I began this page because many of my students and former students approach me for advice about how, where, and when to apply to graduate programs in creative writing, and for advice about how to begin getting their work published. Although all of these students are unique individuals with specific predilections, talents, and needs, my advice to them tends to be the same. So I decided to post a few short responses here on my website, in the hopes of helping both my own students and anyone else who’s considering applying to graduate school or who wishes to begin making forays into the world of publication.
Since starting the page, I’ve also fielded a number of questions from students about how a young writer might support herself; so now there are a few posts on this topic too.
If you’re thinking about applying to grad school, I also recommend reading the posts about this topic on Koreanish, the blog of my wonderful writer friend Alexander Chee, who discusses the topic at greater length. He also recently added a post about whether one should include safety schools when applying to MFA programs. I think his thinking is spot-on; the essay is well worth a read.
When Do I Need an Agent? Or: How Do I Know When My Book Is Done?
You need an agent when you have a finished book that’s ready to send around to publishers, and not a moment before then. By “finished,” I mean not just that you have a complete draft, but that you’ve made the book the strongest it can possibly be, to the best of your own abilities and to the satisfaction of your most trusted readers. Such a manuscript might be your second draft or your nineteenth, and might have taken you two years or twenty. It might be the first complete novel you’ve written or the third. Almost certainly, it has undergone substantial research, revision, enhancement, and paragraph-, page-, character- and chapter-hacking since the original draft.
I should also say that your manuscript is ready when you feel, in the core of your being, that it’s done. This is not the same as hoping that it might be done, or hoping that other people won’t see where you’ve held it together with cellophane tape, or thinking that it would be really, really wonderful to publish a book before the age of X or before X-and-such event occurs. (Though all of these are common kinds of wishful thinking for writers to experience—and harmless, when you understand what they are.) It’s just something you know, unshakably, the same way you know that the person you’re dating is the one you want to spend your life with, or the way you know you believe in God (if you do), or the way you love your parents and children. Anything short of that kind of knowing? You either need to keep working at the book or you need to let it rest and move on to the next thing.
Sometimes writers are tempted to send books to agents before they have this kind of sureness. Maybe sometimes this works out; I’ve never heard of someone getting a great agent for a book they felt kind of semi-okay about, but that doesn’t make it impossible. As a reasonable adult, however, I can say that you only get one chance to make a strong first impression. Doesn’t it seem like a good long-term plan to wait a month or a year to send the agent the best work possible? If she refuses it now, I doubt she’ll want to see it again after you’ve done the revision you should have done before sending it to her in the first place.
How Do I Know When My Story Is Ready to Send Out?
Please see When Do I Need an Agent? Or: How Do I Know When My Book Is Done? for my thoughts on how you can tell when work is actually finished. With a story, you need that same kind of sureness. You may simply arrive at it faster because, by its nature, a story can take less time to write and revise than a novel. (“Can” is the operative word here. Deborah Eisenberg works as long on each of her stories as some novelists do on their novels—and this shows in the beauty and breadth and astonishing rigor of her work.)
If the story is done, send it out! Research the journals where you think the editors might like it (thoughts on this in How Do I Start Getting My Stories Published?). Be ready for some rejections, and for the eventual pleasant surprise of having a journal accept your work.
On a related note, almost every young writer I’ve met nurses the hope that their story will be plucked from the New Yorker’s slush pile and published in those glossy pages. Maybe this happens sometimes; I don’t know. But from the experiences of all the writers I’ve met who’ve tried hucking things over their transom, and from a few talented graduate students I’ve known who’ve interned at the New Yorker and read that slush pile, I can tell you it doesn’t seem to happen all that often.
It does happen, however, at smaller literary journals. (To name just a few, One Story, the Cincinnati Review, and Fence all pride themselves on discovering new talents.) I had my first story accepted at American Short Fiction—a wonderful small magazine. Having them call to say they wanted to publish the story was much more affirming, satisfying, and happiness-producing than receiving a form rejection letter from a glossy.
