AWP Hallmarks of an Effective BFA Program or BA Major in Creative Writing

For their undergraduate students, many colleges and universities offer majors in creative writing.  These major courses of study lead to the BFA degree at most institutions, or to the BA degree at other institutions. The Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) recognizes that colleges and universities have different strengths and missions, and AWP encourages innovation and variety in the pedagogy of creative writing. Among its member programs, however, AWP has recognized common elements of an effective BFA program in creative writing.

Many of the hallmarks of an effective major resemble those of a strong graduate program, but the undergraduate hallmarks differ from the graduate hallmarks especially in regard to curriculum. For undergraduate writers, a good four-year curriculum requires more general studies of literature, the arts and sciences, and the fine arts; it also provides extracurricular experiences in writing, publishing, and literature. Whereas a Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing places central emphasis on students’ practice of their craft, an undergraduate program complements the study of writing with a rigorous study of literary works.

One must become an expert reader before one can hope to become an expert writer. To cultivate that expertise, a strong undergraduate program emphasizes a wide range of study in literature and other disciplines to provide students with the foundation they need to become resourceful—as readers, as intellectuals, and as writers. The goal of an undergraduate program is to teach students how to read closely as writers and to engage students in the practice of literary writing. An undergraduate course of study in creative writing gives students an overview of the precedents established by writers of many eras, continents, ethnicities, and sensibilities; it gives students the ability to analyze, appreciate, and integrate the components that comprise works of literature. By creating their own works, student writers may apply what they have learned about the elements of literature.

A successful undergraduate program accomplishes all this by various means: through a rigorous and diverse curriculum, through instruction from publishing writers who are gifted teachers, through excellent support for students, through the administration’s effective management, and through the institution’s extracurricular activities, general assets, and infrastructure. To help institutions structure and focus their internal reviews and independent assessments of their programs, the AWP Board of Directors has established these hallmarks.

Programs that establish the major in creative writing should also offer elective courses in creative writing for non-majors.  In these elective courses students from all disciplines may acquire a deeper understanding of the components of rhetoric and the elements of literature while they gain fluency in persuasive communication. For more recommendations on the minor, please see our other document, “AWP Hallmarks of an Effective Minor in the Undergraduate Study of Creative Writing.”

Rigorous and Diverse Curriculum

An introductory multi-genre creative writing course, while it is typically an essential prerequisite, would not count toward the major.  Only upper-division courses should count toward the major.  Students may receive credit toward a major for work on a literary journal, which may be offered as a course, and for service courses or internships offered by the creative writing program.  Such courses provide fertile ground for innovation in achieving the pedagogical goals of a program.

Students who earn a BA or BFA in creative writing should fulfill the following requirements within the creative writing program:

  • a minimum of three tiered workshops in their chosen genre: introductory workshops, intermediate workshops, and advanced workshops
  • at least one craft-of-a-genre course in their chosen genre (a “Seminar in Poetic Forms and Poetics” is a typical course required of student poets while a “Seminar in Narrative Strategies” fulfills the same requirement for the student fiction and nonfiction writers)
  • at least one tiered workshop in a supplementary genre (work in more than one genre is required)
  • completion of a creative thesis or portfolio in the senior year

Students who major in creative writing should also meet these co-curricular requirements:

  • at least three upper-division literature courses offered by the English Department (in addition to survey of literature courses offered in the first two years of their undergraduate experience) or comparable courses offered by other departments such as comparative literature
  • a distribution of English or literature courses that ideally demonstrate a study of the literature and authors of three different centuries or literary periods (Medieval; Renaissance; 18th Century, Romantic and Victorian; American Renaissance/Transcendentalism; Harlem Renaissance; Modern Literature: 1900 to 1945; and Contemporary Literature: 1945 to the Present—or other epochs as defined by the Department of English)
  • at least two sequenced courses in a foreign language
  • at least one and preferably two courses in the analysis or practice of an art form other than writing

AWP has published “AWP Recommendations on the Teaching of Creative Writing to Undergraduates.” Please see that document for an explanation of the philosophy, goals, and methods that inform an effective undergraduate creative writing curriculum, the hallmarks of which are enumerated below:

  1. Philosophy. The program has an overarching set of values, beliefs, and pedagogy that reflect: (a) the best practices of creative writing programs; (b) an awareness of the needs of its students; and (c) an understanding of the currents of contemporary literature and culture. The program's philosophy is appropriate to its institution's mission and the goals of its strategic plan. The curriculum requires studies that employ this philosophy effectively.

  2. Extensive Study of Literature. Students take courses that provide a broad background in literature, the humanities, the sciences, and the fine arts; and they enjoy other extracurricular experiences essential to an undergraduate education. The institution offers courses in literary studies that are historically, intellectually, geographically, and culturally wide-ranging and varied. Students should take courses that explore a wide variety of literature, both past and present, as well as courses that emphasize close reading of literary works. Students should be proficient in a second modern or classical language.

