The “Write” Tips: How to Succeed in Your Online MFA Writing Program

How to Succeed in Your Online MFA Writing Program

There’s plenty of writing advice from scholars, editors, and classic and contemporary authors available online and in books. But what about advice for making the most of a writing program like National University’s Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing?

We’ve put together some tips on how to succeed in an online MFA.

Have a Clear End Goal

If you’re interested in starting an online writing degree program, chances are you’ve got a long-term goal in mind. Many times that goal is to get published. Typically, MFA programs require students to complete a manuscript before graduating, a good motivator to bring that creative idea you’ve kept on the back burner to life. Maybe you are interested in an MFA as an entry into teaching at the college level. Or perhaps the MFA is simply one of your goals for personal fulfillment.

It’s often surprising to some people how diverse an MFA is; for example, graduates of National University’s MFA in Creative Writing have not only published essays, books, chapbooks, and comic books, but they also found work in a variety of roles, including:

  • Instructor at the college level in various courses and programs such as:
    • Screenwriting.
    • Poetry.
    • Fiction.
    • Nonfiction.
    • Composition.
  • Writing teacher at a design school.
  • Online creative writing workshop leader.
  • Small press publisher.
  • Anthology editor.
  • Book editor.
  • Media agency owner.
  • Community education program director.

No matter what your end goal is, keep it top of mind. Doing so will help you stay on track and allow you to make informed choices throughout the program. Above all, earning a writing degree online is an investment in time and money; approaching the endeavor with purpose reinforces your decision to return to school and your commitment to optimizing your educational experience.

Set Expectations With the People Around You

No matter how supportive our loved ones are, and no matter how much encouragement they give us, they still might not fully understand the writing process. Many writers find it a challenge to get the space and time they need to write. (People who work at home also might experience this.) We, as writers, know the creative mind is always at work, whether we are typing or not. For example, you could be deep in thought at your desk working out a plot twist, but to others, it might look like “you aren’t doing anything.” Or, you could be on a Google image search for “1890s architecture” for inspiration to describe a building but, to the casual onlooker, it might look like you’re just “messing around on the computer.” Define your parameters. Set some boundaries.

Find a Space that Works for You

You’re going to spend a lot of time in front of a computer, so you’ll also want to make sure your space is inviting and comfortable. This could mean different things to different people; sunlight and plants, dark and cozy, or colorful and bright. One thing is for sure: you’ll want to be able to concentrate when you need to. It’s not possible for everyone earning online degrees to have a private space with a door; so do the best you can with what you have, whether it’s a corner of the living room, a spare bedroom, the back porch, or the kitchen counter. You might also have places outside the house you like, such as a library, cafe, co-working space, or park. (JK Rowling wrote much of the first Harry Potter books in an Edinburgh café.) If you do plan to work in an open space or around other people, noise-canceling headphones are quite helpful.

Don’t forget about ergonomic concerns: how supportive (and cozy) is your chair? Is your desk at the right height? Do you need a foot stand? Do you need a bigger screen or a glare protector for better vision? Your furniture choices and how you arrange your office or workspace can definitely impact your productivity, health, and comfort.

Get the Right Technology

Nothing can be more frustrating than computer issues: slow load times, memory overload, corrupted files, disappearing drafts, outdated programs, and other pesky tech issues. Invest in the best and most up-to-date equipment and software programs you can for your budget so that you’re less likely to experience issues. Optimize your memory, storage space, settings, and other aspects of your computer to maximize your productivity and organization. Then, stay up to date with any browser or operating system updates. If you require assistive devices, check around to see if any particular brand or type of screen reader — or other accessible technology — is especially fitting for writing work.

Access to a high-speed internet connection is strongly recommended for all online degrees. While you don’t need an internet connection to write, you will need it to submit your online MFA work and engage with classmates and faculty. You also might need to fact check, research, email sources, and complete other online tasks.

Find a Routine that Works for You

Most writers and writing teachers will agree it’s best to write every day. This keeps you in the habit, and also helps keep you inspired. (And maybe less prone to writer’s block.) As writer Isabel Allende says, “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.” When and where you write isn’t important — just find a routine that fits your schedule and personality. And find a way to stay on task, whether that’s using timers or finding an accountability buddy.

Get Organized & Plan Ahead

Online degree students, no matter what they’re studying, will benefit from some organization, both digitally and physically. At the start of each new term, take note of important deadlines and how they might fit in with things already on your work, personal, and family calendar. Find a method that works for you to manage your time and keep track of assignments. While much of your work in an online MFA program will be submitted by email or upload, you’re likely to also acquire hard copies of stories, feedback, and other materials. Find a good way to sort and store these items.

Develop Folder Structure and File-Naming Conventions

If you’re like a lot of writers — or, actually, a lot of people in general — you probably have random files saved to your desktop and folders that you’re constantly telling yourself you’ll organize. You’re going to do a lot of revising and a lot of editing in an online MFA, and you may have multiple projects going on at any given time (some for school, some just for you). It’s important for you to find what you need and to be able to compare drafts. Develop a folder structure to keep your assignments straight. Also, create a file-naming system to keep track of all of your drafts. With countless revisions, version control could get out of hand, so dates in your naming system are a good idea. (For example, HAMLET-JUNE-1-19.doc might be better than HAMLET2.doc.)