How Do I Start Getting My Stories Published?
Read literary magazines, online and in print. This is, as far as I can tell, the only way to know what’s being published where. There’s no better query to send to an editor than one in which you effuse intelligently about a story she’s recently published that bears something in common with your own work. Subscribe to a few, even. It’s wonderful to have them come to your door.
If you don’t yet read literary magazines, here are some ways to find out which you might be interested in:
1) Find out where authors you admire are publishing. You can find this out in the acknowledgments at the front of a story collection, or by looking on the author’s website.
2) Get a recent copy of Best American Short Stories, perhaps one edited by a writer you admire. After you read it and see which stories you like best, look to see where these were published. Also look in the back to see which magazines are mentioned in the honrable mentions. A few, no doubt, will stand out to you. Investigate.
3) Go spend a few hours in a book or magazine store or in a library that has a wide selection of literary journals. See what looks interesting to you. Trust your instincts.
4) Do the same thing online, where there are incredible online-only journals (and some print journals that maintain separate-but-related online presences).
After you’ve done your research, go to a magazine’s website to find out how they like to receive submissions and queries. Send yours in their preferred format and with a polite, friendly cover letter. My fingers are crossed for you!
Finding an agent is, I think, basically the same process as finding a magazine to publish your story. What I’d do, if I were you, is wait until you have a solid third (or eighth) draft of a novel or story collection that you think might be ready to send out into the world. Go to a library or bookstore and look at the books of the five contemporary writers you most admire. (Having one or two be more established writers and three or four be younger writers might be a good tack to take.) Check the acknowledgments pages, as authors usually thank their agents there. Some also list their agents’ names on their websites. Visit the agent’s (or agency’s) website to determine how they like to receive queries. Send the most polite, thoughtful, and articulate query you can. Be specific about what you know about the agent and like about her clients.
One other thought: Everyone who’s a big agent now was just starting out at some point. Big agents have full rosters; younger/newer agents are eager to add writers to their lists. So part of your task may be to find someone who’s newer to the game but very bright and promising. Poets & Writers often has articles about (or by) younger agents; and asking writers you know, whether more experienced or just starting out, who they respect and admire is another great place to start.
Once again, my fingers are crossed for you!
How Should I Respond When an Agent Contacts Me?
Some of you reading this may be thinking, “Now, wait a minute. That’s not a problem, that’s my dream.” I agree with you that this is an enviable question to have to ask. It tends to arise when a (generally) young writer publishes a piece in a magazine, blog, or thesis anthology and a (generally) young agent sees it and expresses potential interest in representing the writer.
Often, however, a young writer has published a story or essay or poem or two, but does not yet have a manuscript ready to show the agent; and this can cause consternation. You want an agent, after all, but don’t want to wreck the opportunity with this person by sending along unfinished work. (I recommend that you never, ever send work out before you and your three best readers “at minimum” think it’s done. There’s a more detailed explanation of this in When Do I Need an Agent? Or: How Do I Know When My Book Is Done?.) What should you do?
Send the agent a polite note. Express your pleasure at being contacted; state that the work is incomplete; and offer to send a sample of the manuscript when it’s finished. You can specify a time frame for this if you have one; otherwise, “when it’s finished” is a perfectly fine statement of when you intend to send it along.
Agents, like all people, appreciate polite and forthright treatment. If it takes you a year or two to finish your manuscript, don’t worry. The agent will still recall the piece that caused her to reach out to you she reads a lot, and if something grabbed her by the collar, she’ll remember that””and, what’s more, she’ll likely recall the good manners and professionalism of your response.
In the meanwhile, and after your manuscript is done (I see no need to do this before then, unless you’re looking for a way to procrastinate while writing), do your due diligence. Learn about the agent and the agency she works for. Find out who she represents and how she’s viewed in the literary world. (I recommend doing this by asking questions of actual people—writers and editors you know, for starters.) If you like what you learn, consider allowing her to represent your work. After all, it’s a stroke of good fortune to find an agent who is well respected in the industry, works for a reputable agency, and really excited about your work.
