The Art of the Fellowship Application

Martha Carlson-Bradley | May 2012

One by-product of receiving a fellowship is that you’re likely to be invited to help select new fellows. I’ve served in the review process four times now, for two different organizations: one independent association and one publicly funded agency. The experience has given me insights into why certain writing samples rise to the top—and how some applicants sabotage themselves. Taking enough time to prepare and revise an application gives writers a much better chance at being successful. Here are a few tips:

Understand the purpose of the award.

Reviewers hope both to recognize deserving writers and to fulfill the mission of the funding organization. So it’s important—as Donna McNeil, Arts Policy and Program Director of the Maine Arts Commission, notes—to “make sure what you do (artistically) fits the guidelines.” Your writing may be brilliant, your project worthwhile; but if it doesn’t match what the fellowship is meant to support, your application will end up in the “no” pile. A proposal to spend a month revising a novel, for example, is inappropriate for a fellowship intended to give writers resources and time to do research. Be able to state, both succinctly and in detail, why your project will be helped by this particular fellowship. If you can’t make that case naturally and convincingly, look for a different award, one that is appropriate for your work.

Consider the overall effect of your selection,
just as you would prepare to give a reading...
You want enough coherence to convey
a distinctive voice—but not monotony.

Start by reading through all guidelines.

Before you write a single word of your application, you should get an overview of what’s required. Amy Stolls, Literature Program Officer at the National Endowment for the Arts, says, “The best advice we can give is to read our guidelines in full before taking the time to fill out an application. That is, determine if you’re eligible, make sure you adhere to our requirements on format and submitting, and don’t wait until the last minute to apply.” Some applications are very simple; others, like those for NEA fellowships, take a good deal of time to prepare. “Every organization uses a different system,” notes Adrienne Petrillo on the New England Foundation for the Arts website, “and processes may even vary between programs within one organization.” So it’s important to confirm exactly what’s expected of you well before the due date.

Avoid giving the impression that you
threw the application together on a whim—
an impression that undermines the idea that
this fellowship is essential to your work.

Submit the best creative writing sample you can put together.

The sample should reflect what you will achieve in the project you’re proposing. Depending on the guidelines, the sample should be either an excerpt from a work in progress or a strong example of your previous writing. Send only your very best work. Your sample should be the one that leaves reviewers eager to read more. Don’t rely on dramatic subject matter at the expense of craft; the language of your sample should be at least as compelling as the topic. What I look for as a reviewer is language that not only avoids flat statements, dubious syntax, and clichés but that also generates surprise and interest. The work doesn’t have to be avant-garde necessarily, but successful samples of poetry, for example, provide the reader with fresh turns of phrase, perspectives, insights, metaphors, and images, as well as effective form, rhythm, and music. Quality trumps quantity. A somewhat short but powerful story is better than one chosen simply to fill the maximum page limit. For a ten-page sample, nine pages of strong poetry alone are far better than nine effective pages plus one inadequately revised poem.

Consider the overall effect of your selection, just as you would prepare to give a reading. For short forms, ask yourself, “Why do these pieces belong together, in this order?” You want enough coherence to convey a distinctive voice—but not monotony. Being able to make this distinction, especially about our own work, requires experience, but it’s an important distinction. Effectively varied leitmotifs, for example, can create a vivid impression of your work and artistic obsessions, as well as a sense of discovery in the reader—but too much “sameness” will make your art seem limited and cause reviewers to lose interest. Note that monotony can occur not only in terms of diction or imagery but also in terms of syntax, situation, or tone.
For a single excerpt of a long work of fiction or nonfiction, choose a passage that will draw readers in, but don’t feel obligated to resolve the central conflict of the work as a whole. It’s perfectly fine to leave reviewers tantalized about what the ending might be, especially if your depiction of character, scene, and action in the sample has been compelling. You might include a brief headnote that will orient the reader in terms of plot and characters, but try to keep that note as short as possible. Long synopses are never as interesting as the work itself, and they start to seem like “cheating”—like an argument about why the work as a whole is significant. In my own experience, a single paragraph is much more effective than a note that runs on for several paragraphs. What I want to know as a reviewer is who the characters are and what they are facing at this particular moment in the plot, not what the overall theme is or the entire plot line. If you’re uncertain about whether a headnote is acceptable, contact the organization and ask. Institutions that grant fellowships want people to submit successful applications, so they’re happy to answer such questions.

All this being said, don’t interpret rejection as a sign of artistic failure. The final choice may have come down to individual taste; or perhaps reviewers genuinely admired your writing, but another applicant’s project won them over. You can reapply for the next round of fellowships, when there may be a new set of reviewers and possibly your work has grown.

Make sure all sections of your application are well written, revised, and proofread.

