The Creative Writing Major

lamp of learning

The Creative Writing Major is an undergraduate concentration within the English Department at Northwestern University and one of the first and finest undergraduate Creative Writing programs in the country. Its reputation based on the accomplishments of its graduates, the generosity of its professors, and a pedagogy that creates a fruitful symbiosis between close reading and inventive writing. Award-winning authors teach poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction, as well as courses that cross genres, guiding students to examine literary works as writers and encouraging them to study the best literary models. Professors and students work in a close-knit community as they write their own stories, novellas, poems and essays within the living tradition of literature.

Most Creative Writing Majors begin taking creative writing courses in their sophomore year and complete the yearlong “sequence” of study during their junior year, and some have the opportunity to complete an additional honors project before graduation (see Recommended Schedule for Prospective Writing Majors below). Students also learn from prominent visiting writers at our annual Festival of Writing in the Spring.  Recent graduates of the program include MacArthur “Genius” Award Winner Karen Russell; Veronica Roth, whose bestselling novel “Divergent” was first drafted while she was a student; poet Peter Kline; and award-winning essayist Angela Mears.

Current Creative Writing faculty include Chris Abani, Eula Biss, Brian Bouldrey, John Bresland, Averill Curdy, Sheila Donohue, Reginald Gibbons, Mary Kinzie, Juan Martinez, Shauna Seliy, Sarah Valentine, and Rachel Jamison Webster.

The Creative Writing program also offers two minors; the Sequence-based Minor and, for those not pursuing one of the year-long sequences, the non-application based Cross-genre Minor in Creative Writing.

Past and upcoming Creative Writing events can be found here.

Recommended Schedule for Prospective Writing Majors

Freshman Year:

ENG 210-1,2 - English Literary Traditions     
ENG 270-1,2 - American Literary Traditions

While not required for creative writing, these are excellent background courses for writing students, and also serve as prerequisites for the English literature major)

In the Sophomore Year:

Fall quarter:
ENG 206 - Reading and Writing Poetry

Winter quarter:
ENG 207 - Reading and Writing Fiction     
ENG 208 - Reading & Writing Creative Nonfiction

Spring quarter:
Submit your application to the Creative Writing Program

Initial Required Courses

All students interested in the Creative Writing Major must take two introductory writing courses, one in poetry (ENG 206) and one in either fiction (207) or creative nonfiction (208), before applying to the program. On the 200-level, no prior knowledge of the genre is required.


  1. No English Department creative writing course may be audited or taken pass/fail.
  2. The School of Professional Studies also offers courses under the titles ENG 206, 207 and 208. These do not count toward any course of study within the Creative Writing program.
  3. First year students may not register for ENG 206 until the spring quarter.
  4. Seniors may not register for English 206 until add/drop week.
Admission to the Program

Admission to the next stage of the Creative Writing Major or the Sequence-based Minor in Creative Writing, the year-long 300-level advanced course sequences, is competitive. Admission to the program is granted primarily on the basis of manuscript quality and the student’s promise. An applicant may be admitted to study as a major, a minor, or a sequence-only student.

No preference in admission is currently given to those who apply to the sequences, though there are later opportunities open only to Creative Writing Majors, including participation in senior honors, one-on-one conferences with visiting writers-in-residence, and the winter senior readings series.  Students may apply for admission to the sequence courses no earlier than the spring of their sophomore year.  Applications are available online and in the Department of English office (University Hall 215) at the beginning of spring quarter.

The Sequences

Theory and Practice of Poetry (ENG 393), Fiction (394), and Creative Nonfiction (395)
These year-long sequences of courses ask students to pursue a rigorous program that includes close reading of literary texts, explication and critical writing, imitation and modeling, and original creative work. Departing from Northwestern’s typical quarter system, the sequences are arranged in two consecutive semesters.

They begin in the fall with specialized courses in the fundamental technical and rhetorical bases of each genre. Poetry students study the uses of metaphor and mode, and the theory of prosody (including both the major form of poetry in English-accentual-syllabic verse-and the minor forms, accentual, syllabic, and free verse). Fiction students consider the tenets of realism and its alternatives, and practice different approaches to style, characterization, structure, and point of view. Creative nonfiction students focus on essay forms, logical method, authorial tone, and techniques of discourse and description. In all genres, imitations and models of great writers are assigned.