Set Milestones

While your online MFA syllabus will list deadlines for each course, it’s also helpful if you set your own milestones. For example, you can break larger assignments into manageable chunks. Or, if you attend local open mic nights regularly, use those events as a deadline: this ensures you have something polished by that day, each month.

Accept and Learn to Give Constructive Feedback

Many times, MFA students would consider themselves the writer in the family, or the wordsmith among their group of friends. Receiving positive and glowing feedback from friends, family members, and significant others over the years is always reassuring.

However, once you begin to workshop your pieces with your MFA classmates and instructor, be prepared for a different type of feedback; it could seem a little harsher than you’re used to, but know it’s given in the spirit of helping you improve. As you receive comments on your work, you’ll get better at analyzing and reviewing others’ work constructively, too.

Read Like a Writer

If you want to write, you need to read. Take it from these successful writers:

  • “You can’t be a good writer without being a devoted reader.” J.K. Rowling
  • “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” Stephen King
  • “Read, read, read. Read everything: trash, classics, good, and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master.” William Faulkner

It’s clear that reading is part of the writing life, while you’re a student — and always.

Read Outside Your Genre

We know reading a lot is important to developing your craft in creative writing. However, don’t just reach for books in your genre of focus or ones on a topic similar to your project. Instead, read outside your genre. Get out of your comfort zone.

For example, if you’re a creative nonfiction writer, reading poetry may help you with your imagery or economy of words. If you’re a fiction writer, reading screenplays or dramatic scripts can give you pointers on creating action or mastering dialogue. If you’re studying screenwriting, reading fiction could improve your character development. Aside from what the core of different genres can teach you, reading different subgenres can also help. Maybe you’re writing a memoir but are struggling with creating tension or suspense; reading mysteries and thrillers could help you learn a few tricks.

Keep an Annotated Bibliography

If you’re reading like a writer, chances are you’re highlighting passages, underlining words, and making annotations in the margins. And if you’re reading a lot of books, it will become hard to keep track of all of them. It’s a good idea to keep a running list of what you’ve read so you can refer back to it later; but rather than just write down the title and author, also include what you liked about the book, even include some especially memorable lines. This can serve as a good resource both throughout your creative writing program and long after you graduate. Developing an annotated bibliography might even be a requirement in some online MFA programs.

Carry a Journal With You at All Times

You never know when and where you will find inspiration. It could come while you’re walking the dog, working out, commuting, hiking, or watching television. A classic piece of creative writing advice is to sit in a coffee shop or other populated public space and just listen. This does a few things. First, listening to others talk — how they pause, how they trail off in the middle of a sentence — can improve your skills in writing dialogue for your characters. Second, what you see or overhear could spark an idea for a character, scene, or plot. Ideas can get lost as quickly as you find them. For this reason, always carry a journal with you. Of course, you can use a smartphone note-taking app, too, if that’s your preference. But for many writers, there’s no substitute for writing it down on paper.

Use Your School’s Resources

While you might be earning your writing degree online, MFA programs (such as National University’s) usually also provide several online — or on-campus — resources. For example, you might have access to a university’s library, digitally or on site. Even if you’re attending an MFA program across the coast, the instant access to journals, articles, ebooks, and other research materials is quite helpful. At schools like National University, you might also find academic or tech support from afar, such as finding a writing center or getting help installing a Windows update.

Find a Community

Writers spend a lot of time alone. As an online MFA student in a  program as active as National’s, you’re likely to develop a support network, friendships even, as you take classes, share work, and learn from one another. Your friends and family outside school will support you, but it’s your writing cohorts who will really get you. You might already belong to a local writing group or book club; but, if you don’t, it could be a good idea to find like-minded people who live near you. A good way to build community is to take part in the local literary scene.

You can also develop relationships with other writers online through private Facebook groups geared toward a genre or region; through membership-based websites that offer message boards; or on other platforms such as Twitter. Which leads us to the next tip:

Engage Online

Some of the earliest adopters of the social media platform Twitter were writers and publishing professionals. If you’re not active on Twitter yet, consider joining. You’ll find an array of writers sharing advice, encouragement, links to articles they recommend, and other related content. You can start by following writers you admire, and then grow your network from there. Searching for popular writing hashtags — #amwriting, #writetip, #writingcommunity are just a few — and others that may relate to a specific genre can help you find more like-minded or helpful people to follow. If you’re new to Twitter, expect a bit of a learning curve; you can find plenty of articles available online about how to get started on and make the best use of Twitter.

Take Breaks and Reflect

Chances are if you chose an online MFA, you’re already busy with work, family, and other obligations. Be sure to work in downtime or even fun rewards for yourself. There will definitely be times when you feel overwhelmed. Take a moment to reflect on your progress and how far you’ve come. Then look ahead at your final goal — and keep going. You have a book, poem, or screenplay to finish!

Choosing an online MFA in creative writing allows you to learn, read, write, and revise on your own terms and schedule; but, as with any online degree program, you’ll need to develop a system that works for you. Following some of the tips outlined here could serve as a good starting point with plotting your creative writing success.

If you’d like to learn more about earning a writing degree online, visit National University’s Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program page. This online MFA program offers specializations in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and screenwriting.

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