How to Make Your Writing Stand Out
I’ve been reviewing MFA applications for a quarter century. Here’s my advice to any aspiring writer.
This January, I am doing what I have been doing every January for nearly a quarter of a century: reading applications for the MFA program in creative writing here at the University of Michigan. With hundreds of manuscripts to read and comment on, my colleagues and I do nothing but complain. We buy each other gag gifts, like those fake glasses with bloodshot eyeballs that pop out on springs. And yet, we secretly love this aspect of our jobs. It is as close as we will ever come to judging American Idol. Not the mean part. The part where some unlikely soul walks out on stage and unleashes a voice that causes you to leap to your feet and cheer.
How can we be sure someone is gifted? What convinces us to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of our donors’ money to finance a candidate’s tuition and yearly stipend? What makes us want to invest hours of time and care in reading that person’s manuscripts and training them to teach undergraduates?
Assessing the quality of a short story or poem can be subjective. And yet, as a writer who has been teaching in MFA programs for 30 years and who regularly discusses the admissions process with the directors of other programs, I am here to attest the system is as fair as we fallible human beings know how to make it. (As a fiction writer, I am going to focus on that genre, but as the former director of our MFA program, I oversaw the admission process in poetry as well, and I noticed few distinctions.)
Where you went to college doesn’t matter.
No matter who is serving on the admissions committee, no matter if we are choosing from 250 applicants to our fiction program (which was true in the early 1990s) or 1100 (which was true in 2010s, when the economy was in shambles and many young people suddenly decided to study creative writing), my colleagues and I agree on the strongest 15. Within that group, we disagree as to which writer ranks first or tenth or fifteenth. But those 15 applications always rise above the rest.
At the other end of the spectrum, 15 applications tend to be so poorly written or inappropriate…