For a fellowship, you’re often asked to write three different items: The artist’s statement allows you to describe your aesthetic, the genre or genres you work in, your techniques or approaches, your process, and the subject matters you explore. As the Mississippi Arts Commission website points out, this statement “should be written in first person and present tense” and focus on the art, not on “biographical information or professional achievements,” which are better addressed in your narrative essay (discussed below). The statement of purpose, or proposal, is the place to explain specifically how you will use your fellowship. Will you revise a manuscript of poems, for example, or do background research for a novel? The narrative is an essay—despite its name, an essay that’s not necessarily written in chronological “story” form. The narrative explains in detail such things as who you are, what you write, what you’ve achieved, what your current project is, and how the fellowship will play a significant role in your writing. Note that the fellowship guidelines will indicate which topics the narrative should address. Petrillo suggests that it’s a good idea “to repeat the question within your answer to make sure that you are giving precisely the information” reviewers expect.

These three items can vary in length, depending upon the award. If the statement of purpose is meant to be short, for example, the narrative can go into detail about the significance of your project; if no narrative is required, you might go into more detail in the statement of purpose.

Note that some redundancy is common in grant and fellowship applications. Don’t be afraid, for example, to describe your project both in the narrative and in the statement of purpose. In fact, describing your project in both places is a courtesy to reviewers.

Some review committees see only the creative sample; others rely just as heavily on the artist’s statement, the statement of purpose, and the narrative as on the creative work itself. It’s heartbreaking to reject the application of a talented writer because the narrative is confusing or doesn’t convincingly connect the proposed work to the award mission. Everything you write, whether essay or brief statement, should be effective.

Write in an intelligent but clear, direct way, for an educated but nonexpert audience. (The review committee may include members who are not writers or who are writers working in other genres than your own.) Some people mistakenly assume that applications require very formal, bloated, jargon-heavy language. But reviewers much prefer writing that is to the point, so they can spend time considering the merits of your creative sample and proposal rather than puzzling out your intentions. When drafting, you should address all points that you’re asked to discuss. Also consider your focus: don’t relate your whole life story—just those experiences that pertain most to your project. Write in first person. (Writing about yourself as “he” or “she” will make you sound pompous and disconnected from your work.) Mary Johnson, author of An Unquenchable Thirst and Creative Director of A Room of Her Own Retreats, advises, “Make (the essay) interesting and be creative. Let your personality shine through.” It’s appropriate to say things like “What is important to me in writing fiction is . . .” and “In my poetry, I am passionate about . . .” That is, you can certainly state what you deeply value about your genre—although overly rhapsodic statements about the value of your work may sound like an attempt to prop up a shaky writing sample. The place to “sing” is in the creative writing sample itself.

Then revise. Get feedback on clarity and focus, ideally from a friend who teaches or edits “noncreative” writing. Think also about your narrative in the context of the overall application. Is your essay in sync with your artist’s statement and statement of purpose? One application I reviewed listed in the statement of purpose two short but related projects—but the narrative listed four. Such confusion made me doubt that the applicant was ready for a fellowship.

Proofread carefully. A rare typo is forgivable, but mistakes in grammar, syntax, spelling, or usage will shake reviewers’ confidence in your mastery of language—the very medium you work in as a writer.

Choose references who know you well
and can speak to your ability to do the kind of
project you’re proposing, and let them know of
any particular points that the organization wants
to be addressed.

Dot all i’s and cross all t’s.

Submit all required materials in the required format. If photocopies of literary magazines are forbidden, do not submit them. If photocopies are allowed, make sure they’re crisp and easy to read. For pages you prepare yourself (in your writing sample, for instance), you should use a consistent font and format, instead of cobbling together materials from different files, with mismatched fonts and margins. Avoid giving the impression that you threw the application together on a whim—an impression that undermines the idea that this fellowship is essential to your work. Write any cover sheet or page headers according to the guidelines, and include page numbers if they’re required. Write up the list of works submitted exactly as the guidelines dictate, and confirm how many copies of your materials you need to submit. If you’ll be submitting digital files, put them in the right format (DOC or PDF, for example), and name the files as the guidelines indicate.

Before you submit your application, it’s a good idea to use the guidelines as a checklist to make sure that you’re including all required materials and formatting them correctly.

Don’t fudge.

Don’t sneak in biographical information if you’ve been told not to. Don’t set teensy margins, use a tiny font, or cram more than one poem on a page to stretch out page limits. Reviewers will notice. At best, rule benders seem to me disorganized and insecure; at worst, dishonest. I worry about being fair to all applicants—so I don’t read beyond the length dictated by the guidelines, even if that means stopping midway through a piece. (Many organizations discard extra pages before reviewers see the samples.)

Ask the right people for recommendations, in the right way.

