Since 2001, the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia’s Alistair MacLeod Mentorship Program has offered emerging writers the opportunity to develop their craft under the guidance of established authors. Many past participants have gone on to publish their books across Canada and abroad. Thanks to support from the RBC Foundation and other sources, the WFNS is able to pay the program’s mentors an honorarium without any cost to apprentice writers, beyond WFNS membership dues and the application fee.
By the application deadline, interested applicants must submit a cover letter, writing sample, and personal responses to a number of questions about their writing. Beyond getting in all the necessary documents on time, what can writers do to strengthen their applications? To answer this question, we talked to some key people who have experience with the program. In listening to their answers, we quickly noticed some similarities. Their advice is summed up in the following five points.
1) Know what we’re looking for
WFNS Arts Education Officer Linda Hudson, who oversees the Alistair MacLeod Mentorship Program, emphasizes that the mentorship is intended for unpublished writers who are ready to make a serious commitment.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 last year, summed up the ideal candidate as “a writer with a future who needs guidance.” Sarah Sawler, another former peer assessor, echoed Graham’s remarks.
“As I started going through the applications on my own, there were a few things I looked for,” she said, including “dedication to their craft […whether] they sound like they’ll be willing/able to take constructive criticism” and manageable goals. “Once we [the peer assessment committee] had our short list, we narrowed it down more with a few other factors, like has the person 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 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 last year, 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 allows participants the chance to ask questions about the program. Arts Education Officer Linda Hudson wants applicants to feel free to get in touch with her, but stressed 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, former participant Bretten Hannam went through “multiple drafts” of his writing sample before sending in his application. This made for a stronger sample, which other respondents agreed is essential. “Quality of writing” was the first thing peer assessor Sarah 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” in the writing sample can help make 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 that they are already taking 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 talked to 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, 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.”