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Writing Certificate


Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing co-founder Malena Watrous answers some common questions about the program below. Malena, a novelist and former Wallace Stegner Fellow and Truman Capote Fellow, also teaches in the program.

Have more questions? Watch the video of our information session, where prospective students heard from program administrators and recent alumni.

How is the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing similar to or different from getting an MFA?

Most MFA programs mix cohorts between long and short fiction writers, while our program is exclusively focused on novel writing. An MFA (or sometimes a PhD) can be a requirement when someone is applying to teach at the university level. This certificate won’t fill that role. Most students in MFA programs are expected to take fairly substantial course loads which include studying literature and theory. We only ask students to take one course per quarter, which is a writing class, but instructors bring literature and theory into these writing courses.

How flexible is the schedule/are there set times when I have to be online?

Because our program is (and always has been) entirely online, our students come from all over the country and even world. Most of our instruction is asynchronous, meaning there is never a time when students must be online. can log into Canvas and do their work when they have time. We do have a weekly hour-long Zoom session, but attendance is optional and it is always recorded for later viewing.

Who is the right applicant for the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing?

Someone who is quite serious about their fiction writing, who has been working at it for a while in a demonstrable fashion, ideally by taking at least one prior writing workshop. We have novelists writing in various genres: contemporary fiction, mysteries and thrillers, sci-fi, historical fiction, even some novels-in-stories, and YA. Regardless of genre, we look for applicants who care about language and wish to create resonant books. We don’t accept writers working on middle grade fiction (intended for ages 8-12) or below, because when you’re writing for readers that young, the concerns and constraints of the genre are significantly different from adult fiction, which is the focus of our program and instruction. This is not a program for memoirists, although autobiographical fiction writers are welcome to apply.

How selective is the program?

We can accept 60 students, which recently has been about 40-45% of total applicants. The selectivity of our program means that the cohort is comprised of passionate writers who have already learned the basics of fiction writing and are ready to learn how to make their novels work—everything from balancing subplots to weaving in a character’s misbelief, to figuring out how to sow the seeds of the ending in the beginning of a book. The selectivity also means that students can enjoy collaborating with similarly dedicated and informed classmates. Many of our students end up forming writing groups that they sustain for years after finishing the program.

Do I already need to be working on a novel when I apply?

You don’t necessarily need to be at work on your novel, although almost all students apply with at least a pretty fleshed out idea for one, if not also a sample chapter or two. We love it if the description of the project in the Personal Statement matches the writing sample, although we know that’s not always possible. However, some students have been admitted who may have only written short stories in the past and are applying with the desire to start their first novel. Some students also enter the program with a rough draft already finished, knowing that they want to use their time to refine and revise it, which is also fine. Our goal is to offer you the tools, instruction and community to write the best possible novel that you can in two years.

Do your students go on to publish their novels?

Many of our students have begun publishing the books they’ve written while in this program, and this monthly column often features their success stories. Nothing thrills us more than when we learn of a student getting a publication, winning an award or finding other forms of recognition for the novels they produced under our guidance. Our students have also sometimes gone on to attend such prestigious MFA programs as the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.