The 10 Most Prominent Writers’ Workshops in America

There is a myth that writing is a solitary endeavor. While it's true that no one but the author can put words to paper, writing is certainly not a solitary practice, especially for students in creative writing workshops at some of the most prestigious writing programs in the U.S. There, writers work with other students and professors to hone their creative works through intensive writing workshops. Over the past few decades, these programs have produced some of America's best-known and best-loved authors, and continue to train the next generation of American literary figures. While every writer has his or her own favorite when it comes to these prestigious writers' workshops, here are a few we think are the biggest and the best in the U.S., listed in no particular order.

  1. The University of Iowa:

    The University of Iowa is home to the most prestigious writers' workshop in the nation. A key factor in that prestige is that the program is one of the oldest, starting nearly three decades before any other writing workshop in the U.S. It was also the first program in the country to offer an MFA in English. Students in the Iowa Writers' Workshop take a small number of classes each semester, the most important of which is a weekly class where students share work and engage in roundtable discussions with teachers and peers to provide constructive criticism and feedback for the author. Having top-notch faculty certainly helps the writing process and in past years the school has boasted literary greats like Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth, and John Irving as faculty members. Whatever the secret of its success, the program is doing something right: alumni of the school have won seventeen Pulitzer Prizes, a handful have been Poet Laureates, and dozens more have won other prestigious awards.

  2. Columbia University:

    Columbia's creative writing program boasts some pretty impressive alumni, among them J.D. Salinger, Federico Garcia Lorca, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Jack Kerouac, Langston Hughes, and Allen Ginsberg, though that's hardly a complete list. Surrounded by the sights and sounds of the city, the school is situated amid a living, breathing source of inspiration that has helped many great authors to launch successful careers. Of course, the city alone isn't what helps Columbia's students to produce high-quality work; the rigorous writing workshops it requires of MFA candidates, whether they want to become a screenwriter, novelist, or poet, are likely of greater importance. Through the workshops, students work closely with award-winning faculty and their peers to write, edit, and, hopefully, to create work that makes it into publication, a goal many a Columbia grad has achieved.

  3. Boston University:

    When it comes to poetry, few schools can compete with the impressive array of graduates produced by Boston University's writing workshops. Boston University's alumni include poetic greats like Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and George Starbuck and present and past faculty members are prestigious in their own right, like Robert Pinsky, Robert Lowell, and Ha Jin. The program is notoriously intense, critical, and structured, and is designed to get students used to the harsh criticisms they'll face in the real world and help them to build the skills to produce great work. While students will take an assortment of literature courses, the crux of the program are the writing workshops, offered in fiction, poetry, or drama, where most of the writing and critiquing takes place.

  4. Florida State University:

    This Tallahassee school offers students the chance to work with Pulitzer and National Book Award-winning professors in intensive workshops. The school may not boast the same high-profile alumni as others on this list, but that's in part because the writing program has seen a near complete reinvention over the past two decades under the leadership of the programs's top-notch professors and dedicated administrators. In 1997, FSU's writer's workshops languished at 37th in the U.S. according to U.S. News and World Report rankings. Today, FSU is ranked among the best places in the nation for writers to hone their skills, and as time goes on, the program will undoubtedly produce some big names in literature as its workshops hone the skills of America's aspiring writers.

  5. The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor:

    The University of Michigan is among one of the best public universities in the United States, so it should come as no surprise that the school also boasts one of the top writing programs. The MFA program at the university takes two years to complete, much of which is spent in writing workshops and crafting a master's thesis. All students also get a $6,000 stipend for the summer semester that allows them to spend time writing and honing their skills rather than having to worry about working to pay bills and rent. The school's workshops have produced a number of notable writers, with some even winning National Book Awards. Many of Michigan's successful writers have specialized in science fiction and fantasy writing, making it an ideal place for students interested in those genres to hone their skills.

  6. University of California, Irvine:

    The UC Irvine programs have some seriously high-profile alumni among their ranks, some of whom produced successful works while students still in the school's MFA program. Michael Chabon's MFA thesis would get him a book deal and he would later go on to win a Pulitzer Prize. Alice Sebold's memoir about her rape began as a writing assignment in her Irvine courses, and would later be published after her graduation. Other notable alumni include Pulitzer winners Robert Ford and Yusef Komunyakaa, with many other grads going on to score book deals and win awards. The high profile of the program allows it to be selective, accepting just 10 to 12 writers into its programs each year, though applications can sometimes number 500 or more. Workshops at UC Irvine aren't just for grad students, however as the school also offers writers' workshops to undergrads who are interested in becoming professional writers.

  7. New York University:

    A big part of the prestige of NYU's writers' workshops comes from the professors who guide them, among them E.L. Doctorow, Yusef Komunyakaa, Sharon Olds, and Zadie Smith with elite visiting writers like Jonathan Safran Foer, Charles Simic, and Anne Carson also lending a hand. While prestigious faculty help the workshops at the school stand out, so does progressive coursework and a wide range of specializations that allow students to tailor their writing instruction to their particular goals and styles. To graduate from the program, students must take at least four creative writing workshops and use them to help to produce a creative thesis, either a novel, collection of short stories, or a group of poems. With reading, writing, and editing at the core of the program, many grads go on to produce works that make it into publication.

  8. University of Virginia:

    With a 1% acceptance rate, the University of Virginia's creative writing program is one of the most selective in the United States. Its selectiveness, as well as the high esteem both graduates and faculty are held in, have made it one of the most prestigious programs in the U.S. Alumni of the program include Char Harbach and Charles McLoed, both successful fiction writers, though UVA is most famous for its poetry writing workshops, which provide intensive instruction that has helped numerous aspiring writers get their works published. Named by Poets & Writers magazine as the third best school in the nation for getting an MFA in creative writing, UVA takes educating its students seriously, requiring 12 hours of workshopping and 24 hours of research related to the construction of a creative thesis.

  9. University of Wisconsin, Madison:

    The MFA program at UW Madison is relatively new, having been started in 2002, though the school had offered other graduate degree studies in English previously. It's unique among many other writing programs because of its alternating admissions, accepting fiction students in odd-numbered years and poets in even-numbered years. Further distinguishing it is that students can take workshops outside of their area of concentration, studying fiction, poetry, nonfiction, playwrighting, and screenwriting as it strikes their interest. This flexibility is perhaps why the school's program is held in such high regard, and has been ranked among the best in the nation for several years running. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have prize-winning faculty, generous financial aid, and a great track record of published alumni either.

  10. University of Texas, Austin:

    While not an alum, author James Michener played a major role in shaping the creative writing program at UT Austin. Michener founded the MFA program in writing at the school, which is now named after him, and left the school a generous donation that has enabled it to provide substantial fellowships to admitted students. The result has been the establishment of a prestigious program that allows students to work closely with published authors and their classmates in workshops throughout their three years at the school, focusing on either fiction, poetry, screenwriting, or playwriting with the opportunity to choose a second area of interest as well. Alumni of the school have done well, capturing elite fellowships, prizes, and awards for a wide range of work and the program is consistently ranked as one of the best in the nation for creative writing.