Tips for Improving Your Creative Writing Sample

The application deadline for spring admission to SPU’s MFA in Creative Writing is October 1st, only two weeks from today!

One of the most common questions from students completing their applications is how they can strengthen their creative writing sample. Turning in your strongest work is important, as the writing sample is the most crucial part of your application.

While we don’t have any magic formulas to offer you, below you’ll find a few suggestions for whipping your essays, fiction, or poems into shape.

Advice on Preparing for your MFA Application

1) Read. To be a literary writer you must be a reader—a dedicated, incessant reader. Because an MFA program is about mastering a specific genre of writing, you should devote most of your reading to the genre in which you will be applying. Try to read as many writers from the great tradition as possible. For example, if you are a poet, immerse yourself in Homer and Virgil, Dante and Chaucer, Milton and Wordsworth, Hopkins and Dickinson, and so on. And, since a writer must be of a particular time and place, you should read widely among contemporary writers who are considered the finest in the world. Since our program is grounded in a concern for the way art and Christian faith interact, consider subscribing to IMAGE journal, which features the finest writers of faith at work today. You might also read books by current and past SPU MFA faculty members.

2) Study. If possible, consider taking one or more courses from a local university extension program. Ideally you should enroll in classes that stress the mastery of craft. Take courses that are appropriate for your own stage of development. There are also local literary organizations that offer writing classes; the best of these organizations have acquired a good reputation in the community. For example, here in Seattle we have Richard Hugo House. You may also want to enroll for a Glen Online writing course, which you can learn about here. Ask around; read testimonials—be a smart shopper. This is even more important with Internet courses—many of these are of poor quality, so you need to be very careful.

3) Write. Don’t put off writing until you think you are “ready.” Serious writing (as opposed to mere journaling) is an extremely difficult habit to acquire, and there is elemental wisdom in simply learning the discipline of daily writing. Again, it is vital that if you wish to apply to our program in a particular genre you write in that genre, day in and day out.

4) Workshop/Critique Groups. Many writing courses are based on the workshop model but writers often form more informal workshops on their own. Ask around. Ask any local writers you know and respect if they know of a group. Naturally, groups will vary widely in quality—they can be dominated by overly harsh or overly sentimental members. Again, use your common sense.

5) Genre Recommendations. We have a few suggestions geared to the specific genres in our program.

Poetry: Even if you prefer to write free verse, we strongly recommend that you spend some time working with the formal elements of poetry: meter, rhyme, enjambment, etc. Use the discipline of a form like the sonnet to increase your skills. But don’t feel that you have to submit formal poetry to us; submit your best work, whether in free verse or in a traditional form.

Fiction: Many of you may have novels in progress. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, keep in mind that we rarely allow students to work on a novel in our MFA; it is the exception, not the rule. We strongly urge you to work on the short story form. The short story has been defined as “something happened to someone.” Thus it can be an important reminder that fiction is built on scenes and dramatic structures and is not merely a “sketch.”

Creative Nonfiction: As with fiction, it is very rare that we allow students to work on a booklength project in our program. The norm is the writing of essays. By essay we don’t mean short vignette; we mean substantial pieces of writing, from 3,000 to 6,000 words in length. Not every CNF essay has to be this long, but writing at this length demands that you be able to manage a certain level of complexity. An application in CNF that contains only short 2-3 page anecdotes and sketches will not be successful.

Good luck, and happy writing!