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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 (pure pornography, say, or a novel about a talking toilet) as to be beyond consideration. The remaining hundreds of applications demonstrate impressive merit but don’t distinguish themselves from the others.

What separates those top 15? What causes me to open a digital file, sit up straighter, and feel as if I have discovered someone truly promising? The answer can be instructive not only for those hoping to gain admission to a creative writing program, but for any beginning writer.

The first document I see tells me the applicant’s name, age, sex, gender, and race (if they choose to fill those boxes), their nationality and place of birth. None of this is allowed to affect my decision. We keep track of such data only so the university can assess the demographics of our program; at some schools, special grants might be available to members of a specific category. However, I love to teach workshops in which students write about a wide range of characters and experiences and bring a variety of critical opinions to the seminar, and I am allowed to select writers who might help us achieve such diversity.

We can’t discriminate because of age, but most people who apply for an MFA straight out of college haven’t yet proven themselves passionate and disciplined enough to continue writing without an assignment. We want to know you will keep working on your novel even if you need to get up at 4 a.m. to write before heading off to an office or a construction site. We want to be sure you have gained the perspective and tenacity to accept constructive criticism without bursting into tears or quitting. We want to know you have been out in the world long enough to write something other than thinly veiled fiction about your parents’ divorce or your most recent breakup (although it’s possible to impress us with a story about either).

Where you went to college doesn’t matter. I have been stunned by the talent of an applicant who attended a tiny religious school in a midwestern town I couldn’t locate on a map, and I have unceremoniously dismissed a graduate of an Ivy League university who wrote dull, dutiful prose about her semester abroad in Paris. Taking a workshop or two (or three) will probably help you to write and revise your very best fiction or poetry, but you don’t need to major — or even minor — in creative writing. The more you know about quantum mechanics, evolution, astronomy, artificial intelligence, philosophy, music, history, geography, art, European, African, or Asian literature, the richer and more complex your poetry and fiction will be. (My undergraduate major was physics.) We don’t care about your GPA unless your grades are so low we worry you won’t be able to pass the graduate-level courses we require you to take along with workshops.

We are listening for a voice that doesn’t sound like anyone else.

After I have mentally processed the data on the forms you filled out, I skim your two essays, one about who you are as a writer and the other about who you are as a person, as if those two topics can be teased apart. Believe me, we know how much you hate writing essays about yourself. But that’s only because you think the purpose of each essay is to brag about your accomplishments while pretending to be humble. In fact, the purpose is to convince us you can write, you have something to write about, and you are someone your classmates and instructors will want to hang out with for the next few years.

Would someone with a writer’s sensibility state the obvious? Then why do so many applicants begin their essays: I have known since the second grade what I wanted to be: a writer. Or: I want to write because when I was a kid, I was lonely, I was an outcast, and the only thing that saved me was reading books. Or: I loved to read Harry Potter and think it would be neat to be the next J.K. Rowling.

All this might be true, but describing who you were as a writer in second grade, or even in high school, is like talking about your SAT scores at a dinner party in your thirties. Who are you as a writer right now? Be specific. You might want to end the reign of Donald Trump. But how do you intend to accomplish that by writing a story or poem? You might be concerned with intersectionality, microaggressions, the Body, and the Other. But do you realize those are jargony words that don’t convey nearly as much as saying that as a woman in a wheelchair, you have never once been stopped by someone who wanted to know the time or the way to the Empire State Building? Are you just parroting what you learned in your gender studies class, or have you noticed something about being female, gay, or trans that everyone else is afraid to mention? What puzzles you about being a straight white male? What do people rarely admit about being the only black employee at an investment firm? Or the son of a mother who worked at a fracking site in North Dakota? Or the child of parents who regularly dined at Mar-a-Lago?

You would be surprised how many people say they don’t really have anything left to learn about writing, they only want to network and get an agent. Or who list, among writers who have influenced them, only straight, white, male Americans. We are trying to make sure you will be able to function in a community of writers who belong to a wide variety of races, religions, nationalities, genders, sexual orientations, and social classes. We want to know you will respond generously, intelligently, honestly, and tactfully to your classmates’ manuscripts. You can be a terrible human being and go on to great renown. But if you choose to apply to a graduate program in creative writing, as much as we make allowances for quirkiness and eccentricity, we need to screen for a modicum of good citizenry and academic competence.

That said, if your writing is outstanding, we will probably ignore almost everything else in your portfolio. Conversely, if your samples don’t impress us, you won’t get in, no matter how much we might be rooting for you when we read your essays.

