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Program Requirements

The Helen Zell Writers’ Program is a two-year, fully-funded graduate program in creative writing leading to the Master of Fine Arts degree, with the option of a third-year fellowship for all qualified graduates. HZWP students concentrate in either fiction or poetry and must complete 36 total hours of course work for their degree, including three semesters of writing workshops (18 credits), one semester of a final writing workshop dedicated to completion of their thesis (6 credits), and four semesters (12 credits) of additional graduate coursework (see details below).

Program Structure

The First Year

  • All first-year students take one assigned writing workshop and one non-workshop class of their choosing each semester.
  • Some first-year students hold an internship or volunteer position with one of HZWP's Program Partners.
  • All first-year students take the MFA Exam in their genre in March.

The Second Year

  • All second-year students take one regular writing workshop in the Fall semester and one thesis workshop in the Winter semester. Second-years also take an additional non-workshop class each semester.
  • As part of their funding, all second-year students work as Graduate Student Instructors (GSIs), teaching one University of Michigan undergraduate introductory level writing course each semester. Training and pedagogical support is offered before and throughout the second year.

The Third Year

  • Starting for the Fall 2022 cohort, the Helen Zell Writers' Program will be able to offer six qualifying graduates of our program a one year post-MFA Zell Fellowship.



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Writing Workshops

At the heart of the program are the writing workshops, where students assemble as a community of writers to read and comment on one another's work in progress.

Students are required to take their six credit writing workshop each term, 24 credits total.

Graduate Coursework

Students are required to take 12 credits of non-workshop graduate level courses. One of these courses (three credits), must be a graduate level course within the English Language & Literature program. The remaining nine credits can be a course(s) taken outside the English Department, a graduate seminar in creative non-fiction, an MFA craft course, or an independent study.


Craft Classes

See below a selection of course descriptions for craft classes that have been offered in the past. (Please note there is no guarantee that any of these specific courses will be offered again; these examples are simply meant to give a sense of the range that might be expected.)

578 Creative Writing: Fiction Craft Course
Writing the Short Novel
 with Michael Byers

The idea: analyze the workings of a number of shorter novels while writing your own.  You'll read one novel a week while you write on a schedule you determine ahead of time, making reference to (but probably not exactly following) an outline you draw up and turn in to me.  You'll be asked to read aloud from your novel every week – a minimum of one sentence, a maximum of one page. If you'd like to share your work with others, you may, but we won't be workshopping your book.  On April 21 you'll turn in a complete draft of your novel, written all the way to its final page. We'll also be pawing around in Jane Smiley's 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel for information and inspiration, as well as Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, by Jessica Brody.


578 Creative Writing: Fiction Craft Course
Graphic Novels and Film
with Akil Kumarasamy

In this course, we will explore various mediums of storytelling to see what craft elements we can incorporate into our own writing practice.  By reading and analyzing a range of works like Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, we will see what film editing can teach us about story revision and the many ways readers participate in narrative by filling in the gaps between panels in a comic. Through short writing assignments and creative projects, students will become more aware of this collaborative relationship between the reader and writer. As the lines between various storytelling professions begin to blend, this course aims to introduce students to various aspects of comic creation, screenwriting, and film to better prepare them in their own hybrid creative practice.


579 Creative Writing: Poetry Craft Course
Documentary and Investigative Poetry
with T. Hu

Taking inspiration from what Camille Dungy terms "fictions based on fact," this craft class explores several related literary forms—documentary poetics, lyric essays, historical projects, appropriation, e-lit, and other hybrids—that begin with (or depart from) objects, investigation, and archival research. This class reads poets such as Jen Bervin, CD Wright, M. NourbeSe Philip, and Bhanu Kapil alongside contemporary independent filmmakers working in documentary and essay, such as Agnes Varda and Penny Lane. The idea is to see how they might push your writing—or thinking, if you prefer to remain on the sidelines—in new directions.

MFA Exam

Once accepted, students are provided with a reading list appropriate to their genre. Students are required to read the books on that list, with the expectation that each student will pass an open-book, take-home essay exam in the second term of their first year. Students are also provided with a number of sample exams from previous years to aid their study. 

We believe thoughtful readers make the best writers, and that relevant work is dependent on an understanding of one’s literary ancestry and context. A shared reading list also gives our students a common set of references, and helps them prepare to teach creative writing.

Second-Year Thesis

At the beginning of the third semester, MFA students meet with their thesis advisors to discuss mutual expectations and scheduling preferences for thesis consultation. The thesis committee consists of two faculty advisors who share directorial responsibilities. One of these advisors is the teacher of the final semester's thesis workshop class. Theses consist of a substantial body of poems, short stories, or portions of a novel.


Teaching opportunities for all MFA students constitute an integral part of the program. All second-year students are given the opportunity to design and teach their own courses in undergraduate creative writing and introductory composition as they work toward the completion of an MFA thesis. We think that learning how to teach writing results in a better understanding of one’s own writing and revision process. Our students are offered pedagogical support as they learn how to put together a reading list and prepare a syllabus, lead a productive discussion or workshop, and save time for their own writing without sacrificing the quality of their teaching.