How to ask for a reference letter.

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You don’t need to get your MFA or attend a writing residency to be a good writer, but both of these paths provide an opportunity for you learn about your craft, meet new mentors, find community, make a commitment to your career, and reach your writing goals.

To get into an MFA program or a writing residency, you’ll need to include letters of reference with your application. If you have a good relationship with a writer or a writing teacher, it is appropriate for you to ask them for a reference letter.

Here are five best practices to keep in mind when you make your request:

1. Give the person plenty of notice. You might like to work under the pressure of a tight deadline, but don’t ask that from your references. Don’t turn your lack of planning into someone else’s emergency! People are more likely to say yes if you give them lots of time. Send your initial request at least month or two before your submission deadline. The earlier the better.

2. Less is more. Try to keep your email communication to 5 sentences or less. I know it might feel impolite to just ask for the reference straight away, especially if you haven’t been in touch with your teacher for a while. But time and attention is a valuable resource. If your teacher is a busy person, it’s actually much more generous for you to get to your point quickly. Trust that they’ll say no if they can’t do it, and that they’ll say yes if they can. Let your email be light and direct, and they’ll likely feel more able to do it for you, because you’re making it easy. Which brings me to my next point:

3. Make it easy. Pre-write a draft of the recommendation letter you’d like from your reference. In your initial request, let the person know you have pre-written a draft letter for them, and they can look it over and edit it as they wish before sending. Easy! In your draft, answer these questions: How long have you known this writer? What is your relationship? Have you seen this writer work in groups before? In your opinion, what would this residency do for this writer, and how would it benefit their work? By writing a draft first, you make it a pleasure to say yes to the reference request.

4. Provide clear instructions. If you’re using an online application service, include the links and make sure they’re live. If the letter has to be mailed or emailed to the organization, triple-check the address. Remember that making decisions takes energy: give your reference clear step-by-step instructions with numbered bullet points, so they don’t have to use mental energy to figure out the how-tos.

5. Save your reference letters. Keep them in a file — they can be refreshed and reused for future applications. Different organizations have different requirements, and you still have to get in touch with your references when and if you reuse the letters — but having the original to update makes the whole process much easier.

Finally, remember this:

People might say no to your request. That's okay! If that happens, allow yourself to feel disappointed for about 15 minutes, and then move on. It doesn’t mean that they think you’re a bad writer, or that you have a destabilizing presence or a volatile personality. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they think the residency would be of no benefit to your writing. The most common reason for a reference to decline is that they’re simply at their full capacity already. There is no reason for you to assume that it has anything to do with you personally.

Good luck with your applications!


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Photo credit (top): Baehaki Hariri on Unsplash.

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1 comment

Stacy Gardner

Your kindness is always so helpful, Sarah. P.S. I just returned from my first writing retreat, Piper's Frith, a week-long experience to 'nurture the writer and souls of each' ... to exact that same kindness and due diligence onto ourselves, our pages, our groups, our readings ... Had I not gone, I wouldn't have met who I met, did what I did, shared what I had, and discovered another glimpse into understanding 'how' to be a better writer (worker). I think it's great that you're running the writing program for teens 15 to 18, I wish I had that back when. #professionalchopsandkindheart Congrats on all the beauty you're creating, giving! Stacy
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