December 12th, 2016

Application portfolio advice for creative writing masters

A reader named Nedda recently commented on my most popular post ever, Should I Get a Masters in Creative Writing? to ask me about seeing my application portfolio. Sadly, I put that thing together and sent it off in fall 2004, 12 years and 3 computers ago, so I no longer have it–and Nedda actually didn’t leave me any contact info anyways. But since I’m thinking about it…

The advice I’ve generally gotten is that porfolios should contain a variety of work. Even if you have a single piece that is the full page count required by the portfolio and that piece is REALLY GOOD, you should still consider sending only an excerpt of that, and some other stuff too. You want to show range and breadth of interest, because the worst thing in a classroom where everyone is supposed to be learning and exploring and growing as writers is someone who just cares about this one kind of thing and doesn’t really want to explore or grow. I believe UBC actually requires multiple genres in their portfolio (I keep thinking it’s portfolii, though I know it isn’t) and that’s kind of a good idea even if not required, if you can swing it.

Portfolios should also be existing polished pieces that you maybe tweak or fine-tune for the submission of your portfolio. This one is going to have exceptions, people who thrive under pressure or like to create artificial deadlines for themselves, but in general writing new pieces for the portfolio is an additional challenge you don’t need. You want to have made the piece as good as you can, with feedback from friends and mentors. Yes, workshops thrive on messy, half-finished writing, but the application process is about showing the best you can do–so the assessors know where you’re starting from and in which direction you are going. Submitting portfolio pieces with flaws you could have fixed–or even typos–does not present as accurate a portrait of your skills as you would want.

Think about what you want the grad program to do for you when selecting pieces for the portfolio. This is less about the portfolio itself and more about why people actually want to go to grad school. I have been asked multiple times if fan-fiction is ok to include in a portfolio, and while I guess it’s possible to include it, I wonder why. If what you honestly want is to get better at writing fan-fiction, which has a specific goal of matching in tone, content, and characters something your mentors and classmates might have never seen, is grad school a good fit? Ditto submitting text version of spoken word to a program that doesn’t emphasize spoken word, or multimedia pieces ditto. Basically, look at the program and see what it can offer you and if your portfolio addresses that. If not, it might not be a question of changing the portfolio but changing where–or to what–you send it.

Anyway, this is just advice from one person’s standpoint–I’ll bet there’s quite a few successful folks out there who did the opposite of all of the above. But this is how I’ve found things, anyway. And at least one piece from my portfolio got published, in edited format, so I offer it here to read if you care to.

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