In Case It’s Late August of 2013 and You’re a Yale Student Interested in English 134a

A prospective student recently wrote with a question about applying for English 134: Reading Fiction for Craft. It was a good question: the Word doc application (which, as of this writing, you can take a look at here) says to “Paste below a writing sample of approximately 5-10 pages of poetry or about 4,500 words of prose, double-spaced.”

On the off chance that you, the person reading this, are a Yale undergrad, and you’re here because you’re thinking about applying for English 134, and it’s August 2013 (or some month in the future when the following answer remains helpful), I’m going to quote part of my answer here, with a few other suggestions for my class in particular and writing classes in general.

Here’s what I said about writing sample length:

I would suggest that you consider 4,500 words to be a maximum length, rather than either a minimum, or even a ballpark to aim for. Other professors may have different feelings about this, but to me, what matters most here is quality, not quantity.

On a side note, this question affects writers throughout their careers. A writer I know recently was reading applications for a fellowship, which required a writing sample with a maximum of 30 pages. He said that he saw applications where writers felt compelled to add, say, 10 pages of weak work on top of 20 pages of excellent work, thinking they were helping their chances, when in fact they were lowering their chances.

The very next sentence in the writing class application might cause confusion as well. It says: “For the statement of purpose, please write a short paragraph about why you wish to take this specific writing course.”

Or maybe not confusion, exactly—but it’s bound to lead to short paragraphs that are nearly identical. Why does anyone want to take a writing class in college? Because they love writing, because they’ve always loved writing, because they’ve been writing stories ever since they were little. Which is all true and beautiful, but it says more about our cultural and socioeconomic circumstances than it does about the applicant as an individual.

For the prospective student who wrote, I highly recommended this page on Emily Barton’s website.

“All of her suggestions on how to improve one’s chances at being accepted into an undergraduate writing class are great,” I said, “but my favorites are the last two on the list.”

I’ll quote them here for emphasis:

7) When crafting your letter of application, try to let the professor know what makes you unique as a person and writer. Are you a student in the sciences who’s never tried writing before but passionately wants to? Is there something specific about your interests, background, experience, or influences that might give you a unique perspective in workshop? Are you hardworking, persistent, eager to learn about revision but unsure where to begin? Those things are interesting and make you stand out. In letters of application, students often claim to be monomaniacal about writing—most letters, in my experience, declare that the applicant has been writing since first grade, or something of this nature. (Not an uncommon circumstance, in a culture in which we take cheap, readily available paper for granted.) Those things may be true, and you can mention them if they are; but also remember that a professor may wish to admit a diverse group of students to allow for lively discussions. If your letter is honest, straightforward, and expresses something about your particularity as a person, this helps her to do so.

8) Also remember that anyone who devotes herself seriously to her own writing is likely an avid reader of other authors. What current or canonical writers capture your imagination, and why? A writing instructor may be more eager to teach a room full of students she knows to be excited about, say, George Saunders, Colson Whitehead, Lucretius, Zadie Smith, Deb Olin Unferth, Edmund Spencer, and Roberto Bolaño than a room full of people who have always really, really wanted to be writers.

So again, dear Yale student reading these words in August 2013, aim for brevity and specificity. I, too, have loved writing for as long as I can remember. What makes you different?

Two final notes:

a) If you don’t get into any creative writing classes this fall, see if the Yale Community Self-Led Fiction Workshops, which Emily and John Crowley started last year, are still happening. (If I find out that they are, I’ll post some sort of addendum to this blog post with more information; and the folks at the English department should know more about what’s going on with the self-led workshops soon as well.)

b) Always remember to say “thank you.”

I sincerely hope this is helpful. Good luck!