I get asked often how to write a statement of purpose. It’s part and parcel of teaching undergraduate students who want to attend graduate school. But I also think all writers should be asking how to write a statement of purpose.

How to Write a Statement of Purpose

Original photo by Levi Bare
If you’ve been around these parts before, you know that I’m all about outlining your core vision for your life as an artist. It can be difficult to keep the big, important goals in mind when daily life fritters away at you with garbage tasks like paying your rent and doing laundry. It’s easy to get bogged down with the daily tasks. So keeping that core vision in mind keeps those big goals at the forefront.

But what about this statement of purpose? Why should writers care?

Well, much like students, writers need to have a statement of purpose in their back pocket ready to go. Even if said writer isn’t in the mood to attend graduate school, there are all manner of fellowships and workshops that require that statement of purpose. And if you have one ready to go, it’s so much easier to apply. (And you’re more likely to apply if you don’t have to agonize over it.)

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With that, let’s talk about how to write a statement of purpose.

Elements of a Statement of Purpose


Fiction writers will appreciate this one. You need to start off with a hook. What would grab the attention of a fellowship application reader? What sets you apart from the one billion other applicants? What makes you special? What about your worldview or upbringing makes you the ideal candidate? It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. But it does have to grab your reader’s attention.

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Here’s where you talk about all your work and training up to this point. Have you studied with someone important? What classes have you taken in this particular field? Do you regularly attend similar workshops? Do you have a list of impressive awards? Are you repped by an agent? What projects have you published? I think this is also a good spot to talk about your interests as a writer. Whether you focus on a specific type of character or social issue, or period of time, let the reader know what it is you do.

What you Bring to the Table

So, you’ve talked about yourself. Now, you need to talk about how you can further your field. Whether you’re trying to get into grad school or a writing workshop or a fellowship, you need to state what the work you will do is going to do for the field. Maybe you have a special perspective. Maybe you can do something that’s never been done before. Maybe you’re in a demographic that hasn’t been traditionally represented in your field and you can bring something to the table that no one else can. Whatever you have, make sure it’s clear. And make it clear that you can do awesome things with the opportunity that you’re trying to secure.

Why You’re Interested in the Specific Institution

Sure, it’s all well and good to write about why you’re great. But could you get the same opportunity elsewhere? (Probably, but you shouldn’t say that.) Focus on what that particular fellowship or workshop has to offer. What does this graduate program do that no other program does? Make it clear that you want this specific opportunity, and not just because it’s your back up plan. (It may be your back up plan, but don’t let the reader know that.) And even though I said you should have a statement of purpose in your pocket for when opportunities come up, this is going to be the piece that you need to do for each individual opportunity.

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Tell a Story

And with each of these items, make sure you’re telling a story. For writers, this may be the easiest part. It can be hard to list all the reasons why you’re amazing and deserving of this opportunity. But if you think of this statement of purpose as just another story, it’ll make it a lot easier on you. So, rather than thinking of each of these elements as paragraphs or sections of your statement of purpose, think of them as parts of the story. Put them together in whatever order makes the most sense. And once you’ve done that, you should have a complete story of who you are and why you should be given this fellowship or workshop opportunity.

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How Do You Write a Statement of Purpose?

Have you ever written a statement of purpose? What was the hardest part? What did you wish you knew before writing it? Do you have a statement of purpose waiting until the opportunity to use it comes around?

3 Responses

  1. I’ve done mission statements with groups, which I think are similar. The only step that I think looks really different is the collection of information from different voices, which we may presume need not be done when one is writing one’s own statement..

    Although I’m big on making sure these statements are focused, direct and lack dependent clauses of any kind, I had not thought in terms of their writing style much beyond that, so this was interesting. Usually we start with some form of “Why are you here?” and I try not to hear it in Ricardo Montalban’s voice from “Wrath of Khan.”

    Glad this blog is continuing during your helping out at TLO.

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