Do we care if you submit a story that might be classified as fantasy, romance, horror, mystery, or science fiction? Yes and no. Many examples of such genres are formulaic, stale, and badly written. The world doesn’t need another echo of an echo of an elves-and-dragons trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. If you want to write about elves or zombies, love or sex, humanity’s darkest fears or the crimes we commit against ourselves and others, do so in a way that feels new. I appreciate humor, but only if the comedy flows naturally from your characters; I shouldn’t get the sense you are being outrageous or obscene for the sake of showing off.

Write the story or poem you must write, not the story or poem you can write or think you should write. Write the story or poem only you could have written. Don’t write what you know; write what you don’t know about what you know. Of course you’re outraged that cops are shooting unarmed people of color. What don’t you understand about the way police officers treat black people? About priests who sexually abuse children? Men who rape women? Women who rape men? Have you ever thought of writing a story from the point of view of the cop (as James Baldwin did in “Going to Meet the Man”) or the father who sexually abused his daughter (Jessica Treadway in “Something Falls”)? Maybe you spend a good portion of every day trying to remain faithful to your spouse, and you can’t figure out how monogamy is even possible. Maybe you worry that if you don’t write about the people you knew growing up in Little India in Jackson Heights, your tiny hometown in Montana, Nairobi, Beijing, or the wealthiest suburb of Chicago, no one will get those stories right.

When we read your portfolio, we are trying to determine if you have something you truly care about, some aspect of what it means to be human that perplexes, inspires, or disturbs you. But we also are listening for a voice that doesn’t sound like anyone else. A voice that sings with some degree of grace and musicality. We want you to demonstrate you are as adept at writing an effective scene, complete with dialogue, as you are at conveying important facts and backstory via exposition. We want the metaphors you invent, the details you choose, the descriptions of your settings, your portrayal of your characters’ inner lives to seem perfectly apt and yet surprising. We want your prose to lift a few inches off the page, to shimmer, to shine, to make us wish we had written it.

Here’s a test one of my colleagues taught me: Open a manuscript to any page, choose a sentence at random, and read it aloud. Is the prose awkward and flat? (Stumbling into the kitchen, Jenny, hungover from a party the night before, where she had definitely drunk too much vodka, plopped down at the table in the breakfast nook and poured her cereal.) Could your grandfather, neighbor, or little sister have written it? Is the sentence boring? Too general? Or is the prose trying so hard to be Literary that it seems labored and artificial?

When Jesmyn Ward applied to our program, the stories in her portfolio didn’t necessarily work as stories. But I still remember her description of two African-American boys playing with a litter of newborn pit bulls that would be trained to compete in dogfights. I had never read anything about boys like these. And the sentence describing the fragility of one boy’s wrist, the bones in that wrist like pebbles, was all I needed to convince me that here was a writer who was alive to the beauty and sadness of life and had a poet’s eye for detail. (Applications are confidential, but Jesmyn kindly gave me permission to discuss her manuscript.)

Gratuitous sex or violence turn me off — but if you write about them well, you will certainly gain my attention. One story, about an artist who smashes a brick on his girlfriend’s hand, made me pass out stone cold on my office floor. Believe me, I remembered that story long enough to make a case for admitting the woman who wrote it. But I have been equally knocked out by a scene in which a boy describes the feel of his older brother’s arms around his waist and his brother’s head on his shoulder as he drives the older boy home from a brothel on a motorbike. Another writer — an undergraduate who asked my advice on a story he hoped to submit with his application — won me over with the very first line: “My father was a coal miner and a taxidermist.” I wanted to read about that father. I wanted to read anything written in that honest, clear, loving voice.

If you have a distinctive voice and something you want and need to say, we can teach you the tools of the craft and help you say it.

Notice I haven’t said your submissions need to be perfect. If your story as a whole conveys a complete narrative arc that traces a character’s conflict or desire, if the story seems to achieve a thematic unity and coherence, that will be to your advantage. But we are less interested in a structurally perfect story that offers no surprises than a rougher but far more exciting manuscript. If you have a distinctive voice and something you want and need to say, we can teach you the tools of the craft and help you say it.

If you submit only one story, and that story is terrific, we might not be able to find reason to reject you… unless you come up against an applicant who has submitted two terrific stories. Similarly, if you submit an excerpt from your novel-in-progress that stuns us with its power, intelligence, and originality, we will be excited to help you bring that project to fruition. But many novels that students bring into an MFA program turn out to be amateurish. If you have nothing to write except that material, we might wonder what you will do instead. Ideally, an applicant should submit two kick-ass stories, or one outstanding story and a promising, if not yet fully realized, excerpt from a novel.