If, after doing your research, you aren’t certain what you think of this agent’s tastes and reputation, you might still wish to send her a sample when it’s ready. Her commentary on the manuscript may be the factor that makes up your mind. Remember that showing her the work does not obligate you to have her represent you any more than her query to you creates an obligation on her end.
When Should I Apply to MFA Programs?
In general, I find that my students wish to apply to graduate schools either during their senior year of college or directly after they graduate. I know of one student for whom this seemed a wise decision: someone who wished to go to medical school after earning an MFA. For this student, waiting would be impractical, because medical school, residency, and internship take up a lot of time, after which there will likely be a lot of debt to repay. In this instance, going to writing school right away seems like a fine choice.
In all other cases, I encourage my students to wait before applying. Often, they think I mean “a year or two,” and it is certainly the case that a year or two is better than no years; but I think three, or six, or ten would be even better. This is for a number of reasons:
1) It’s important for a writer to be able to write outside of an academic setting, without deadlines or structured encouragement. Most of the time, this is what an actual writer’s life is like. If you can only produce within the structure of a workshop, you may not develop the stamina to write books in the midst of life’s myriad other demands. (Which get more complex as you get older.)
2) Workshops are tremendously valuable—if I didn’t think this, I wouldn’t teach them—but equally valuable are a writer’s own instincts. It’s important to develop independent work habits so you can listen to your own internal editor more thoroughly.
3) A few years working in the vast world that’s not all that concerned with writing will leave you highly appreciative of the tiny world in which writing is the primary object of focus.
4) Maturity is an invaluable asset to both writers and members of workshops. The more mature you are when you enroll, the stronger will be the work that you bring to the table; the more intelligently you’ll be able to engage with your peers’ critiques; the more thoughtful, humane, and articulate critiques you’ll be able to offer them.
I believe the reasons one should attend an MFA program are, in descending order of importance:
1) To have an opportunity to work on one’s work more or less interrupted for a period of a few years, and to receive feedback from established writers one admires and from creative, hardworking, dedicated peers.
2) To read more broadly and in greater depth than heretofore, from the perspective of an apprentice writer. Most programs will ask you to take one such seminar each semester, and some focus on this aspect of pedagogy quite intently. (Columbia’s program is exemplary and, to my knowledge, unique in this respect.) If you’re interested in learning more about what such reading entails, you might consider perusing Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer as a primer.
3) To befriend other newer writers, so that you can offer encouragement to each other for the rest of your lives. I met two of my three first readers in graduate school, and am forever indebted to them for their insightful criticism and support; and I am equally grateful for the many good writer friends I made there. They enrich my life daily.
4) To find out if you might be interested in teaching writing, and to gain some experience through a teaching fellowship, if possible.
5) To have the imprimatur of the program on your vita. Attending a good program can help catch the attention of agents and publishers. (Though of course it’s important not to overestimate the importance of this final point. The main thing that catches someone’s eye is good writing.)
If these reasons don’t seem important to you, now probably isn’t the right time to apply. Do not feel that you “must” attend an MFA program.
To Which MFA Programs Should I Apply?
Here are the factors I believe you should weigh when considering which schools to apply to, again in descending order of importance:
1) Which programs will be most likely to nourish and encourage you as a writer, to help you grow in the direction in which you yourself wish to grow? By this I mean, you should research which programs foster a style of writing you’re interested in (some have a more realist or experimental bent than others). Find out who’s teaching where, and apply to programs where writers with whom you would sincerely like to study serve on the faculty. Consider whether you are interested in a program that focuses intently on one genre or allows you to experiment in others and encourages cross-genre work. Look at which programs consider workshop your primary focus and which place more emphasis on your education as a reader and thinker. Ask currently-enrolled or former students of the programs you’re interested in what the institutional culture is like. Consider which programs are in places in which you’d like to live. For one student, the literary scene of New York City is a great asset; another would prefer to study in a quirky small town where rent is cheap. These two students shouldn’t apply to the same places.
