In working with writers this fall, the question of what to include in a manuscript has been a central issue. But what should you include? And how do you know? See my answers below.
How do I know if a piece of writing is good enough?
A better question to consider is whether the manuscript is your absolute best work. If you have an eerie gut feeling that something is amiss, go back and revise. I highly recommend reading your work aloud, or having someone read it to you in the final stages to help with language and logic issues.
Then, consider the faculty members because they’ll be reading your writing. Research and read what they’ve written, and what their past students have written. This will give you a better idea of whether your writing fits the school. Sometimes it’s not just about how good the writing is, it’s about faculty members finding literary matches they can see themselves mentoring. You might write the most gorgeous surrealist fiction but if no one on faculty writes or reads in this vein, they may not be disposed to admit you since they wouldn’t be able to foster your growth. (And on this note, don’t underestimate your personal statement for drawing out literary, academic, and geographical affinities.)
Which pieces do I send?
There is more flexibility in this than you think. If you are applying to 10 schools, and have two conventional short stories and one experimental novel excerpt, consider mixing up the pairings for different schools. You might send A and B to 5 schools, B and C to 2 schools, and A and C to 3 schools.
Is it okay to send a novel excerpt?
Yes. If your novel excerpt is well-written, and self-contained, then send it out. Read “Sandman” (you’ll need to purchase) by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum in Tin House to see exactly what I mean. (Bynum attended Iowa’s Writer Workshop and it’s a great story.) “Sandman” is a self-contained novel chapter that satisfies like a short story. And research the faculty at your schools: if the faculty is predominately novel-focused, sending a cohesive novel excerpt might be a great strategy.