Unfortunately, many writers are lousy judges of their own work; make sure you ask a trusted reader to look over your portfolio before you upload it to our system. Don’t give in to the temptation to submit a story or poem you tossed off that morning, which, because it’s so fresh, seems to be the best thing you’ve ever written.

You would be shocked how many applicants don’t proofread their manuscripts. Sure, keeping “lie” and “lay” straight is difficult, but you have no idea how it grates on a writing teacher’s ear to read “I went upstairs and lied down” or “I lied the book on the table,” or how irritating it can be to see all the commas and periods outside the quotation marks rather than inside. Think how Zac Posen would respond if a designer sent a model down the runway in a gown with crooked seams, or if the contestants on the Great British Baking Show presented Paul Hollywood with a lopsided cake or a loaf of bread with a chunk of raw dough in the middle.

After we read an applicant’s stories or poems, all that remains are their letters of recommendation. Ideally, these should come from writers who have taught the applicant in some kind of workshop; we tend to be less impressed by letters that come from the applicant’s classmates or friends, their youth pastor, or their telemarketing supervisor. Don’t worry if you have been out of college for a long time; we understand that your letters speak to who you were when you were younger. But don’t hesitate to get in touch with your undergraduate instructor and see if they might read your more recent work and update their letter.

If you have come to writing late, you can sign up for a class at your local community college or extension school. Most cities of any size have a writers’ group; some of these are led by published authors who have earned their own MFAs and can advise you on where and how to apply. You might even be able to use your vacation time to attend a writers’ retreat or conference.

Usually, if we find a writer to be very talented, we are hoping their recommenders rave not only about their prose or poetry but also about how generous they were to their classmates, how open and responsive to suggestions for improvement, how diligent about revising, how willing to read whatever stories or poems or novels the teacher suggested. We also hope the recommenders won’t hint that the applicant is self-centered, arrogant, liable to miss too many classes, disrespectful, prone to fits of rage, or irresponsible.

If we love your work, there is very little a recommender can say to dissuade us from accepting you. If we don’t love your work, your recommenders’ over-the-top praise won’t help. You might be the very best writer your university ever graduated, but you’re probably not the very best writer who ever applied to our program — or even the best writer among the hundreds who applied that year, many of whom were also the most talented writer their recommender ever taught.

Unlike gymnasts and mathematicians, writers improve with age. There is no stigma to being an amateur, given that even highly published writers often earn little or no money from their publications.

No matter what happens, remember that the odds of gaining admission to a top MFA program are 1:20 at best, and 1:80 at the most selective. If you receive an acceptance, celebrate. If you make the waitlist, send a nice note to the director. Thank them and tell them how much you want to join the program. If you eventually get an offer, don’t consider yourself second-rate. You no doubt impressed several members of the committee, and by the time the new fiction and poetry cohorts show up in September, no one will remember who came in off the waitlist. Some of our most illustrious alumni didn’t get an initial offer, either because we were too blind to fully credit their talents or because they grew substantially while in the program.

If you don’t receive an acceptance, or if your offer doesn’t include financial aid, you have two choices: You can give up; or you can keep writing on your own, ask for feedback from readers whose suggestions you value, and try again the following year with newer and stronger work. (Feel free to mention this in your essay; the faculty will admire your perseverance, especially if the newer material is stronger and more mature.)

And if you never gain admittance? If you can’t take time off from your responsibilities as a parent, a spouse, a breadwinner, even for a low-residency program? That doesn’t mean you can’t be a writer.

Unlike gymnasts and mathematicians, writers improve with age. There is no stigma to being an amateur, given that even highly published writers often earn little or no money from their publications. If you are willing to keep learning and taking risks, if you keep trying to figure out what you care about, if you keep writing sentences that don’t sound like anyone else’s, sentences that sing, that command your readers to sit up and listen, if you keep trying to move your readers, get us to think, delight us, make us laugh, give us a reason to get up in the morning, you eventually will write stories or poems you are proud to have written and other people will want to read, with or without an MFA.

If you have questions about the writer’s life or the craft of writing, please let me know in the responses. I would love to share more advice from my decades mentoring MFA students and coaching writers at all stages of their careers.

Eileen is the author, most recently, of The Professor of Immortality, A Perfect Life, and The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club.

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