Over the last four years, I’ve had the privilege of serving as a first-round reader of applications for a couple of organizations that award writing residencies or grants. I’m always amazed by the quality of the applications I read and overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of strong applications.
Sometimes I’m so bowled over by an application that later, if I learn the applicant was awarded the coveted residency or grant, I feel almost as excited as I would were I getting the prize.
Sadly, of course, the process of reading and evaluating applications means saying “no” far more often than “yes”. A few years ago I started jotting down notes about things I kept seeing that edged applications into the “no” pile. Some of these are dumb mistakes that most of you reading will already know better than to make. But others might be less obvious, and I thought it might be helpful to share my observations. Reading applications definitely changed the way I prepared my own applications.
A few caveats first:
These “tips” may reveal more about me as a reader than anything else. Other thoughtful application readers might disagree. It’s not like I’ve got this all figured out: I apply for fellowships and residencies myself and don’t always get them.
It can’t be emphasized enough: the writing sample matters most. Many of the gripes I note below relate to the mechanics of the application or to the artist’s statement/statement of purpose, but none of that matters if your writing sample fails to engage.
Finally, while none of the quotes and examples below are real, they’re all inspired by things I actually saw in applications.
- Follow directions. Duh, right? And yet. Applicants who aren’t even remotely eligible for the residency or grant in question. Applications that upload Word files when the instructions ask for PDFs. Writing samples that include an entire novel when the instructions ask for 25 pages. You get the picture.
- Don’t make the reviewer’s work harder. What might that entail, you ask? Prose samples that aren’t double-spaced. Twelve poems, each uploaded as a separate Word file (contrary to the instructions, of course). Non-standard fonts. Very small type. (Yes, I can enlarge it on my screen—but why are you making me do that? I have a lot of applications to read!)
Don’t keep repeating yourself. I’m surprised by how often I see this. A little repetition may be unavoidable, but don’t squander your limited space repeating the exact same information over and over. I’ve read applications in which the writer says, for instance, that they’re working on a sonnet cycle about the Moon inspired by Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” This exact line appears everywhere: in the bio, the statement of purpose, the CV, the introductory comments to the writing sample, the file name. (Now, if that sonnet cycle kicks ass, I may forward the application to the next level. But the impatience I felt making my way through all the repetitiveness may linger as it competes with other high-quality applications.)
- Don’t be arrogant. Avoid name-dropping. I’m much more interested in your process and your project than in the (albeit impressive) list of everyone with whom you’ve workshopped over the last fifteen years. Also, your “Why I hate grant-giving agencies” poem or your essay about how badly you behaved at a writer’s colony might be transgressive in some awesome way, but best to leave out of your writing sample.
- Don’t list efforts and “almosts” as achievements. It’s fine if you haven’t published at all or only in small regional publications. It’s also fine to list making it to “finalist” in a prestigious writing contest—that’s an achievement. But your ten unpublished short stories don’t belong in your CV. Neither does being waitlisted for another residency or an MFA program. Don’t list residencies or MFA programs to which you were accepted—then didn’t attend. And we’ve all been there—the “nice” rejection letter from an editor or agent that made our day. But that doesn’t belong in your application either. Don’t have much to report in the way of literary achievements? That’s okay. Remember: it’s the writing sample that matters most.
- Do not, do not, do not tell me how to react to your writing. This is my #1 pet peeve in a statement of purpose. It signals a writer so unsure about their writing that they have to tell me how to respond. Predictably, my responses never match the applicant’s predictions: “My poetry will jump off the page & burrow deep into your mind.” Really? I don’t think we’re reading the same poems. “My fiction will inspire you to question your assumptions about the nature of reality.” Actually, no. “What I love about my writing is….” No—please let the writing speak for itself. And please let me decide what I love about it.
- Don’t sound like an aggrieved petitioner in a legal matter. By all means mention personal circumstances that pertain to the application in question, but don’t go on and on about how much your ex sucks or how a former business partner bilked you out of your life savings. Focus on the writing.
- Avoid mismatches between your statement of purpose and your writing sample. The writing sample is paramount, right? Everyone knows this. Yet I’ve read applications for fiction and poetry where the writing sample was a blog post or even a business report. More commonly, applicants describe a cool current project in their statement of purpose (that sonnet cycle about the Moon, say) then submit a totally unrelated sample (villanelles about babies). Maybe the sonnet cycle is a brand-new project and you don’t have anything ready to show? Okay, fair enough. But you’re going to have a better chance of succeeding if you take the time to develop some pages of the new project. (And again, if those baby villanelles are great, I might advance the application anyway, but it won’t get as high a “score” as the more coherent application with the equally awesome writing sample.) Also: I’m more positively inclined toward the fairly polished draft of the memoir you’re writing now than the Pushcart-winning essay you published seven years ago.
