Besides a bachelor’s degree and the Statement of Intent, which I discussed in my previous post, the main requirement for an application to an MFA in Creative Writing Program is a work sample in the genre you want to study. The prescribed length is generally twenty-five pages for fiction and nonfiction and ten pages for poetry. Some institutions also require a critical paper as evidence of your ability as a reader and critical thinker. In fact, critical writing is an integral part of most low-residency programs. The long-distance format begins with an on-campus residency and continues through the remainder of the semester with online workshops consisting of a mentor and a peer group.
At Queens University of Charlotte, a residency starts on a Sunday evening with a campus tour for newcomers, followed by a welcome reception of scrumptious snacks and drinks galore. This is really a “soften ‘em up and weaken ‘em” strategy, as you’re launched into the first manuscript swap straight after. The adrenaline rush (in rare cases, tipsiness, too) makes for a frantic episode of doling out two sets of manuscripts to two different groups (large and small) and grabbing your share of copies in return. A large group consists of two small groups that work together for the first half of the residency and split later to form the peer group you’ll be working with for the rest of the semester.
It’s easy to spot newcomers on campus—their eyes are glazed over from the shock of the manuscript exchange and the thought of having to critique eight or so manuscripts on top of a busy schedule that can have you running from one lesson to the next from roughly 9am to 6pm, not counting faculty and graduate readings that take place nearly every evening. I remember feeling like a lost traveler as I dragged my roll-on bag, campus map tucked tightly under one arm, hoping I’m indeed heading in the right direction.
Once a month, through each semester, members of a peer group email their eight to twenty-five pages to each other and their mentor. A week later, they follow up with their written critiques of three to five hundred words. After receiving the critiques from the peer group’s students, the mentor responds to the creative and critical submissions. The process repeats four times per semester, by the end of which you’re more than ready for the next welcome reception.
For new writers, the critiquing process can be intimidating, whether you’re on the giving or receiving end. It requires careful consideration to develop constructive criticism. The most common critiquing model is based on three steps: state what’s working, state what’s not working, and offer suggestions for the parts that need improving. It helps to keep in mind that you’d want feedback that’s honest, helpful, and encouraging, too. Click the link below for more comprehensive guidelines.
My first semester stands out in my mind. My mentor—Elizabeth Strout, a Pulitzer Prize winning author and New York Times bestseller—is seen as a bit of a rock star of the university. But more about my mentors and the critiquing process later.