Writing Residency Do’s

Last week, one of my students got accepted to a writers’ residency, and man, is she psyched.

She’s already started packing; she’s organizing the research she’ll take; and she’s daydreaming of the bucolic countryside where she will focus on nothing but her story for a month.

Even before she leaves, this residency has been a gift.

My friends, this is a joy I want for you all.

Now is the season when many residencies and labs open to applications, so if you’ve ever dreamed about going away to just write for a week, or two, or four, it’s time to get moving.

Residency applications are a genre of their own, so I’ve pulled together advice for you from writers who have both been accepted to residencies, and read applications to them.

There’s so much great wisdom out there, I’m breaking this into two parts. Next month, we’ll talk about the don’ts. Right now, let’s talk about the must-do’s.

Most importantly, prioritize your writing sample—usually 10 to 20 pages of your best work. You want to submit the most polished, most fluid, most compelling piece in your portfolio.

This is where many writers contract a terminal case of the “shoulds.”

I should include 10 pages from my novel in progress, even if my short story about cheese is finished and fabulous.

I should send in something with more gunfire and explosions, even though I’m writing a pilot about lovelorn booksellers.

I should send in unpublished work, even if I’m proudest of this essay I published last year.

When your brain says “I should,” ask yourself: What is my strongest piece, right now? That one. Use that one.

Another “Do” comes from Gotham teacher Shahnaz Habib, who recently told my memoir class to seize every opportunity to talk about your cultural identity in your personal or artist statement.

“Regardless of whether you think you have a culture, you do have a culture, you do have influences, you do have a certain paradigm within which you’re writing,” Shahnaz said. “So I really appreciated writers who gave really focused answers to those questions.”

Recently, after reading a few hundred residency applications, memoirist Emi Nietfeld published some suggestions, including:

  • It’s rewarding to discover an early-stage writer who’s put in the work…so apply before you feel ready.
  • Give a concrete goal for the residency that could not get done at home on the sofa.
  • Go ahead and send a video trailer for your book or link to a multimedia project. It was a welcome break!

Next month, we’ll dig into the common mistakes, misconceptions, and pitfalls in residency applications. Til then, I’ve got one last “do” for you: Start yours—now!


Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty

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