| Don’t Write Alone
Shop Talk Get Thee to a Writing Residency
Residency programs offer dedicated time and space to help you level up your writing. Here’s how to apply.
Before I worked at a residency program, I’d applied to many of them. The application process always felt nerve-racking to me—applications aren’t cheap! and I wanted a yes so badly!—and I was never sure what made the difference between being (occasionally) successful or (more commonly) unsuccessful. My time behind the scenes taught me that nerves have no place in the application game and that there’s no magical secret behind a successful residency application. Every program is different, aesthetic judgements are inherently subjective (and often implicitly biased . . .), and there will always be more writers looking for time and space than there are residency slots available. But! There are a few things you can do to make sure your application has the best possible chance of getting you that welcome letter.
As with so many other things in life (jobs, dating, etc.), even when you’re kinda desperate, it’s important to remember that a residency application is a two-way vetting process. Residencies need artists as much as artists need residencies! And every program has its own culture, whether intentional or accidental (or a combination of the two). One easy way to get a taste of how that culture might affect you is to pay attention to how the application process itself makes you feel. Does the language feel welcoming? Does the process feel purposeful? If you have accessibility needs, dietary restrictions, an unconventional daily schedule, or any other individual needs/concerns, can the program support you and your practice in the ways you need to be supported? Is the staff helpful if/when you have questions? It’s natural to get caught up in the desire for acceptance, but don’t lose sight of the fact that you need the residency to work for you too.
With all that in mind, here is what I learned about how to approach the application process during my eight years working in the residency field.
Prioritize programs that meet your needs.
When I first started applying for residencies, my only criteria was “time and space to write.” Which was . . . a way to do it. But there are many other factors worth considering if you want to make the most of your residency experience. The gift of immersive time and space can make any number of mild-to-moderate inconveniences seem bearable, but finding a program that truly suits your needs can give your work a surprisingly long-lasting boost.
On a creative level, think about what type of environment would best nurture your current practice/project. Would you prefer to have structure (set meal times, a daily events schedule) or to be untethered from any/all routines? Do you want prepared meals and housekeeping service, or would a DIY experience work better for you? Do you enjoy shared/communal live/work spaces, or is private living and/or working space a must? Are you miserable in hot weather or afraid of snow? On a personal level, look for programs with structures and/or vibes that make you feel welcome and considered. Historically, most residency programs have reflected the norms (and demographics) of affluent white culture. Until recently, many of these spaces hadn’t given much consideration to creating a more inclusive environment. However, over the last decade-ish, the residency field at large has been working to improve opportunities and support for the many, many writers whose work, bodies, and lives don’t fit that narrow mold. Shorter residency periods, more inclusive dietary options, more accessible facilities, and greater financial support are a few of the ways programs are trying to make space for parents, working-class writers, writers from nontraditional backgrounds, BIPOC writers, LGBTQIA+ writers, writers with disabilities and/or chronic conditions, and other historically excluded folks. No matter what conditions you need to thrive, chances are high that a program out there fits the bill.
Important considerations include:
Costs and funding
Geographic setting (i.e., urban/rural, in-town/secluded), weather, and transportation
Technology and broadband access
Community size and composition
Room and studio accommodations
Meals, services, and local amenities
Family, pet, and visitor policies
Enrichment opportunities and other activities
Your ideal scenario may vary at different times in your life, points in your project, and moments in your career. Your work (and spirit!) will benefit most if your residency provides the type of creative nurturance you currently need in an environment where you feel seen and supported as a human.
Make sure the program is equipped to evaluate your work.
This may sound obvious, but not all residencies accept—or are equipped to properly evaluate—every type of writing. Translation, for example, can be tricky, because reviewers need to be able to read in both languages in order to judge the quality of the work sample; where I worked, we ran special translation juries at special times. If you work across/between genres or in multiple media (for example, as a graphic novelist), some programs might prefer you apply as a visual/studio artist. Before you take the time (and spend the money) to fill out an application, make sure your work is accepted and that you’re submitting it under the most appropriate category. When in doubt, reach out! As a rule, program staff believe passionately in the value of residencies, genuinely want your application to succeed, and are happy to help.
Follow **aaalllll** the instructions.
You’d be surprised (i.e., I was totally surprised) by how many applications trip on this step! Be especially conscious of anything regarding the formatting requirements for your writing sample. If a program requests one-inch margins, make sure you give them one-inch margins. If they ask for .docx, don’t send a .doc instead. If personally identifying information is prohibited, make sure your name and/or initials are nowhere to be found —including hidden in the file name or buried in the header or footer. Some programs automatically reject any applications that don’t follow the directions; others might still consider your work, but with a negative bias. If there is an accessibility-related reason that you cannot fulfill the requirements, contact the program well in advance of the deadline. The way they address your concern will give you important information re: point number one!
Keep your contact info up-to-date.
Have I seen acceptance notifications come back in the mail (or bounce back over email)? Yes. Yes, I have. Do you want that to happen to you? No. No, you don’t! Many residency programs use popular online submission systems to manage the application process, and some of those pull your contact info directly from your existing user account settings. If you signed up for your SlideRoom or Submittable account four apartments ago, or upgraded your area code during the pandemic, double-check to make sure your best email, current mailing address, and latest cell phone number are up-to-date in your account settings. If your contact info changes after you’ve applied, update it online and then reach out to the program directly so they can update their database. (Semirelated to this: If you’ve been expecting to hear back about an application, don’t forget to check your spam and promotional folders.)
