There are so many variables with the writing sample, aren’t there? Do you show your best work, even though it’s from a number of years ago? Do you send an excerpt or a complete piece? Do you include only the strongest work or work that demonstrates a range of skills? You could easily pour over such questions endlessly. They have no right answer.
Start by taking your cue from the residency. Of course, always attend to what they request regarding the sample. Some ask for a sample of what you’ll be working on during the residency. Others ask for your strongest work. Make the best choices you can given such guidelines. If you do send a work-in-progress, make sure you take the time to polish it. This gives you an opportunity to revise knowing the except will be read outside of the context of the larger work and it will communicate your professionalism to the committee.
Barring any specific requests, consider the nature of the residency and what they seem to hope residents experience or accomplish. Do they emphasize anything, such as a desire for residents to experiment or to complete a project? If so, showing something that demonstrates your ability to do that may help. Many times (perhaps even most times), residencies may not communicate this kind of emphasis. In that case, send the work you’re most confident about that is reasonably recent. A sample from a decade ago might give the committee pause: Has she written recently? Generally speaking, a sample that can stand on its own can give the committee valuable information about your ability to put everything together. Sometimes, though, this kind of sample is not practical or possible. If you’re debating between a good short story and a sizzling novel excerpt, by all means go with what showcases your true capabilities. Committees are usually comprised of interested and intelligent readers. If they’re eager to read more of an excerpt, you’ve done your job and they’ll recognize that.
Consider, too, the other materials you’re submitting. If you discuss that you’re compelled to illuminate the story of “the outsider” in your author’s statement, you might do well to choose a sample that reflects that. Drawing lines between what you intend to accomplish and what you do accomplish can be meaningful.
And ask yourself this: If you were one of the committee members and you read this sample—and no other work of yours—what would you think?