  3. A Tiered Course of Study. A tiered curriculum provides introductory, intermediate, and advanced courses. Undergraduate workshops are generally more structured than graduate workshops, since it is not assumed that students know the elements of prosody or storytelling. Especially at the introductory level, undergraduate workshops require students to work in various forms, styles, modes, and genres. Advanced courses may include an independent study, a senior thesis, or capstone course in creative writing. A system of prerequisites, which tracks courses taken and grades achieved, ensures that students take courses in an appropriate order.

  4. Practice in More Than One Literary Genre. Because too much specialization too soon is generally not in a young writer’s best interest, students in undergraduate writing programs typically are required to take writing workshops and seminars in more than one genre. The best undergraduate creative writing program offers advanced courses in at least three or more separate genres (fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, drama, screenwriting), and students also have the opportunity to take courses in the translation of literature.

  5. A Capstone Project. A senior thesis, project, or capstone course completes the program, requiring both a longer creative manuscript and a critical paper.  The length of the thesis should be appropriate to the genre: roughly 25 to 50 pages for fiction, nonfiction, and drama, and 20 to 30 pages for poetry. In the junior or senior year, a student completes an appropriate internship.

  6. Consistent Course Offerings. Courses are listed in the school’s catalogue and offered regularly so that students may complete the program in a timely manner consistent with other programs at the school.

  7. Diversity in Literary Models. Creative writing courses, including workshops, require craft texts and literary works (anthologies, books by individual authors, literary periodicals) that offer appropriate models for student writing. Reading lists should incorporate texts by contemporary writers whose interests and backgrounds reflect a multicultural American society and an international community of writers.

  8. An Emphasis on Revision. Creative writing courses are by definition writing-intensive, and they should emphasize revision of successive drafts in response to feedback from peers and extensive written comments by instructors.

  9. Grading, Testing, and Evaluation. Criteria for grading in undergraduate courses should be based on the level of each student’s mastery of rhetoric, literary terminology, literary forms, critical approaches, and the writer’s craft. Grades for the course should also weigh students’ verbal and written feedback on each other’s work.

  10. An Introduction to Vocational Opportunities. Programs provide a practicum, such as an internship, and advising on job opportunities and graduate schools. The program may also provide credit for editorial and production work on a student magazine.

  11. Study of New Media Technology. The institution provides instruction in new technology that is critically important for writers who would participate in the full spectrum of the writing world; this includes an understanding of writing on the web, website construction, integration of other media with writing, and desktop publishing.

Accomplished Faculty

An effective undergraduate creative writing faculty has these characteristics:

  1. Accomplished Writers Who Teach Well. The program has a faculty of published writers who have distinguished themselves as teachers and as artists. As teachers, they command the respect of their peers, and they generally receive good to excellent student evaluations. Each faculty member has published significant work in one or more of the following genres: fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, playwriting, writing for children and young adults, translation, or screenwriting. Each faculty member has published at least one book by a respected press, and that book is in the genre which the faculty member teaches. Each faculty member holds an MFA degree in creative writing or a level of literary book publication that serves as an equivalent for the degree..

  2. Stability in Core Faculty. Permanent faculty members—full-time, tenure-track, tenured, and adjunct—teach a majority of the creative writing courses.

  3. Diverse Faculty. A program’s faculty provides depth and expertise in at least three genres and in various aesthetics and philosophies of the craft of writing. A diverse faculty provides a range of aesthetic points of view related to literary, ethnic, cultural, or other influences. For each genre offered in the program’s curriculum (poetry, fiction, nonfiction, etc.), the core faculty includes one or more individual members, who each have publications primarily in that genre.

  4. Community Service. Faculty members are publishing writers and committed teachers who routinely make themselves available to students outside of class. Faculty members are professionally active; they publish creative work and participate in national, regional, and local organizations and  activities related to teaching, literature, and the arts.

  5. Accomplished Visiting Writers. Distinguished visiting full-time or adjunct faculty include writers whose credentials equal or surpass the members of the program’s core faculty. Lectures, readings, and workshops by visiting writers (especially those from outside an institution’s state or region) extend the regular faculty’s ability to present a variety of approaches to the art and craft of writing. Visiting writers teach primarily, if not exclusively, courses in creative writing; they are not used inappropriately to supplement other departmental staffing needs. Their published work merits national, if not international, attention.

  6. Well-Prepared Teaching Assistants. In universities, a graduate creative writing student’s training may include teaching introductory or intermediate undergraduate courses in creative writing. Most undergraduate creative writing classes are taught by the core faculty, however; and the program’s faculty members prepare and closely supervise the graduate teaching associates.

  7. Accomplished Scholars and Critics. Since undergraduates with a major in creative writing must also study a wide range of literature, the program, or the department in which the program operates, also has an excellent full-time faculty of scholars who teach a wide range of literature courses that cover many authors, eras, and cultures.

Excellent Students & Support for Students

The effective undergraduate program has these features in its support for students:

  1. Small Classes. Introductory creative writing courses have class size restrictions equal to or less than an institution’s restriction for composition classes (but no greater than 20 students). Intermediate and advanced courses have class size restrictions of 12–18 students, with a maximum of 15 students in advanced workshop classes (optimum workshop class size: 12 students).

