Applying to the MFA with Novel Excerpts

If you’re a fiction writer you probably have written, or are writing, a novel. Or maybe short stories just aren’t you’re thing; you’re too verbose or your ideas are too complicated to confine to 3,000 words. Or maybe you’re street savvy and you know there’s potential money in novels, and not much in short stories. Either way, you might have this question. Can I submit a novel excerpt as my writing sample for the MFA?

I’ve seen this question time and time again and in a field as subjective as writing, the answer isn’t as straightforward as you might like it to be.

Of course you can submit excerpts from a novel, very few schools I know of forbid it and many school websites mention that you can submit short stories and/or novels. But is submitting parts of a novel really the best idea?

No, but also, yes.

You’ve probably heard it before, but you always want to submit your best work. If you (and others, ask for some opinions!) feel your novel is your strongest piece of writing, submit it! But if you’re unsure, you might want to go the short story route. Short stories have the benefit of allowing admission committees to see you carry a narrative arc all the way through. Also, at many schools, the workshop experience is better suited to short stories.

If you do decide to submit excerpts from a novel (which is fine, if it is your best work), keep some guidelines in mind.

1. Make sure whatever section(s) you chose from your novel can somewhat stand-alone. It should have conflict and some sort of narrative arc. 2. Provide a synopsis only if you feel the excerpts need one. Or, if the school requires it, which some will. Keep the synopsis short. 3. Mention in the title, that these are excerpts, chapters, etc. from a novel. 4. Don’t just submit a novel excerpt. Writing is subjective and only one person on the admission committee might be reading your application. If, for whatever reasons, your novel doesn’t interest them, then you’re out. But, if you pair your novel excerpt with a short story, you don’t put all of your eggs in one basket and get the best of both worlds. You can show the admission committee your best work (your novel), but you can also show them that you have mastered the narrative arc and the act of story telling with the short story. This has an added bonus of helping you meet different page requirements for the writing sample. Ideally, a 7-10 page short story will allow you sufficient pages for your novel, whether the page limit is 20, 25, 30 or higher. Novel excerpts are great because you can add or remove pages to fit under requirements.

In short, if you have a novel you are really passionate about, of course you should use parts of it in your writing sample. I applied last year with excerpts from a novel, as well as a short story and was successful in many applications.

So start editing those novels!


by Michelle Donahue