Writer-in-residence applications: tips from a non-expert

I’ve secured a residential fellowship at a writers’ retreat. Sweet times! Next March, I will enjoy two glorious weeks of tranquil settings, quiet contemplation, and uninterrupted writing time. The experience certainly will not involve procrastination or crippling anxiety about not wasting this great opportunity I’ve been handed.

A writing friend suggested that I share some tips on applying for these sorts of things (thanks, May-Kuan!). But just because I was successful with this one application, that hardly makes me an expert. I applied for two other residencies this year with no joy. So, if you read on, your results may vary, I take no responsibility for the quality of the advice, etc etc.

In my non-writing career, I read a lot of job applications. That’s been instructive, and I have a couple of theories about what might have helped my residency application get over the line.

First of all, I chose a project and a pitch that would help me stand out. That really comes back to closely reading the application guidelines. These usually contain clues about what the assessors are looking for. The things I noticed in the guidelines for this opportunity were:

–An expressed willingness to consider writers with different levels of experience and background. This is not a given; and it’s music to the ears of any early-stage writer not yet “on the brink of actual emergement”;

–Welcoming writers from different parts of Australia, even though the residency is in NSW;

–Looking for different types of work (novels, memoir, short stories etc).

So, I pitched myself as:

–An early career writer (I stated this clearly, and didn’t try and talk up my experience or publication history);

–From South Australia;

–Working on a themed short story collection.

It’s serendipitous that I happen to be working on a themed short story collection right now. But I could also have chosen to pitch a political/lit fic novel – a future project that I have some clarity around. But look at the assessors’ report: of the 250 applications received, over 150 were for lit fic novels, and only a dozen or so were for short story collections. All other things being equal, my base in South Australia and the nature of my project helped me to stand out.

Of course, other programs will have other criteria. So, look for the clues in the project you’re applying for. Even better, look for the right opportunity: the one that seems tailor-made to support the project you’re working on right now.

When it came to describing my project, I really had to wrestle hard to define what my collection was about. I realised that it’s not enough to say: I’m writing a bunch of stories and they’re all really great and they’re about different things. That’s not a hook. So I took time to re-read the work I’ve completed, to see what themes ran through all of the pieces. I realised that they all deal, in some way, with issues of control (of oneself and others) and what happens when control is lost. That realisation is going to help me write a better collection, aside from helping me with this residency application.

I also thought hard about how I could explain why the residency would matter to me, and to my project specifically. Two weeks of writing and editing time is useful for any writer. Saying so in a residency application won’t get you too far. So I thought about what specifically I would do in that two week period. In my application, I noted that:

–I’ve been working on this project since late 2016 (true!)

–I have outlines for most stories and I’m about 60% of the way through first drafts.

–By early 2018—the time of the residency—I should have completed drafts of almost all stories and so I would use the residency to edit, re-work, and form the pieces into a cohesive collection.

It’s still only aspirational, but it’s a bit more directed than, “Gee, I’d really like 2 weeks of writing time…”

Hey: it’s a numbers game, and there’s a good deal of luck involved, and of course the quality of one’s writing is important in securing one of these things. We’ll all have more rejections than acceptances. But why not try and give yourself the best chance?

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