management system to watch class lectures and participate in peer discussions via web chat or online conferencing platforms. Synchronous instruction tends to provide more opportunities for personal interaction with students and instructors, but does not offer the same level of flexibility as programs that use asynchronous instruction. However, independent of the instruction method, online programs offer students the ability to pursue graduate education without having to commute to campus on a weekly basis.

It is important to note that while completely online master’s in creative writing programs are available, some require students to complete an in-person residency or learning experience on campus (or sometimes at a third-party location). Residencies are usually multi-day experiences where students participate in workshops, lectures, panels, and readings. Depending on the program, these campus sessions may span two to three days each, or even up to two weeks in some cases. These intensive sessions can enhance an online program by allowing students to interact with professors and classmates in person; however, they do require travel and often additional expenses, so students should weight the pros and cons of attending such residencies before applying to a program that requires them.

Curriculum Details for Master’s in Creative Writing Programs

Most master’s degree programs in creative writing require students to complete a total of 36 credit hours, and may include a final portfolio, a residency (in-person learning experience), final manuscript, thesis, and/or writing workshops. Programs using quarter formats traditionally require between 45 and 48 credits to complete the degree. Depending on the specific institution and program structure, students can typically expect to finish their program in anywhere from 24 to 36 months of full-time study.

As noted above, there may seem to be significant overlap between a graduate degree in English with a creative writing specialization and an M.F.A . or M.A. in the field. Each option explores the fundamentals of the writing craft. However, the master’s degree programs in English with a creative writing option tend to emphasize the study of and critical analysis of writing and literature, while the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Master of Arts in Creative Writing are more application-based. In these dedicated creative writing programs, students spend more time writing in their field (e.g., poetry) than writing about poetry.

The curriculum of a Master of Arts in English with a creative writing specialization may only include a single genre option (e.g., fiction), and require just a few electives to satisfy the creative writing component. Conversely, the curriculum of master’s in creative writing programs (M.A. and M.F.A) is highly structured, focused specifically on courses that develop students’ ability to teach writing and become writers themselves.

Another major difference is how learning is organized in M.F.A. and M.A. programs. Writing instruction is the primary focus, and the majority of graduate programs in creative writing use workshops, mentorship, and peer-based review to help students hone their craft. Workshop requirements vary by program, but allow students to develop a portfolio of writing, gain skills in analyzing the work of others, and build critical skills in self-evaluation.

A third unique element of dedicated master’s in creative writing programs is the focus on genre. Genre is a category and style of literature, and includes areas such as fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Within each genre, there are opportunities to specialize. For example, students in fiction may focus on young adult literature, while those in poetry might concentrate in freeform poetry.

Traditionally, master’s in creative writing programs have flexible curricula plans divided between genre-based workshops, literature seminars, elective courses, and a culminating project (e.g., thesis, portfolio, manuscript, critical essay). The total number of courses in each area varies significantly, but in almost all creative writing graduate programs, the workshop serves as the core learning experience.

By developing a personal approach to literary aesthetics, gaining familiarity with the foundations of existing composition theory and traditions, and building professional, strategic approaches to the writing craft, students learn how to write professionally, in addition to the following:

  • Refine and enhance their personal writing voice and skills, understanding their own aesthetic approach to writing in their chosen genre (e.g., fiction, poetry)
  • Possess an advanced understanding of writing, editing, and revision strategies and techniques
  • Demonstrate the ability to respond in a critical manner to written work across genres
  • Develop broad knowledge of rhetoric and literary arguments, and have the ability to critically examine literary works, including their own
  • Show an understanding of the practice and theory of teaching creative writing

Master’s in Creative Writing Courses

Because of the individualized nature of study within creative writing graduate programs, specific courses will vary. Students can typically craft a curriculum plan that best aligns with their professional needs – whether they want to pursue teaching or advance in their current careers in writing or publishing. Some examples of potential subjects include approaches to teaching composition, essayism, prose style, writing about the arts, playwriting, storytelling, and symbolism.

Below is an example list of courses students might encounter when completing a master’s degree in creative writing:

  • Pedagogy of Creative Writing: Explores theoretical and contemporary models of teaching creative writing, and serves as an introduction to theories, texts, and practices within the field.
  • Seminar in Poetry: A workshop-based approach to the study of poetry that asks students to compose original work, solicit feedback from their peers, and learn about modern poetry through a range of reading and discussions.
  • Writing for Young Adults: Examines the history of young adult literature and emphasizes skill development in writing for younger audiences by requiring students to create original works for young adult readers.
  • Contemporary Novel: A review of the techniques and themes used in the contemporary novel, providing students with an understanding of the genre and the ability to identify and discern patterns in this format.
  • Creative Nonfiction: An introduction to the creative nonfiction field that broadly examines different genres (e.g., travel writing, memoir), and allows students freedom to develop their writing skills through personal essays and other forms of creative nonfiction.

Most master’s in creative writing programs also include a culminating learning experience that allows students to synthesize the knowledge they have gained in seminars and workshops while applying them to a real-world writing project. The specific format varies by program, but typically include a thesis or writing portfolio. In each, students work with a committee and faculty advisor in a guided writing project to craft a publication-worthy, manuscript-length piece of work. Examples include books of poetry, a novel, or selection of personal essays.

The table below provides an outline of an example curriculum plan for a two-year program that requires 36 credit hours to complete, has an emphasis in nonfiction, and culminates with a written thesis project:

Fall Term
Spring Term
Summer Term
Year 1
  • Workshop in Nonfiction
  • Art and Craft in Nonfiction
  • Readings in Contemporary Nonfiction
  • Workshop in Memoir
  • Writing Creative Nonfiction
  • Form and Theory in Nonfiction
  • Graduate Workshop: Nonfiction
Year 2
  • Thesis Seminar
  • Literary Journalism
  • Readings in Prose
  • Workshop in the Essay
  • Thesis: Nonfiction
  • Workshop: Nonfiction

Career Paths for Graduates with a Master’s in Creative Writing

On the surface, a graduate education in creative writing may seem like a specialized academic experience. However, coursework in these programs can be valuable to individuals in many related fields (e.g., marketing, public relations), helping them hone their communication and writing craft for a wide range of purposes.

Becoming a professional writer or editor may be one of the most common career paths for graduates of creative writing master’s programs. However, through these programs, students gain an advanced understanding of the creative process, valuable writing skills, and knowledge that can be applied to a variety of career tracks. Individuals with a master’s degree in creative writing can pursue employment options in wide-ranging areas, such as public relations, education, marketing, law, multimedia, film and entertainment, publishing, journalism, technical writing, and more.

Below is a list of potential career paths for individuals with a graduate degree in creative writing.

  • Writing Instructor: Teaches introductory and advanced creative writing classes at the local and post-secondary level, and may serve as a faculty or instructional advisor for student-based literary magazines and journals.
  • Writing Center Director: Responsible for leading writing centers at institutions of higher education that provide tutoring services and writing assistance to students, faculty members, and the general community.
  • Screenwriter: Develops original stories and scripts for production in various media formats, such as television or film, and may be tasked with rewriting existing scripts that are planned or currently in production.
  • Digital Creative Writer: Develops a range of creative written material that aligns with a company’s editorial and style guidelines for websites and online media platforms used to market services, drive sales, or enhance the company’s brand position.
  • Grant Writer: Conducts research and writes proposals for financial grants provided by foundations, trusts, companies, and government agencies.