5 Tips for Preparing an Application

Applicants to the Alistair MacLeod Mentorship Program must submit a ‘cover letter’ (i.e., personal responses to six questions about their writing) and a writing sample.

Beyond submitting both of the necessary documents on time, what can writers do to strengthen their applications? To answer this question, WFNS staff interviewed some key program participants. Their advice converged in the following five tips.

1. Know What We're Looking For

WFNS’s Program Manager (Arts Education), Linda Hudson, who oversees the Alistair MacLeod Mentorship Program, emphasized that the mentorship is intended for unpublished writers who are ready to make a serious commitment. “[The Alistair MacLeod Mentorship Program is for] any writer (over the age of 18) who is working on a manuscript that they would like to take to the next level. The mentorship program is very intensive, and will require devoting hours to researching, re-writing, editing, and creating new content for their manuscript.”

We also talked to some former peer assessors about what kind of candidate they looked for when assessing applications. Monica Graham, who served on the peer assessment committee, summed up the ideal candidate as “a writer with a future who needs guidance.”

Sal Sawler, another former peer assessor, echoed Graham’s remarks, saying that she looked for an applicant’s “dedication to their craft,” for whether “they’ll be willing/able to take constructive criticism,” and for manageable goals. “Once we [the peer assessment committee] had our shortlist, we narrowed it down more with a few other factors, like whether the person has made room in their life for the mentorship program.”

Sawler stressed that apprentice writers should also have room to grow. “Someone who has been through another program and wants to go through the mentorship program just to polish their final draft might have less of a chance [of being accepted] than someone with a rougher draft who hasn’t already had the opportunity to work on it in an established program.”

2. Budget your time appropriately

Bretten Hannam, who participated in the program as an apprentice writer, stressed the importance of setting aside enough time for the application process. He told us he produced “multiple drafts” of his writing sample before the deadline.

Starting the application well before the deadline also gives participants the chance to ask questions about the program. Program Manager (Arts Education) Linda Hudson said applicants should feel free to get in touch but that they should do so as early as possible. “Don’t leave your questions for the eleventh hour,” she warned, “or they might not get answered.”

3. Focus on your writing (sample)

Speaking of time management, many respondents agreed that taking time to revise the writing sample multiple times was essential for ensuring its strength. “Quality of writing” was the first thing peer assessor Sal Sawler said she looked for when going over the applications. “For me,” she explained, “a standout application shows that the applicant is taking writing seriously—that they’ve made room in their life for it somehow, and are invested in developing their craft.”

According to Monica Graham, “simple writing that says a lot in a few well-chosen words” can help an application stand out. “If someone can read it and internalize the concept or story without having to move their lips or notice individual words, then it may be spot on—depending on the reader!” She qualified this comment: “As you can tell, it’s partly subjective. However, without strong writing skills, there is nothing to be subjective about.”

4. Remember the details

While it’s important to focus on the bigger picture, our experts also brought up the importance of detail in the application process. Bretten Hannam advised applicants that “it helps to have a very specific goal and timeline [for your project] when submitting. Something that’s ambitious but not outside of the realm of your abilities.” Similarly, Linda Hudson suggested that applicants take advantage of the cover letter to show how they take their writing seriously, which means providing a detailed plan for the mentorship.

“The impression made through the cover letter informs the committee and staff on the individual’s personality and level of commitment […] The more individuals can let us know about their plans for the manuscript, how much time they plan to devote to the program, and how they would handle being challenged by their mentor, the better.”

Former peer assessor Monica Graham recommended setting aside time to double-check details and proofread the application. “Touch on all the points requested in the application,” she said. “Make the spelling and grammar as perfect as possible. The odd typo is just a typo, but consistently poor skills make me cringe.” 

5. Be yourself

Almost everyone we spoke with advised applicants to let their personalities come through. Graham mentioned that she enjoyed reading “something unique” in a writing sample, whether that be “point of view, protagonist, plot twist, style, or genre.”

When you write your application don’t forget to add something of yourself,” Bretten Hannam advised. “Some heart. It’s easy to answer with proper words and things people might want to hear. But it’s better to speak to who you are. Why this is important to you. What you’re sharing with the world through your own words.”

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Recommended Experience Levels

The Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia (WFNS) recommends that each workshop’s participants share a level or range of writing / publication experience. This is to ensure each participant gets value from the workshop⁠ and is presented with information, strategies, and skills that suit their current writing priorities.

To this end, the “Recommended experience level” section of each workshop description refers to the following definitions developed by WFNS:

  • New writers: those who have been writing creatively for less than two years and/or have not yet been published in any form.
  • Emerging writers: those who have been writing creatively for less than five years and/or have some short publications (poems, stories, or essays) in literary magazines, journals, or anthologies.
  • Established writers/authors: those with numerous publications in magazines, journals, or anthologies and/or a full-length book publication.
  • Professional authors: those with two or more full-length book publications.

For “intensive” and “masterclass” workshops, which provide more opportunities for peer-to-peer (that is, participant-to-participant) feedback, the recommended experience level should be followed.

For all other workshops, the recommended experience level is just that—a recommendation—and we encourage potential participants to follow their own judgment when registering.

If you’re uncertain of your experience level with regard to any particular workshop, please feel free to contact us at communications@writers.ns.ca