Give Me the Time and Space: How to Land a Writing Residency


“The writing sample is the most important part.” I repeated that to myself as I sat down to begin my task as a first-time juror for The Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts and Sciences. I was a poet-in-residence at Hambidge in 2019 and when Dayna Thacker, Director of Programs and Marketing, asked me to judge applications for their Spring 2022 session I was more than happy to oblige. As a veteran of several residency programs myself, I was curious to learn from the applications and to see how others felt they could benefit from time away at a creative retreat. By the time I read the last application, and through my conversations with jurors and arts administrators at other residencies, I had gathered several tips for submitting to residencies to share with you, the prospective submitter.

There are many well-worn pieces of advice given to writers when they mention that they want to apply for writing retreats. One is the mantra I repeated to myself while reading applications: the writing sample is the most important part. Some residencies weigh the sample as 40% of an application’s score and at others it accounts for as much as 80%! Of course, writers should pay close attention to the guidelines for each residency’s application—don’t squeak in that extra poem just because you can’t decide between two! And, as much of a pain as it is, you must track down those two letters of recommendation if that is what is needed to complete the application.

The good news is, most residencies want writers to feel free and fully creative once they arrive. This is a playground for artists, after all! Your application documents may not reflect exactly what you will do while in residence—in fact, most folks surprise themselves once they arrive. The creative process changes and arts administrators understand that. However, the competition for funded residencies is fierce and only the applications that truly stand out are selected. The application is so critical because it forms a juror’s sole impression of you: your talent, ambition, and your “fit” for their community. Below find the five most useful tips I learned as a juror for how to get your application accepted at a competitive, funded writing residency:

  1. Established writers let the work speak for itself. Out of the applications I read, the established writers who have “been there and done that” in terms of residencies, jobs, and publishing put their best work out there and let it shine. One established applicant sent a very thin one-page CV. Another, a two-sentence cover letter. These documents did not negatively impact their scores. These applicants know the most important aspect of the application is the writing sample, and their poems did the talking. I’m not suggesting to “blow off” parts of the application, but some of the anxiety you are feeling may be unnecessary. Deborah Derrickson Kossmann, former juror for The Ragdale Foundation says, “I’ve judged and please, no flowery pleas, just be professional and describe what you are going to do. But it’s really all about the writing sample.”
  2. Put your best writing up front in the sample. This one might seem like a no-brainer, and it’s often the advice poets get when arranging a collection to send out to contests. However, I read quite a few applications where the first several poems didn’t resonate with me at all, but the last few made me think twice and wonder what the poet was capable of. Think about what might grab you if you were a juror going in “cold” and reading several dozen applications, maybe even in one sitting. Perhaps that lengthy sequence with a slow build is not a great pick? I wished these poets had put their strongest work first rather than trying to “establish a narrative” or to “create an order.”
  3. Project confidence in your project. I read project statements in which the writer mentioned that they hoped their work "might be polished enough" for publication after a residency or thought it "could possibly connect to {target audience}.” Instead, speak your best-case scenario into existence! Please do not give in to impostor syndrome on your application—this is the time to brag about yourself. Convince the jurors that your writing is ready to break barriers, if only you had the time and space on this residency to work on it!
  4. Be clear and honest in your project statement. I read many loquacious project statements because writers like to write beautiful prose. NO. What I want to know is: why do you need this? Do you work 60 hours a week and your job doesn't support your writing? Do you have kids at home and can't get a *moment* to write? Also: what is your goal? In some cases, you may want to quantify it: "I am going to write a poem draft a day." "I am going to revise these 40 poems into a manuscript." If you do not want to quantify, at least avoid confusing or vague statements about the direction of your work. You don't need to quote Rilke--that's what the writing sample is for. And remember, production isn’t the goal once you arrive at the residency, so think of this as an actionable dream scenario. Former Ragdale Fellow Jeanne Gassman says, “Twice I've been told I was awarded grants because I was specific about my goals and needs.”
  5. Most residency applications are “good.” Think about it—when you were an aspiring writer, were you dreaming of a writing residency or getting published in The New Yorker? Most writers who are new to the “business” of creative writing do not even know about writing residencies. To that end, 75% of the applications I read were more than respectable. How can you separate yourself? Applications with work samples that showcase a unique and interesting voice, an exciting but realistic project plan, and a sound argument for why the writer would benefit from the time and space at Hambidge persuaded me to say YES. Elaine Elinson, who previously reviewed applications for Hedgebrook and is now the President of the Board of Directors at Mesa Refuge, a residency program in California, says, “As a reviewer, I think ‘realistic project plan’ is absolutely a deal-maker!” Agreed.  

Bonus Tip: Don’t close out of that residency application webpage just because the program requires a letter of recommendation or three. I hear from writers all the time who say that they have “no one to ask,” that asking someone to write a letter is a “huge burden,” and they have “been out of school forever” and cannot ask their professors. These things may be true, but they should not be barriers to your success. The last time I applied for residencies, I asked a poet I shared space with at Sundress Academy for the Arts to write a letter for me. I also asked a publisher I worked with on two different projects. These letters showcased me as an asset to a community of artists and someone worthy of the investment. I was granted two residencies using those references.

Finally, I would like to share some words of wisdom from Erin Coughlin Hollowell, Executive Director of Storyknife, a women’s writing retreat in Homer, Alaska: “I…want to let folks know that the people who run residencies, we want you to succeed. We want to love your work. We want to nurture your work…. It can feel lonely and scary (I've applied for many), but now as an executive director of a residency, I just know how much we wish we had spots for everyone!” So how can you be sure you get one of those spots? Keep this article handy and trust your stuff.

Sandra Marchetti is the author of Confluence, a full-length collection of poetry from Sundress Publications (2015). She is also the author of four chapbooks of poetry and lyric essays. Her poetry appears widely in Poet Lore, Blackbird, Ecotone, Southwest Review, Subtropics, and elsewhere. Sandy’s essays can be found at The Rumpus, Fansided, Mid-American Review, Barrelhouse, Pleiades, and other venues. Sandy earned an MFA in Creative Writing—Poetry from George Mason University and now serves as the Coordinator of Tutoring Services at the College of DuPage in the Chicagoland area. She currently serves as the Poetry Editor at River Styx Magazine.