2) Consider your financial situation. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but writing literary fiction generally isn’t a way to make a fortune. For most writers, it isn’t a means to make much money at all. My husband has, thus far, placed thirteen stories in reputable literary journals; in total, he has earned less money from his fiction than a first-year associate, fresh out of law school, earns his first morning on the job. I learned recently that the toll collectors on the Thruway earn quite a bit more than I do in an average year. I’m sure they also get better benefits. This is okay, because I really love my twin jobs of writing and teaching; and because, like probably almost all writers, I’m not in this for the money, though I’m grateful to have a roof over my head and food on my kid’s plate. What I’m saying is, I think it’s wise to consider your finances. If you come from a working- or middle-class family, or if you have other siblings whose educations your parents will help support, I recommend not adding too much debt to your load. With that in mind, research which programs offer low tuition to start with, or tuition remission if you win a teaching fellowship, or overall good financial aid programs. It’s also worth researching cost of living in the locations of the various schools; tuition isn’t the only factor in the amount of debt you’ll accrue.
3) Consider which programs are actually worth attending. One school may have a very fancy pedigree. Another may reside at the University of East Podunk, but have a wonderful faculty and a dynamic, nurturing institutional culture. Both would be excellent kinds of programs to consider. But unlike applying to college, you don’t need to apply to any “safety schools;” I’ve never heard of anyone transferring, with grad school. So only apply to places to which you’d really like to go.
4) If you need a little initial guidance, Poets & Writers publishes an annual ranking of the MFA programs. This past year, there was a lot of concern in the writing community about how information for these listings was gathered and ranked; but I expect that, in future, the good people at the magazine will take these concerns into account, and I still believe their listings are a good place to gather very basic information for more exhaustive further research. (I also think Poets & Writers is, in a general way, a fine resource for young writers.) The Creative Writing MFA Handbook also maintains an exhaustive blog , which can serve as a resource for those considering or applying for MFAs. There is no substitute, of course, for doing good research on your own, but these listings may help you get an initial foothold.
If figuring all of this out seems like too much work is required, I would once again say that this year probably isn’t the right one for applying to graduate school.
What’s a Good Job for a Young Writer?
I’m delighted that few of my writing students suffer from the romantic delusion that one could become a serious writer by working in dribs and drabs, or by waiting around for the Muse to show up, or by hoping it might happen. Most understand that writing is hard work: that success in the field (a kind of success on which no one can count) seems to depend about 80% on devoting oneself to the labor, 2% on native talent, and 18% on luck for which one can take no credit. Many do, however, seek advice about what kinds of jobs they might pursue in order to allow themselves to write. Most of the questions focus on the suitability of working in publishing.
Young writers tend to gravitate to publishing, I think, both because it’s a prestigious career (like medicine, architecture, or the law) and because it would mean being around books, writers, and a community of people who believe in the power of the written word. All of these are valid reasons to go into the business. But publishing seems like an odd choice of career for a writer. Writing takes up vast swaths of time and is, in general, non-remunerative. Publishing, likewise, demands long hours at low pay. These two factors together seem like a bad—perhaps even a self-defeating—combination. Add to this that most American publishing jobs are in New York City, one of the most expensive and distracting places to live, and I see even fewer reasons for a young writer to go into the industry.
How Would You Describe a Job That Would Work for a Young Writer?
To me, the ideal situation for a serious young writer would be to find work that pays well for reasonable hours. Since the real world often refuses to conform to ideals, a practical way to think about this might mean finding a job that fulfills one or the other of those conditions: either it pays well, or it doesn’t demand much of your time or mental energy.
When I asked my husband (also a writer) this question, he responded, “The search for a job that allows one the time to write is, to my mind, hard to extricate from the question of where to live. A modest office job in a small Western town will probably allow you time to write. A modest office job in New York City will mean you’re constantly worrying about how to pay the exorbitant rent on the three-foot-square bedbug-infested closet you share with four other people in the far reaches of Queens (and which is difficult to get back to from parties).” Being willing to live someplace besides New York City or San Francisco means your cost of living will be lower; and having to work fewer hours to make your rent means more time to write.
