Sometimes the best advice is the most practical advice, so with that in mind, I want to revisit the MFA Writing Sample to ask a question about optimal length. Those of us who teach undergraduate writers often make paper assignments that are 5-7 or 8-10 pages. In those cases, hitting the minimum is required, but to get a really good grade, you should strive for the maximum. If you’ve just been in college or if you remember those good old days, then you might think the MFA Writing sample works the same way. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t. That is to say, the minimum is still the minimum, but the maximum isn’t really the number you strive for.
In our low-residency MFA program, we ask applicants to send a sample of 10-30 pages. I’ve seen other programs list 10-20 or split it up and ask for 10-20 for poetry and 15-30 for prose (or something along those lines). We don’t distinguish poetry from prose because we accept poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and drama, so it could get confusing to list too many distinctions. Plus, some people write flash fiction and may have plenty of pieces with 10-15 pages. What we want, is for you to give us enough pages (10) so we can judge a sustained effort, and for you to have enough room to put forth your best effort without completely overwhelming the person reading your sample. We figure there are some stories that might run about 30 pages that we’d like to see in their entirety, but there aren’t many that are much longer that couldn’t be excised or excerpted and still give us a strong sense of the writer.
So how should you view the vast amount of space (10-30 pages) you have to work with? If you write short forms, you should definitely get to 10 pages, and you probably won’t go wrong to send us a few more, but poets and flash fiction writers shouldn’t feel like they have to reach 30 pages or even 20. 10-15 pages is a good range to shoot for if this includes more than 3 pieces (and poets may have 10-15 poems!), 15-25 pages is a good range to aim for with 2-3 pieces, and 20-30 pages is a good range for 1-2 pieces. You can send more — up to 30 pages, and I usually say a few extra pages, maybe up to 33, won’t kill you if you really need them.
And there’s the rub. How many pages do you really need. A single story that was thirty-three, maybe even thirty-four pages long might be fine. But remember, you’ve got to keep me reading through all of those pages. They had better be good! Could you cut a few of those pages and get below thirty? If you have two stories that together exceed thirty pages, you know I’m going to tell you to send me one of them, but not both. The only reason to send both is if they show very different things about you as a writer, but then I will thank you keep it under thirty pages. (Hint: you want me to thank you!)
Let’s say you’re a poet, though. You’ve hit your ten pages and could stop there. How many more poems should you send? That depends on how many more strong poems you have and whether they show the range of your poetry. Sending me more pages (beyond twelve or thirteen) probably won’t help unless they reveal something more about you than that you write a lot. Maybe the poems go together as a series or poem cycle: okay, you might send them all. Maybe some are published, but you also want to send me new poems that are in the direction you really want to go. That’s good. But don’t pad your writing sample with work that isn’t as important to you or as well-written. The extra pages won’t do you any favors. Just as in prose, you want to keep my attention. I might be tired or I might have read several other writing samples that day (or freshman comp papers).
If you’re somewhere in the middle, say at the 20 page mark and you’re deciding whether to include another short piece: should you? Again that depends. How much does it add to our understanding of you as a writer? We say that “more pages aren’t necessarily better” and we say “send us your best work.” We mean it. More pages won’t help your chances once you’ve given us enough. I usually suggest one to two pieces of prose or no more than four if they’re short or six if they’re really short. If you can’t convince me in that amont of writing, more won’t change my mind and may even make it worse: there’s more room for mistakes.
Now what about that novel excerpt? How many pages should you include? On the one hand, you could send us thirty pages from a novel, but I might thank you for sending twenty-five. How to decide? You should send us pages that show some portrayal of scene, some development of character, some dialogue, and possibly some action. I say possibly for the action because the action could be minimal. What I want to see are characters in conflict or tension. I want to see your prose and how you handle scenes. But I don’t need to see too much. One relatively self-contained excerpt from a novel is probably best or maybe two if both are fairly short. You don’t want to get bogged down in exposition or to have scenes that need a lot of explanation, so it can be a challenge.
This is why sending short fiction is usually better than sending a chapter of a novel. But if a novel chapter is really your best work, then that’s what you should send. Just because you can send thirty pages doesn’t mean you should, though. If you can say as much in twenty pages, then that will be sufficient. So look for an excerpt that is relatively self-contained, has a narrative arc, and presents characters (but does more than introduce characters), and is thirty pages or less.
How long is long enough? The answer is that it depends on what you send. How long is too long? As long as you can hold my interest, your writing sample isn’t too long. But if the pages are there only to show you have more pages, then your sample might be better without them. If you’re honest with yourself, you will know.