A definition: A "low-residency" MFA program is a program where much of the work is done remotely and interaction is primarily through correspondence and a minimum of 14 days of residential study each year. The MFA program will often break this up into two separate visits of 7-10 days. All other study is done from the student's home wherever that is in the country or world.
The AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) says this by way of introduction to low-residency MFA programs in its Directors Handbook:
Since the first low-residency MFA program in creative writing was developed in the 1970s, higher education has established over thirty such programs. With various combinations of residencies, workshops, lectures, online workshops and classes, study abroad, correspondence, and one-on-one mentoring, low-residency programs vary; however, their chief attributes are individualized instruction and structural flexibility for students. Low-residency programs require at least two years of study. Students study literature and craft by writing original fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, translations, screenplays, or plays; by analyzing contemporary and canonical works of literature; and by writing critical papers. Programs also require culminating projects focused on the craft of writing—an extended craft essay, a lecture, or the teaching of a seminar. The centerpiece of the course of study is a creative thesis, an original literary work in the student’s chosen genre(s).
With its mentoring relationships involving one teacher and one student, or with small online workshops and seminars, the low-residency program excels in expediting the development of a writer. Students in low-residency programs tend to be older than traditional graduate students. Many students enter these programs intending to continue in their already established careers; these students find that their professional work is often improved by the skills they acquire in their artistic avocations. Low-residency programs have a strong record of preparing graduates for careers in teaching, editing, publishing, public affairs, advertising, and administration.
Lifestyle favorable: Low-residency MFAs are good choices if you aren't within driving distance of the school you want to go to and have a life you can't easily move. Great for people with kids in school, or a spouse that needs to stay put for work or family reasons, if you have a house you can't sell, or if you have a job. Yep, you don't have to quit your job to get an MFA if that's what you want to do. It'll be tough to juggle it all -- going to night school always is -- but it can be done.
Another perk is that low-residency MFAs do not (usually) come with teaching obligations to round out your funding. Although, if your post-MFA goal is to teach then this may be more of a con than a pro as the during-grad-school teaching obligations are also a form of getting experience. But if you know you don't want to teach -- ever -- then hey, bonus!
But remember that even though you get to keep your current normal life/job/living situation, it is a form of "going back to school." Even though you meet in person only once or twice a year, you still have weekly homework, workshop deadlines, and scheduled internet chats/emails/etc. with faculty.
I've been told that to be a successful low-res MFA instructor you need to be good at expressing yourself in email -- that is, expressing yourself thoroughly and without confusion. So I'd assume that the flip side of that is that if you're a low-res student, you shouldn't be afraid of extremely long emails from your faculty; you should be willing and able to plow through those and learn whatever you can; you should be able to then express yourself succinctly through reply emails. Regardless of how well you can write a story, some people just can't email worth a damn -- odd, but true -- find out if this is you before you apply so that you can have a strategy for success or choose another route.
Niche and genre-favorable programs: If the classics aren't your thing and say, mystery writing is your thing, then odds are that there's a low-residency MFA program with a niche program for mystery writers. Same goes for screen writers, YA writers, science fiction, fantasy, romance, crime, and other forms of "commercial fiction," "popular fiction," or "genre fiction" (all three terms refer to the same thing and are used interchangeably). It's my experience that it's much harder to find programs that specialize in any of those things among traditional (high residency) MFAs, but there are quite a few now in the low-res world. The University of Southern Main, Seton Hill University, and Western Colorado are just a few I know off the top of my head. It's my opinion that more programs should be more open to training writers of popular fiction.
Non-MFA granting training programs: There are also non-MFA programs which are great. Some of them, like the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop, are potentially better than MFA programs in terms of how much you grow as a writer. If you're a sci-fi/fantasy/horror writer, consider Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop, Clarion, Clarion West, and others. For romance writers, join the RWA -- I don't know how much of an education the local chapters will give you, but I know that they often run bootcamps for members nationwide which you can attend (which anyone can attend but by joining the RWA you actually get notified of the upcoming event). I have little doubt that there are similar workshops and bootcamps for mystery writers and others interested in commercial genres check them out. They may be the alternative to a high residency MFA which is perfect for you.
Resources: While a google serach for "Low-residency MFA" will bring back oodles of results, there's also a handbook you can get in paper or Kindle format. It appears to be made by the same people who made the Creative Writing MFA handbook, which presumably didn't have an in-depth enough section on low-residency programs and thus the low-res volume. I've not taken a look at either -- they were either not in print yet or had gone out of print when I was applying to programs.
What I recommend is checking out the Portable MFA in Creative Writing (a $10-17 book) before you begin. If the book puzzles you, presents items you never thought of, makes you feel in over your head (ever so slightly) or tantilizes you to learn more, then getting an MFA may be just the thing to do. I remember looking at A Portable MFA before starting my program, and everything that I read sounded vaguely familiar. At the time, my vocabulary wasn't up to snuff (particularly the vocabulary I use to talk about writing) so it presented a challenge when the authors were talking about writing. But mostly I remember reading that book and agreeing with them on the lessons and the theory ... and then putting down the book and having no idea how to apply that to my own work.
And that is precisely what a good teacher/mentor can do for you: teach you how to take what works theoretically and make it work for you.
Forthcoming MFA posts:
- How to find a program
- Why you should pay no attention to "rankings" for any school or program