Free Advice on Writing Samples

…for writing workshop applications, specifically!

I was a reader for this year’s Clarion West six-week summer workshop (please don’t ask me if I read your application or how I scored anything, I mostly don’t remember anyway) and now that this year’s class has been announced (congrats y’all!), I need to vent about a very personal pet peeve.

NOTA BENE: This is a very specific idiosyncrasy (it’s not you, it’s me), and it also did NOT affect how I judged anyone’s actual writing–so if you’ve done this in the past (as I too have), don’t feel bad about it! But for your consideration w/r/t any future opportunities:



And yes, I know the current Clarion West FAQ explicitly permits this:

Can I send a previously published story? A story accepted but not published?

Yes. We’re not publishing it, so it won’t violate copyright or publishing agreements.

…but they don’t argue for or against it. I will argue against it. Strenuously. Here goes.

I understand the impulse. You want to show off your best work, and something that’s already published has someone else’s stamp of approval. You don’t need to wonder if it’s “good enough” because you have external validation. I GET IT. I’ve been there too.

Here’s the problem: it is an enormous missed opportunity to provide another important signal to the folks reading applications. I can only speak for myself, but I want to know what new stuff you’re working on now, what you think is the best representation of your writing skills now.

I don’t want someone else’s judgment on that; I want to know that you, the writer, have a sense of your own craft competence. That’s an important part of being in a workshop, is knowing that “I’m writing this thing THIS WAY because I have some confidence that it will evoke THIS REACTION in the reader.” And even if it doesn’t land the way you hoped or intended? You had a purpose, a specific aim, and your fellow workshoppers can then help you refine the work to achieve your goal.

I know that might seem like a lot. I know that when I was a baby writer, I always felt like I was floundering when I tried to judge the quality of my own work. I don’t know, man, you tell me, editor! That’s why I’m submitting to you! WITNESS ME

But here’s the thing: when you apply to a workshop, you’re not just demonstrating your writing prowess. Ideally (and again, IMHO), you’re also presenting your ability to judge your own work. This is part of that you-are-not-the-work, separate-art-from-artist thing that we all continue to struggle with, so don’t get down on yourself for shying away initially. What I’m asking you to do is to get over that impulse and work on developing the very important skill of being able to step back from your work as a creator and consider what you’re trying to say, to whom you’re trying to say it, and how you expect them to respond.

Because in a workshop setting, the ability to constructively critique a piece–either someone else’s, or your own–is crucial to the learning process. Writing is only the first part; how you are able to think and talk about the writing is the next part.

And another thing: using previously published work in your writing sample is UNFAIR to other applicants who don’t have any published works to submit! It doesn’t mean they’re any less skilled or accomplished at their craft, just that they’re at a different place in their creative life. In particular for Clarion West, where the writing sample can be a novel excerpt–already a very different type of writing to evaluate–those are almost certainly unpublished. I want to at least be able to compare unpublished apples to unpublished apples, to strain a metaphor.

One final note: submitting unpublished work gives me a look at something that I can’t find anywhere else. You can mention previous publishing credits in your cover letter, on your website, whatever–I can find those. (Again, this is just me; it’s not common practice among application committees AFAIK.) I can see if you’re already in the game. The application is your opportunity to let me peek at your practice space, where you’re challenging yourself creatively. It’s your chance to clue me in on where you want to go next, and how the workshop might be able to help you get there.

Here endeth the rant. For the record, once again, seeing previously published work has never affected how I judged any applications I’ve read (though I did recuse myself if I recognized who the author was; everything is anonymized in the review system, but every now and then a tell slipped through). I recognize that this is nobody’s problem but mine, but I am going to die on this sword, or at least complain about it very loudly while doing a stage fall.

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