How to ask for a reference letter.


Remember the series on writing retreats and residencies that I posted this summer?

Some of these residencies ask you to submit two or more reference letters. It’s also application season for some MFA programs, and I know that they definitely require references. I thought it might be helpful to explain how you can obtain these reference letters — more specifically, give some best practices on how to ask for them.

While attending a writing residency isn’t necessary for one’s writing career, it’s generally understood that doing a residency can be a significant way for any writer to finish a project. Both seasoned and emerging writers can attend artist colonies to do good work. That’s part of what makes the experience so refreshing for everyone.

Generally, it’s also understood that writers need reference letters when they apply for a residency. The same goes for MFA programs. 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. They understand. They’ve probably had to ask for references for their own applications, too.


Here are five things to remember when you make your ask:

1. Give the person plenty of notice. Don’t turn your lack of planning into someone else’s emergency! I’ve been asked to write reference letters the day before a deadline — and I can tell you from experience, last-minute reference letter requests are no fun. People are more likely to decline if you only give them a week (or less) to put something together for you, anyway. Send your request a month or two before your submission deadline. Let them know when you’d like to receive it (and don’t make this the actual deadline — give yourself a buffer of a few weeks if you can). The earlier the better.

2. Less is more. Try to keep your email communication to 5 sentences or less. I know you feel like adding friendly stories and catch up questions, because maybe you haven’t written to this person in a long time, and now you’re asking them for something, and it doesn’t feel polite to just come out and ask for it. But trust me, it’s more generous if you get to the point in your email quickly, and give someone less to read. 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 like doing it, because you’re making it easy. Which brings me to my next point:

3. Make it easy. Offer to pre-write a draft of the reference letter you’d like from the person you’re asking, send it to them to look over and invite them to edit it as they wish. The organization wants to know these kinds of things from references: 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 putting the draft together 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 like Slideroom, include the links and make sure they’re live. If the letter must be mailed to the organization, triple-check the mailing address. Remember that making decisions takes energy, so you want to give your reference as few decisions to make as possible! Numbered bullet points and step-by-step instructions make the task easier for them.

5. Save your reference letters. Keep them in a file — they can be refreshed and reused for future applications (and then you won’t have to go through these steps again!) Different organizations have different requirements, so you might have to get in touch with your references when you reuse the letters — but having the original to update makes the whole process much easier. See #3, above!

Two other things to keep in mind before you embark on your reference letter quest:

The main thing most residencies want to ask your references is this: Does this writer have a destabilizing presence or an aggressive or volatile personality? Is there any reason you would not advise us to accept this submission?

People might say no to your request. If that happens, allow yourself to feel disappointed for about 15 minutes, and then move on. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they think 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. There could be 100 different reasons for their refusal that you’ll never know, and they might be private reasons. 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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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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