Though many young writers are tempted to find work that makes use of their writing skills, one good idea might be to find a job that exercises an entirely different part of your brain. That way, when you sit down at your desk at the beginning or end of the day, you haven’t squandered all your word-energy on a press release: Your creative mind is fresh and alert.
A corollary to this: Though of course the right job will be different for each person, I strongly recommend finding work that allows you to talk with and interact with people—ideally, with people of as many different kinds as possible, and at the very least, with people of diverse ages and backgrounds. The more kinds of people you get to know, the greater your store of life experience, and the more kinds of stories you’ll be able to write. (Not to mention that knowing more, and more diverse, people will enrich your life immeasurably.)
What’s Worked for You?
For me, teaching at the college and graduate levels has turned out to be an ideal form of work. I learn a great deal about writing from collaborating with my students; my paid job and my writing feed each other symbiotically; and it leaves me a few days a week free to write.
But to get a job teaching creative writing, you have to have published at least one book; so a young writer can’t start out in my job. One might be able to find work teaching at a preparatory school—a demanding job that, nonetheless, keeps the mind supple and leaves one’s summers free to write. And if you have a strong desire to teach, you might consider pursuing an MAT, an M.Ed. or a PhD; though each of these is demanding in its own right, and of course no guarantee of finding work upon completion.
Two of my favorite jobs along the way were working in independent bookstores, Iowa City’s Prairie Lights and New York’s Shakespeare & Company. I enjoyed the company of my coworkers, liked being on my feet all day and talking to people, was good at helping customers with reading suggestions; I even liked working the cash register and shelving new merchandise. If clerking at a bookstore paid better, I might still be doing it. I also enjoyed teaching yoga, which passed the “short, flexible hours,” “uses another part of your brain,” and “allows you to interact with many different kinds of people” tests with flying colors. (Also, I was allowed to take classes for free at the yoga studio, so the job helped keep me in good physical and mental shape.) I felt the same about interior house painting (which paid well and let me think quietly all day or talk with a friend), but not about doing linguistic coding for a software development company (which used up my whole thinking brain, hurt my eyes and hands, and left me unwilling to sit at a desk or computer once I got home).
These are just the things that have worked for me. There are a thousand other things a writer could do to support herself. Although I don’t know any writers who have gone into the trades, being a skilled mechanic or electrician could be a good choice: The work requires intelligence and skill and pays well. Of course, there would be a long apprenticeship, during which you’d have to work long hours; but down the line, I can see it paying off.
Did You Say “An Electrician?”
I did. And what practicing one of the trades has in common with working in a bookstore and teaching yoga is that to some people (perhaps including you, if you have attended a four-year college and are also considering becoming a writer), it isn’t prestigious. This, I think, is a dilemma you’ll have to face sooner or later. When I spoke about this essay with my friend George MacNaughton (a man who has had great success in business in part because of his hefty store of common sense), he said that for a young person, choosing to become a writer is, in a sense, to take a vow of poverty—without the assured pension he would have if he joined the clergy.
One of my friends from college has made partner in a white-shoe law firm; others have become psychiatrists, oncologists, architects, consultants, and owners of successful businesses. Many of these friends own beautiful houses, and they enjoy vacations my family of two writers simply cannot afford. But I don’t think any of them is getting to write and publish novels, which is the thing I most want to do with my life. So I remind myself to keep those other, secondary things in perspective. I would advise you to look honestly at your own aspirations and priorities. Can you be happy without being financially comfortable? Can you do this even if you don’t end up achieving what you’d define as success as a writer? (Because no matter how broadly you define it, success is not guaranteed.) There’s no shame in answering “no” to these questions, and a lot of happiness to be found in this world in things that aren’t writing.
Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful advice to young writers2: “It is harrowing for me to try to teach 20-year-old students, who earnestly want to improve their writing. The best I can think to tell them is: Quit smoking, and observe posted speed limits. This will improve your odds of getting old enough to be wise.” Barbara Kingsolver, quoted in the Writer’s Almanac, 8 April 2009.
Is It Necessarily a Choice Between Writing & Having Money?
Of course not. Some people do make a living writing, in some cases a fabulous living; but it’s important to remember how very, very few writers do, especially over the long term. An entirely different kind of path a young writer might take is to embark on one of the professions, squirrel money away, and retire early. This is a real possibility. And of course, there are doctors, lawyers, and advertising executives who manage to make time to write in their busy schedules; Chris Adrian is my favorite example. (And I can name a few gifted writers who also have successful careers in publishing: John Glusman, Colin Harrison, Paul Elie, David Ulin.)
What do these writers have in common? Among other things, they all have tremendous powers of self-discipline. They all know how to write at four in the morning, or on their lunch breaks or subway rides home, year after year after year, even when they’re tired or their children are sick or something more enticing than writing is going on. If you plan to follow in their footsteps, I advise you to cultivate the qualities of perseverance and diligence. But of course, I advise you to cultivate these qualities if you plan to be any kind of writer at all.
Go to a library or bookstore and look up any of these things:
Paris Review interviews. Over the decades, the PR has asked diverse writers about their writing practices and about how they pay the bills. Reading these interviews can help you see how many different models you have in how to live as a writer.
Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter? About this book, my esteemed husband says, “Gioia is obsessed with poets who work outside the academy (e.g., Wallace Stevens). It’s great to know about good examples of non-teaching writers, since you’ll most likely be one for a while.” Gioia did remarkable work as head of the National Endowment for the Arts for six years; he is a true (and trustworthy) authority on writing and writers’ lives.
Joan Acocella’s Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints. Acocella, herself a brilliant writer, is obsessed with the various ways in which a creative career can crash and burn or flame out. So the book is full of wonderful negative examples, not to mention that it’s very entertaining.
Ted Solotaroff’s essay “Writing in the Cold: The First Ten Years.” Instructive in all kinds of ways, mostly in encouraging you to cultivate endurance (or what he calls “durability”) and to be prepared to labor in solitude longer than you’d ever imagine possible before you achieve any kind of success (assuming that you ever do). This essay is tough reading, but I think every young writer should take its advice to heart. It’s not available anywhere on the internet; enjoy going to find it the old-fashioned way.
General Words of Wisdom for Students
May I Ask a Writer to Sign a Book? And Other Questions
Not long ago, a student I had taught a few years back showed up for a day-long workshop I was offering. I was delighted to see her and catch up on her news.
In her bag, she had a copy of one of my novels, and she asked if I’d sign it, which of course I was happy to do. “I had it all the time I was taking your class,” she admitted, “but I felt weird about asking you to sign it. I didn’t want you to think I was being weird or anything.”
We had a laugh about this, because you know what? Writers are always flattered when people read and buy their books, and are always happy to sign them. Writers who teach do not think it’s weird if their students want to read their work. Student interest is flattering—it shows that your teaching resonates with them, that they want to know more about what you do and how you think. It’s also helpful for students to read their writing teachers’ work. Engaging with the work allows the students to consider their professors’ intellectual and aesthetic preoccupations, just as the professors will come to understand these things about the students as they work together. Mutual reading leads to a more productive mutual conversation.
Writers are also some of the people in the world most likely to understand that a signed copy of a book is special. Whether a writer is a devotee of her local public library or someone who collects first edition first printings, she is a person who believes that books matter.
I can think of a few specific situations in which I do not want to sign your book. If I am running for the last train of the night, driving a car, out jogging, or being thrown up on by two sick children in the pediatrician’s waiting room, I don’t want to sign your book. Other than that? I am always and forever flattered that people are interested enough in my work to want to read it and, in some cases, buy it. The same goes for every other writer I know. Go ahead and ask them to sign your books. You will make their day.