If you’re required to submit letters of recommendation, ask for them early, giving references three to four weeks to compose a thoughtful letter. Ask people who will be warmly, completely enthusiastic about you. Because some people have trouble admitting they feel less than enthusiastic about colleagues, couch your request in terms of “if you have time.” That way, people can say no without feeling confrontational. Choose references who know you well and can speak to your ability to do the kind of project you’re proposing, and let them know of any particular points that the organization wants to be addressed. For example, letters of recommendation for a residency at Yaddo should “specifically address the applicant’s professional capacity and temperamental suitability for a residency in a working community with other artists.” If your reference wants additional material, like a résumé or recent work, send it promptly, but don’t send anything extra unless you’re asked to do so. For requests made via traditional mail, include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for the letter of recommendation. For that SASE, check to see if the letter should be addressed to the funding organization rather than to you. (It’s standard practice for letters not to be shared with the person being recommended.) If letters can be e-mailed to the organization, give your reference the correct e-mail address and make sure you haven’t made any typos.

If you can use the application process
to become more articulate about
your writing, you’ve already received
something valuable.

If applying for a residency, request a reasonable amount of time.

Sometimes we think, “If I ask for just one week, they’re more likely to say yes,” but this strategy can backfire. I was offered one fellowship on the condition that I would agree to four weeks rather than two. Once my residency began, I realized how necessary the full month would be. (Other organizations might have simply turned me down.) Institutions that award residencies are often interested in creating a sense of community among fellows, a goal that’s hard to achieve if they are in residence only briefly. Conversely, it’s important not to ask for more time than the upper limit of the residency length, which you should easily discover in the guidelines. A proposal for a residency that exceeds that upper limit will make you look unfamiliar with the mission of the organization.

Asking for a residency during a season other than the summer can be a good idea, as it makes scheduling easier—but an application must succeed on its own merits, not simply because of the time of year requested.

If you receive an award, keep open clear lines of communication and follow up.

If your project changes substantially, communicate that fact as soon as possible to the funding organization. People expect creative projects to evolve, but they don’t like anything that smacks of a bait and switch, like a proposed poetry collection that morphs into a scholarly book. Be sure to write any required follow-up reports and to acknowledge the organization in the manner requested of you. It’s discourteous not to, and failing to do so may make you ineligible for future fellowships. In fact, as Petrillo points out, “failure to comply with all grant obligations means you can risk losing your award.” What if you’ve made an honest effort but can’t achieve all the goals you listed in your application? Report what the fellowship allowed you to learn that will help you either to succeed in meeting your current goals or to plan your next project more realistically.

Use the application to better understand your aesthetic and aspirations.

If you can use the application process to become more articulate about your writing, you’ve already received something valuable. And you’ll be more insightful about your work the next time you apply, so the process will take less time. Johnson notes another benefit: “Over and over, women who have applied for the Gift of Freedom Award tell us that even if they didn’t receive the grant, the process of filing the application helped them commit to their work in a powerful new way.”

Develop resilience.

As McNeil puts it, “Don’t take rejection personally—continue to believe in yourself.” When I haven’t been able to recommend a fellowship for an emerging writer who is clearly gifted, I have also recognized that the applicant will be a front-runner after a few years of additional experience. Keep practicing your craft and submitting for publication; creative growth and publishing credits can only improve your chances. Apply again another year for the same award, and consider different fellowships also. Yes, these awards are competitive—but you receive nothing if you don’t even apply.


Martha Carlson-Bradley’s second full-length book of poetry, Sea Called Fruitfulness, will be published by WordTech Editions in the summer of 2013. Her most recent chapbook, If I Take You Here, was released by Adastra in 2011. She has received fellowships and grants from the American Antiquarian Society, the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, and the St. Botolph Foundation. She serves on the faculty of the Master’s in Professional Writing Program at New England College.

© 2012 The Association of Writers & Writing Programs. May only be reprinted with the permission of AWP.

Resources for Fellowship Opportunities:

Click on the links below for more information.

Alliance of Artists Communities
PEN American Center: Grants and awards available to American writers

National, Regional, and State Arts Agencies:

National Endowment for the Arts

Arts Midwest
Mid-America Arts Alliance
Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation
New England Foundation for the Arts
New York Foundation for the Arts
Pacific Arts Councils Network
South Arts
Western States Arts Federation

National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. Use this site to find contact information for your specific state arts agency.

Upcoming Deadlines:
AWP Writer’s Calendar
Poets & Writers

Training in Grant Writing:
Foundation Center Marketplace: “Grantseeking for Individuals” online training course

Sample Artist’s Statements for Writers:
New Hampshire State Council on the Arts: “2011 Literary Artist Fellows & Honorable Mentions”: Profiles of individual fellows and honorable mentions include excerpts from their artist’s statements.

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