- Sexism/racism alert: Misogynistic writing is ugly writing that’s not going to get funded if I can help it. I see a lot of gruff male protagonists surrounded by shallow, faithless women who don’t “get” them. I’m equally tired of writing that’s weighed down by faux-feminist sensibilities—powerful women with long hair who understand herbs and childbirth but have to endure incompetent men. Ditto writing that is tone-deaf about race. I’ve rarely seen anything overtly racist, but I’ve seen work that was careless or defensive—stories in which every white Southern character is evil or the oppressed people of color are “noble” but have no agency or where characters of various ethnicities and backgrounds are just visual “props” in a story that’s otherwise about upper-middle-class elites.
Current events/disasters alert: A lot of sentimental disaster/war writing ends up betraying ignorance and/or privilege. A couple of years ago it was the tsunami; I read several pieces in which it was clear that the North American writer had mistaken the blue tiled roofs common in Japan for backyard swimming pools (“…the ruined swimming pools/still blue/so improbably blue …”). Lately I’ve seen a lot of well-meaning but ultimately rather flat and sometimes self-indulgent isn’t-it-awful-what’s-happening-in-Syria pieces. The next round will no doubt offer up similar fare about Israel and Gaza. People should be writing about these things—but in a thoughtful and sensitive and informed way.
- Compelling personal story alert: This pertains primarily to non-fiction manuscripts, but poets and fiction-writers draw from their lives too. Here’s the thing: it’s not enough to have led a really interesting life filled with high jinx or drama or tragedy or miracles. To win that residency or grant, you have to craft your experiences into beautiful, compelling language. I may get teary-eyed reading your personal statement about how your hamster died on the same day that you lost your job and your wife walked out on you and a sinkhole took your childhood home in Florida. But if your writing sample about that experience doesn’t dazzle me, I’m going to put you in the “no” pile. (And make sure your personal writing isn’t guilty of #7—“score-settling” work is not grant-winning work.)
- Finally, a word on prose writing samples that are book excerpts: Generally, I think it’s better to submit the opening of a book rather than some other part of the manuscript. And a sustained excerpt usually works better than a collection of “snippets.” These aren’t hard-and-fast rules, and I’ve occasionally done otherwise in my own applications. But by and large, samples that include, say, the first 15 pages of a book are more enjoyable to read than samples that start somewhere else. If you don’t feel good about sending the opening, you might want to ask yourself why. The “snippets” approach is particularly problematic. I’ve gotten lost in more than one complicated novel “sampler” comprised of pages 15-20, 46-51, and 198-214. Even if these are interspersed with explanatory synopses, the reading experience is just “jolty.” I don’t recommend this unless you have a really compelling reason. (And here’s a confession: I find synopses just deadly to read. If you have to use them, keep them very short. If your sample requires a long synopsis, reconsider the sample.)
I know how this goes: you spend hours and hours putting together the best possible application. By the time you submit it and the application fee, you’ve persuaded yourself you absolutely deserve the prize. And then it’s disappointing when you don’t get it. (“What? But I was perfect for that grant/residency/program…”) I’ve been there. Many times. And probably will be again.
The gentle, apologetic rejection e-mails always implore you not to get discouraged, assuring you that many good candidates had to be turned away. And you know what? It’s true. That’s one thing I’ve learned from being on this side of the process. Many, many talented and deserving people are passed over. Every time. If this happens to you—and it probably will—just pick yourself up and try again.
But don’t spend more time applying for stuff than you do writing. It’s about the writing. Always about the writing.
Thank you for a very helpful post!
You’re most welcome!
Thank you for your list because it was mostly reassuring. I submitted an application yesterday, and my writing sample was three very short personal essays. Since my purpose in seeking the residency is to access the mental elbow room necessary to find shape of my (many) essays, I hope I am okay.
Thanks for reading, Jan, and good luck with your applications!
These are some interesting observations, professor. However, I have noticed that a lot of modern, well-successful writers, like Sherman Alexie tend to have racist characters in their work. In those cases, it kind of fit the context of the story. Do you feel the same way about Sexism/Racism when it fits the context of the characters?
Hi, Matt. Good question. There’s a big difference between racist writing and racist characters. Many books that deal honestly & cogently with issues of race will include depictions of racist behavior. I think Sherman Alexie (your example) does this brilliantly. A lot of people have trouble with this distinction. I’ve been in workshops, for instance, where a student will object to a story because it contains a character who treats women with disrespect or who says something like “That’s so gay.” But that in and of itself doesn’t make the narrative a sexist or homophobic one & doesn’t necessarily mean the writer is guilty of sexism or homophobia. The writer may be realistically depicting prejudice & the ways in which it manifests itself in our world. I think the question as a reader needs to be whether a character is racist/sexist, etc., or whether the narrative is. Sometimes it’s not so clear: Is Heart of Darkness a terribly racist work, or a trenchant critique of imperialism? People have been arguing about that for years. (It’s probably a bit of both.) Thanks for reading!
It’s very generous of you, Naomi, to share these helpful tips. Thanks.