Your writing sample really is the most important part of your application.
Where I worked, portfolio review was the very first step in the process after disqualifying any applications that failed to follow directions. To mitigate the effects of unconscious bias on the portfolio-review process, every sample was reviewed blind by at least two different readers using a common rubric, and reviewers changed at every deadline to limit the possibility of falling into entrenched aesthetic biases over time. Equity was a constant conversation, and we reviewed our application requirements and administrative procedures on an ongoing basis. Not every program does it this way, of course, but every program is keenly aware of how slippery and subjective the whole enterprise is. As an applicant, there is no way to crack the code because there is no code to crack: The admissions process is dynamic and ever evolving. You can’t guess who might be reading your work, or what other work is swimming alongside yours in the applicant pool, so don’t waste your energy trying to cater to an unknowable audience. “Your strongest work” is the work that most compels you (and maybe a trusted reader or two) .
If—and only if—your writing sample is reviewed favorably, the rest of your application comes into play.
If a residency program is looking at your essay questions, CV, references, etc., then your work itself has met the threshold for admission. At this point, whether or not you make the cut depends on a wide variety of finicky factors, and more than a pinch of luck and randomness. Scheduling constraints, cohort composition, timeliness of your particular project, and urgency of need are all factors that may come into play. The final decision-making process is somewhat alchemical, and any one of these factors might be weighted more heavily as the program makes decisions among otherwise equally qualified candidates. All you can do is ensure that your own case for admission is as strong as possible. Rejection is a reflection of the intrinsic limits of the process, not a value judgment on your work. If at first you don’t succeed, keep trying!
When it comes to your availability, consider the “off season.”
A large segment of the arts community is in some way tied to the academic calendar. Because teaching writers (as well as many parents) often can’t accommodate a residency during the school year, there is intense competition for scheduling during the summer months and other common academic break periods. That’s not to say it’s “easier” to get a yes if you request a January or February spot—even in the heart of winter there is intense competition for residency space. But if your application is provisionally yes-worthy, your scheduling availability may make the difference between a yes, the waitlist, or a no. Accommodating applicants’ scheduling needs can be a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle; the broader your availability is, the more likely it is for your piece to fit.
Don’t let letters of recommendation intimidate you.
Requiring recommendations is an inequitable and exclusionary—but still relatively commonplace—practice. Don’t let it deter you from applying for vital support! When residencies request references, it’s because they want someone to vouch for your ability to thrive in their environment. A residency can be an intense experience; you and everyone else in residence with you will be living together, way out of your respective elements and way up in your heads, for an extended period of time. You don’t need a big-name writer (or any writer at all) to serve as a reference for you; what you need is someone who knows you well enough to vouch for the fact that you’re dedicated, self-motivated, and can get along amicably in community with others. A close personal mentor or creative peer is ideal, but if you don’t have one of those, work with what you’ve got! The coworker who always sees you scribbling in your notebook during lunch, the BFF who fondly accepts it when you cancel plans because you’re finishing a new draft—anyone in your life who can write a few honest paragraphs about your drive and demeanor can be a viable reference. The best recommenders are the most personal, not the most famous.
Be specific in your personal statements and project descriptions.
Not every residency application includes essay questions or project plans, but if it is part of an application, those responses will be used to help reviewers understand who you are as an artist, your current vision/goals/trajectory, and how a given residency will benefit you and your work at this particular moment in time. These questions will be used to weigh finalists’ proposals against one another when there are inevitably more excellent writers than there are spaces available, so don’t phone this part in! Supplemental essays are your opportunity to show reviewers “why me, why here, why now.” Think about the reasons you’ve chosen to apply to a particular program (beyond the generic “time and space to write”), and highlight one or two of them in the context of how you see this benefitting your work. Be authentic, personal, and specific. If you need help finding your feet in this area, there are a number of organizations that offer free advice on how to craft a compelling proposal (Creative Capital is one organization that maintains an excellent collection of resources ).
Use your CV to highlight your creative accomplishments, but don’t fret if you don’t have many yet.
Think of your writer’s CV as a quick snapshot of your writing life over time. If you are at the point of applying for residencies, you probably have at least one or two relevant accomplishments in the realm of education, publication, teaching, readings, awards, education—whatever your writing life consists of, that’s what you show here. Keep it brief (ideally one page, no more than two), and don’t stress over what you haven’t achieved yet. If you’ve got an active blog, an open mic appearance, or a local writing group, you’ve got a writer’s CV. And if you follow these tips, soon enough, you’ll have a residency to add too!
As you get out there and start applying, it feels important to reiterate that the application process is neither mystical nor adversarial. Residencies really do want you to succeed. There are simply far more applicants than there are spaces available. Your best chance of securing a spot is to focus on programs that feel like a mutual fit in ways that go beyond the basic need for time and space and then make your case with confidence. Remember: Even when your application packet is total aces, rejection remains inevitable! Remind yourself that “no” means “not right now” and is not an overall assessment of your worthiness.
Ready to get started? Here are three reputable, searchable resources for finding residency opportunities around the world:
Artist Communities Alliance Residency Directory
ResArtis Residency Listings
TransArtists AIR Database