Thoughts on the MFA Writing Sample: What are we looking for?

As I begin to review writing samples submitted for The W’s new low-residency MFA in Creative Writing, I’ve been thinking about what it is, exactly, that I hope to see in them, and how I will make my final decisions. The writing sample is the main ingredient of the application packet; everything else either confirms what I learn from the writing sample or rounds out the picture I have of the applicant and therefore helps me make my decision. That “everything else” primarily consists of things you have little control over because it has already been done or is based on what you’ve done: transcripts and letters of recommendation are pretty much out of your hands by this point—your letter of intent and writing sample are the only parts you control, so concentrate on them.

What should you include in your writing sample? Clearly, the obvious answer is “your best work,” but how do you decide? Send us the writing that you care the most about. Wouldn’t it be a drag to be admitted into a program on the strengths of your most polished piece of writing that doesn’t represent the kind of writer you really want to be? You might end up in a program whose values are very different from your own. On the other hand, if you send me the poem you wrote last night because it’s the one you love most right now (but tomorrow that may be different), chances are that poem will be too rough and won’t adequately represent your capabilities. So strike a balance: somewhere between the stories or poems that have been workshopped to death over the years (and are polished but not alive for you anymore) and the stories or poems that you wrote last week (that haven’t had a chance to really mature). This should result in work that represents you well, that is the kind of writing you want to continue to do, and that is work you’ve had a chance to fully explore and make as good as possible.

Quality is more important than quantity. As long as you meet the minimum requirements (10 pages), there’s no need to send more. If you’re writing poems: send me 10, though if you want to send 15, I won’t complain if the additional poems better represent your range as a poet. Don’t send more just to pad your writing sample (it will look weaker if it’s padded); send only your best poems. If you’re submitting prose: don’t send me 2 stories at 40 pages. Send me 1 story as long as it’s 10 or more pages. If you write flash fiction, send enough to get within the range and send your best, but there’s no reason to send more just to get close to 30 pages. I will thank you for giving me less to read. In 10-20 pages, I should have plenty to base my decision on, but some stories might go 30 pages. And if your absolute best story is 32 pages, I’ll consider it. But don’t send me many more than 30 if you can help it. (Send a novel excerpt, if that’s your best writing, and keep it at or under 30 pages).

When I read your writing sample I will look at it and give it a score (my grad council wants me to have a rubric, and though I’m not a huge fan of those for creative writing, I can work with that). Here’s what I’ll base that on. First, how publishable is it? I expect to see some writing samples that could be publishable already and some that are close. What I want to find are writing samples that show strong potential to be publishable. I want to see that applicants have taken care with their samples, and that they have a sense of what is being published today. I don’t really care a lot about what style you write in, at least not initially. I’m mostly looking for care with language, feeling for form, and attention to detail. Once I’ve found that in a piece of writing, then the style might begin to make a difference.

A second criterion will be: how appropriate is the sample for our program. Yes. We want you to send your best work that is also most appropriate for us. That’s a difficult task, and one you may not be able to have complete control over. You can try to get a good sense of what we do in our program and what we would want to see, of course. This will help you decide what to send and how to write your letter of intent. What you can’t predict (nor can we) is what other writers will send us. But that is one practical side of the admissions process. When accepting writers into the program, I need to be thinking long-term about what classes I’ll need to fill and what kind of balance and mix of writers I have in a program. You can’t predict whether I’ll have twice as many poets apply this year as fiction writers, so the competition in poetry might be stiffer. Nor can you know whether a couple of my nonfiction writers are graduating early, so I have extra space in that area (because my other nonfiction students will need some more people in their classes). I will likely consider both the writing sample and the letter of intent in deciding this, so describing what goals in the letter can also be important.

Besides these big picture kinds of criteria, I will also consider how polished and sophisticated the writing sample is. This is important because a writing sample that contains a lot of grammatical errors or that doesn’t show some understanding of the conventions of the genre you’re working in (even if you break them) might not go very far in the process. I would consider understanding the basics here to be absolutely vital for the successful applicant, but I would also hope that most everyone would have a very high score in this area. So the differences here may be small — if you do your work to send in a writing sample that is absolutely clean.

In then end, though, I hope you’ll remember that I don’t see my job as ‘weeding people out’ as much as it is ‘making a good selection.’ I’d like to let everyone into the program, but I also want to find a good group of writers who will work well together, and I’d like to let people enter the program when they seem ready for it. If I turn down an application, I don’t want to send the signal that the writer has no potential, but rather that the writer may not be a good fit for us right now. This may mean that the writer should explore other opportunities to improve his/her writing and apply again later, or it may mean that the writer should consider other programs that would be a better fit for the kind of writing he/she wants to do. Far be it from me, in other words, to judge someone’s value based on a 10-30 page writing sample! All I can do is work with what I know and make the best decisions I can, subjective and human as those will undoubtedly be.

And I hope, as long as the number of applicants remains manageable enough to make this possible, to engage each writer in a dialogue about their writing, to offer some encouragement, and to make the process more of a discussion than a decision.

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