Which leads me to a related point: People often feel bashful about approaching writers (artists, musicians, makers of all kinds) to tell them how much they’ve enjoyed their work. But making things can be a lonely business; makers of all kinds and at all stages of their careers may feel they struggle to reach their audience. So whenever the urge strikes to tell someone how much their work means to you, act on that urge. Tell them. Send them an actual card, in the mail. They will be thrilled to hear from you.
As it turns out, I find that when I send fan mail to artists I admire, the act of verbalizing my appreciation makes me feel better, too. It reminds me of what’s beautiful in this often ugly world.
How Can I Improve My Chances of Being Accepted to an Undergraduate Workshop?
1) In my opinion, your application should always include a real, personal cover letter, even if the application guidelines don’t require one.
2) Your writing sample should represent your strongest work to date, and should adhere to guidelines about length and formatting. I, for one, prefer double spacing for fiction and non-fiction. Guidelines on length may differ from class to class, but in most cases, five to ten pages of writing suffices to show me your work’s merits. If you are applying to more than one class, consider tailoring your writing samples to the individual courses. For an upper-level workshop in a genre, it might, for example, redound to your credit to submit a sample in that genre. But if I had to choose between “best work” and “work in x genre,” I’d always prefer that you show me your very strongest writing, regardless of genre. Submit work that showcases your voice, your interests, and your dedication to the craft of writing. I think all writing teachers prefer a shorter, stronger application to one that reaches (or exceeds) the maximum number of pages allowed but varies in quality.
3) If you’ve missed the deadline for applications, there may be no way to get into the class in question unless there has been an extenuating circumstance. Different teachers feel differently about deadlines, of course; it might be worth trying your luck. I tend to believe that if many tenable applications have been submitted on time, it would be unfair to all those students to give preference to a late application (on which the applicant has had more time to work).
4) Make your note to the professor polite and professional, particularly if you’ve never met him or her. You might be surprised at how much more effective a note addressed to “Dear Professor X” can be than one addressed to “Hey!” On a related note, make sure you use the correct name for the professor, and that you’re spelling it correctly. (This may sound obvious, but in a recent round of applications I considered, I got one application addressed to “Dear Professor Cork.” I would never disqualify an application for such a small-scale mistake, but when you’re trying to make a good impression, everything you do right counts.)
5) Honesty is more helpful than fatuous praise. (This is just general life advice. Most of what I’m writing here is.) Telling a professor that you’ve “heard good things” about her class, or that you’re “in awe of” her work, smacks of flattery. If, however, a specific friend spoke well of a professor’s class, you might mention that; if you’ve read a professor’s book and something about it makes you want to study with her, say so. If you want to take a workshop and don’t know anything about the professor, it’s fine just to say that you’re eager to learn about the subject matter.
6) Read the syllabus, if it’s posted. Professors work hard to craft strong, engaging, innovative syllabi. An application that responds to the syllabus (by expressing legitimate interest in its subject matter or methodology, for example) helps the instructor understand why you’re interested in taking this specific class at this time.
7) When crafting your letter of application, try to let the professor know what makes you unique as a person and writer. Are you a student in the sciences who’s never tried writing before but passionately wants to? Is there something about your interests, background, experience, or influences that might give you a unique perspective in workshop? Are you hardworking, persistent, eager to learn about revision but unsure where to begin? Those things are interesting and make you stand out. In letters of application, students often claim to be monomaniacal about writing—most letters, in my experience, declare that the applicant has been writing since first grade, or something of this nature. (Not an uncommon circumstance, in a culture in which we take cheap, readily available paper for granted.) Those things may be true, and you can mention them if they are; but also remember that a professor may wish to admit a diverse group of students to allow for lively discussions. If your letter is honest, straightforward, and expresses something about your particularity as a person, this helps her to do so.
8) Also remember that anyone who devotes herself to her own writing is likely an avid reader of other authors. What current or canonical writers capture your imagination, and why? A writing instructor may be more eager to teach a room full of students she knows to be excited about, say, George Saunders, Colson Whitehead, Lucretius, Zadie Smith, Deb Olin Unferth, Edmund Spencer, Deborah Eisenberg, and Felicia Luna Lemus than a room full of people who have always really, really wanted to be writers.