The second semester in each genre, with a second instructor, is devoted to intensive writing of a longer original work-a poem of at least 120 lines or an essay or novella of 50 to 70 pages.

Note that in the event further work in fiction, creative nonfiction or poetry is desired outside the year-long sequence, ENG 206, 207, and 208 may be repeated up to two times for WCAS credit. Advanced one-quarter courses in creative writing (ENG 306, 307, and 308) are also offered for non-majors.

Other Required Courses for MAJOR Students

In addition to the sequences, creative writing majors must take:

ENG 392 - The Situation of Writing

“The Situation of Writing,” which is typically offered in the winter quarter, investigates the writer’s relation to the culture, both currently and historically. The course addresses such questions as the relation of criticism to imaginative literature, the rise and fall of specific literary genres, the effect of the university on the production and consumption of literary works, the state of the publishing industry, and international literary contexts.
Third-Genre Intro Course (either ENG 207 or ENG 208, whichever has not been completed)

The “Third-Genre Intro” Course 

English 207 or 208, whichever introductory course was not completed before applicaiton to the sequences. This requirement ensures that writing majors will have had experience reading and writing in all three major non-dramatic modes of imaginative writing.

Six 300-level literature classes

These courses must be “pure literature”; that is, courses in which the bulk of the reading is literature and not criticism or theory. They must be selected from English Department offerings ONLY:

  • Two on material written prior to 1830
  • Two on material written after 1830
  • Two from either period

Two non-literature courses related to one another, taught in other department(s).

These courses, in areas such as history, art, classics, and gender studies, broaden the student’s background for the study of literature. These must be approved by a creative writing advisor.

Other Required Courses for Sequence-Based MINOR students
In addition to the sequences, creative writing sequence-based minors must take:

Two 300-level literature classes

These courses must be “pure literature”; that is, courses in which the bulk of the reading is literature and not criticism or theory. They must be selected from English Department offerings ONLY:

  • One on material written prior to 1830
  • One on material written after 1830
The Cross-genre Minor in Creative Writing
Students not pursuing a creative writing minor through one of the year-long sequences have a way to minor in writing that provides advanced training in a core genre as well as opening up the curriculum to the crossing of genres.

There will be a variety of courses to choose from, as well as one-term core genre workshops on the advanced level offered by faculty including continuing appointments in the English Department such as fiction-writer Stuart Dybek, the Blattner Visiting Professors in Fiction, and distinguished visitors in the Center for the Writing Arts (CWA courses are by application only; check their website for further information).
Other Program Features
Contributing to the lively atmosphere for undergraduate writers at Northwestern are several publishing and academic initiatives including the student-run and published PROMPT Literary Magazine. The University-wide Center for the Writing Arts also hosts visitors for entire terms. Writing by students at Northwestern is recognized by the award-winning student literary magazine, Helicon, and by the Department of English Annual Writing Competition, held in the spring.
Creative Writing Alumni Testimonials
“The first story I wrote at Northwestern had all these crazy car accidents and things.  I learned how to quiet down, how to write clearly and how to construct stories that were subtle and not so heavy-handed.  And I loved hanging with the other writers in the program.  You can't write a book without getting feedback, because you're too close to the work.”

-- Veronica Roth, author of the bestselling Divergent series

“I still believe our program at Northwestern is as good as any graduate program in the country. It was nice to have the opportunity when I was 19 to spend so much time reading and writing with these other writers. There was such a serious sense of purpose. That’s a testament to Brian and Sheila and the rest of the faculty. They really could create a community.”
--Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and winner of a MacArthur Genius Award.

“As a Creative Nonfiction student in the Creative Writing program, I was pushed hard -- by my professors and fellow writers -- to find my voice. Not just my voice as a writer, but as a person and advocate of my life and experiences. More than anything else, I learned that I am still learning. I am still finding that voice, and always will be. I learned that this fact is okay, it is right, it is what makes me write.”  
--Danielle Littman, 2013 graduate.

"We're not just educating people for professional tracks; we're educating them for their lives."
--Professor Mary Kinzie, Founder of the Creative Writing Program and award-winning poet.