  2. Excellence in Undergraduate Instruction. Undergraduate students participate in all facets of the program, both curricular and extracurricular, and are not marginalized by graduate students or faculty. Students serve on committees relevant to the undergraduate creative writing program.

  3. Regular Evaluation of Faculty and Curriculum. The program is responsive to the needs of its undergraduate students, and students evaluate their instructors each semester. The program also periodically conducts exit surveys of students after they have completed the program.

  4. Excellent Advising. Each student in the major is assigned an advisor who is a core faculty member of the creative writing program. The advisor will require a meeting with the student at least once each semester. The program provides a student handbook that includes a clear explanation of course requirements and general advice on how to excel in the program.

  5. A Student Literary Magazine. Students edit their own literary magazine (50% or more is devoted to literary works) with a faculty advisor who guides but does not censor their editorial process. The majority of published works are by undergraduate students. The editorial staff is not represented excessively among the magazine’s contributors.

  6. Student Readings. Students have regular opportunities to participate in public readings of their works, including solo readings for students completing a senior thesis or project.

  7. Service Learning Opportunities. Students participate in programs that promote and celebrate literacy, literature, writing, and reading in their communities.

  8. Vocational Opportunities. Internship opportunities are available for creative writing students in a variety of writing, editing, and publishing professions. A formal affiliation with a professional literary journal or press is especially desirable.

  9. Selective Admissions. Creative writing majors are as academically qualified and as competitive as the majors in other disciplines.

  10. Strong Recruitment of the Best Students. Financial aid for creative writing students is comparable to the support for students in other departments. Both the institution and the program work in concert to enroll qualified students of different backgrounds, social classes, and races.

  11. A High Graduation Rate. A high percentage of matriculated students graduate from the program, and a small number of students drop out or transfer to other programs.

  12. Literary Accomplishments of Alumni. A significant number of students continue their studies in graduate programs and go on to publish their work.

  13. Support for Student Travel to Literary Conferences. The program encourages juniors and seniors to travel to readings, workshops, festivals, conferences, and literary events. As much as possible, the program provides support for student travel and participation in such events; this support is especially important for students of colleges and universities in remote areas.

  14. Student Literary Competitions. Students participate in literary competitions on campus and in national competitions, including the national Intro Awards competition and the AWP Program Directors’ Prizes for Undergraduate Literary Magazines.

Administrative Support

The effective major has these features in its administration:

  1. Strong Leadership. The BFA Program Director provides strong leadership in planning, in staffing, in devising curriculum, in training new faculty members, in recruiting the best students, and in advocating program needs to the host institution’s administration. The Program Director is a tenured member of the creative writing faculty.

  2. Release Time for Program Director. In a program of appropriate size, a Program Director will be awarded at least one course reduction annually to facilitate work in advising students, recruiting faculty, coordinating the reading series, and managing other responsibilities of the program.

  3. Sufficient Autonomy. The institution’s administration gives the program sufficient autonomy with regard to curriculum, admissions, budget, support, physical facilities, and personnel to ensure quality, stability, flexibility, and the capability to take advantage of opportunities quickly.

  4. Strong Financial Support. The institution provides financial resources to facilitate excellence in the recruiting and retaining of faculty, in providing services to students, in providing administrative support for the Program Director, and in maintaining the facilities used by the program.

  5. Good Departmental Relations. If the program is part of a department of literature or another larger entity, the program has a mutually supportive relationship with that department.

  6. Community Service. The Program Director and the institution’s administrators seek, whenever possible, to establish a strong, positive presence in the local community. Typically, events in the program’s reading series are open to the public, and the Program Director actively publicizes the events.

  7. Diligent Quality Control. The Program Director ensures that students have the opportunity to evaluate their faculty, and the Program Director facilitates regular internal and external evaluations of the program’s effectiveness.

  8. Participation in Professional Networks. A good program provides membership in AWP and other appropriate local, regional, and national associations to ensure faculty members and students have access to timely information about contemporary letters and the teaching of creative writing.

Other Complementary Assets and Infrastructure

An effective major also has the assets and infrastructure that comprise any good college or university:

  1. Good Infrastructure. Classrooms, offices, and other spaces are adequate to conduct workshops, conferences, readings, and informal student and faculty gatherings. Spaces assigned to the program promote an atmosphere conducive to concentration, listening, social exchanges, and focused work.

  2. A Computer Lab. The lab is open at least 12 hours a day for students to work on manuscripts, conduct research on the Internet, and practice using new media technologies.

  3. An Excellent Library. Faculty and students have access to a library with extensive holdings in canonical and contemporary literature.

  4. A Unique Educational Feature. The program or its institution provides a special focus, initiative, resource, archive, project, or other opportunity for students that distinguishes the program from other comparable programs. Such a feature might be an emphasis on translation, a literary conference, a small press, special internships, or the archives of a literary author.

  5. A Bookstore. The program has a bookstore that supports the curriculum, special events with visiting writers, and faculty and student authors.

  6. An Affiliated Literary Publication. The program is affiliated with a journal, press, or another literary publishing venue that can provide editorial and publishing experience.

—The AWP Board of Directors