How Do I Ask a Professor for a Letter of Reference?
1) Ask professors who know you well and have a high opinion of your work. Since each professor writes a number of letters each year, we cannot truthfully say that every student is the best we’ve ever taught. If a professor agrees to write for you, he or she will almost certainly write a positive letter; but you should expect that letter to reflect your good qualities in an honest way. If you suspect, from your interactions in workshop and conferences and from your professor’s comments on your written work, that your professor may, for example, have found you talented but lacking in motivation or unreceptive to criticism, your letter may reflect this fact.
2) In my view, you are better off requesting a letter from any teacher who knows you well than from someone famous with whom you have only a passing acquaintance. At least one letter should be from a professor in the field for which you’re applying for graduate study, but an insightful, positive letter from someone in another discipline can also be quite valuable.
3) It’s often best to request a reference from a professor with whom you’re not currently studying. Being able to evaluate your work over time, including your dedication to final work/revisions, is an important part of writing a recommendation; and I, for one, don’t always feel able to recommend a student’s work after only knowing him for half a semester. If you’re currently studying with a professor with whom you’ve studied before, this rule would not apply. There are also circumstances in which a letter from a current professor can be just fine. (I’m thinking specifically of applications for the Writing Concentration at Yale—an internal application process.) If, for example, you are currently doing strong work in Advanced Fiction, that professor might be a more logical choice to recommend you than the professor with whom you were just finding your voice in Intro.
4) Give professors plenty of time to write your letters. A student once asked me to write a letter a day before its deadline—which was both impossible, given the demands on my time, and disrespectful of those demands. Professors like to know as far in advance as possible how many letters they’ll need to write during letter-writing season. Telling a professor in the summer that you plan to apply to grad school that fall would be ideal. Four to six weeks to write the letter would be an absolute minimum. Remember that, if you want your letter to be good, your professor will have to craft if carefully.
5) Try to be understanding if a professor declines to write for you. He or she may already have undertaken to write a large number in a given semester, or may honestly believe that another professor could speak more eloquently about your abilities.
6) Acknowledge the time commitment each letter will take, even if a professor can upload it via a university website. (A good rule of thumb would be to assume that your professor will spend one hour uploading your letter to each school you choose—if the university’s system is functioning correctly at that time. Understand that this is not because your professors are older than you and not digital natives, but because university application websites are byzantine. See below for elaboration.) If a school asks you to provide a professor’s e-mail address, you might infer that the school intends to contact her casually if you make the first cut. But the moment you provide that address, the institution sends her an automated note requesting a formal and fully articulated letter of reference.
7) If physical letters are required, provide your professor with properly addressed, stamped envelopes. Providing a list of all schools you are applying to, along with application deadlines, would also be helpful.
8) As long as your request is polite, it’s fine to ask a professor for a letter in an e-mail. I’ve recently had some well-mannered former students arrange meetings with me for this purpose; and while I was delighted to see them, I understood from the get-go that they wanted to request letters, and would have considered it perfectly polite of them to ask up front.
9) If your professor is on family, medical, or parental leave, there’s a good chance that now is not a good time to ask for a letter. Of course you can always try, but it’s good to remember that someone who’s out on one of these kinds of leave is grappling with major life issues and may simply not be able to help you (or even respond quickly to your request for help) at this time. A professor out on sabbatical is getting some hard-won time to work on her own research and writing, and may also prefer to keep letter writing to a minimum; that depends on the individual.
Please note that, as of the posting of this advice on my website, I am no longer willing to write letters of reference that require engaging with universities’ online reference systems. I will gladly file your confidential letter of reference with Interfolio (or another dossier service), which can send it either by mail or electronically to any institution to which you apply. (As of this writing, Interfolio can deliver a letter directly to most universities’ online systems.) Your undergraduate residential college or house can in many cases provide a similar service.