The Program

The Helen Zell Writers’ Program is a two-year graduate program in creative writing leading to the Master of Fine Arts degree. Students concentrate in either fiction or poetry. Applicants must submit portfolios of their writing in one of these genres, and should have sufficient training in literature to succeed in courses at the graduate level. We select students with demonstrated talent and expose them to a variety of approaches to the craft of writing.

Students choose this program because they intend to prepare for a lifetime of writing and professional publication. 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. In addition to their instructional role in the workshops, faculty are available for individual conferences throughout the two-year program, and for thesis instruction and consultation during the second year.

In the first year of the program, our students focus on their writing while taking coursework that hones the critical reading skills that will prepare them for the MFA Exam, an essay exam based on a shared list of readings. We believe thoughtful readers make the best writers, and that relevant work is dependent on an understanding of one’s literary ancestry. A shared reading list also gives our students a common set of references, and helps them prepare to teach creative writing.

Students receive $6,000 of summer funding between the first and second years of the program, so that they can spend the summer writing. Some students also spend a month or two of the break, which runs from the end of April to the beginning of September, at a writing residency, doing an internship, or traveling. Students may apply for competitive research grants, supplemental internship funding, and residency fellowships to help defray the costs of those activities.

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. Most first-year MFA students are assigned graderships as part of their financial aid packages. 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.


  • Completion of 36 hours of course work, including three semesters of writing workshops (18 hours)
  • One semester of a writing workshop dedicated to completion of the thesis (6 hours)

MFA students typically take:

  • Three 3-hour courses in English literature, level 500 and above (12 hours)
  • One 3-hour course in a cognate field outside the Department of English  

Students who wish to take additional craft classes or cognate in lieu of a graduate literature course may ask the director of the program for permission to do so. 

Once accepted, students will be 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.

Special Features

During their two years in the program, many students also take advantage of opportunities to professionalize through service. They work with high schoolers at our local tutoring center, 826michigan, on the Best American Nonrequired Reading anthology, organize poetry slams with youth in underserved communities, teach weekly programs in Detroit public schools through InsideOut Detroit, read submissions for the Michigan Quarterly Review and Canarium Books, and curate special readings.

The Helen Zell Writers' Program sponsors two full programs of literary readings each year. The Zell Visiting Writers Series features writers from all over North America and from abroad, as well as from our Michigan community. Visitors often have individual consultations with students, teach guest workshops, or give craft talks, in addition to their public readings. Recent visitors to the program include:

Adonis Marilyn Hacker
Daniel Alarcón Matthea Harvey
Rae Armantrout Adam Haslett
Charles Baxter Tony Hoagland
John Beer Yusef Komunyakaa
Anselm Berrigan Jonathan Lethem
Jericho Brown Yiyun Li
John Burnside Hisham Matar
Bonnie Jo Campbell Campbell McGrath
Christian Campbell Naomi Shihab Nye
Ron Carlson ZZ Packer
Stacey D'Erasmo Carl Phillips
Bruce Duffy D. A. Powell
Carol Ann Duffy Joanna Scott
Jennifer Egan Anne Stevenson
Danielle Evans Cole Swensen
Joshua Ferris Lysley Tenorio
Calvin Forbes Wells Tower
Richard Ford Connie Voisine
Sarah Gambito David Wevill
Mary Gaitskill Crystal Williams
Allan Gurganus Dean Young

Our second annual series, the Mark Webster Series, features poetry and fiction readings by second-year students in the program.

There is also an informal reading series run by the first-year students, the J. Edgar Edwards Series, and the MFA program sponsors a number of professionalization colloquia each year on topics of student interest. Several agents and editors also visit each year to meet with students individually and to offer Q&A sessions on the publishing business.