Uninterrupted time to write is so precious that you can’t put a price tag on it. But writers are historically underpaid for our work and the truth is, writers residencies can be surprisingly expensive. My post about how to apply for writers residencies is one of my most popular so today I thought I’d break down the cost of a writers residency.
When you know how much residencies really cost, you won’t guess whether you can afford a writers residency. You won’t take on unexpected debt because of hidden fees or travel expenses. Most importantly, you’ll actually be enjoy your writers retreat because you know it won’t break the bank.
I’ll go over the typical cost of a writer’s residency to help you compare your options. Then, I’ll look at a few ways to fund writer’s residencies and keep them affordable.
Important disclaimer: While I write about personal finance and finance for writers, I am not a tax expert. So please talk to a trusted tax professional if you have questions about tax deductions for writers.
How much does a writer’s residency cost?
Writers residencies vary in cost.
Some are free to visiting writers. Some pay you to take part and come with free meals. Some charge room and board.
While the average cost of writers residency room and board is less than the going rate of a nightly hotel stay, it still adds up to a considerable expense for working writers. It might be a tax deductible expense for those who file taxes for writing income, but it’s still money out of your pocket.
These costs are typically associated with writer’s residencies:
There is usually an application fee in the range of $25 to $50 dollars. That wouldn’t be so bad if you were sure that you would be accepted at a writer’s residency. But the odds of getting in are low.
Competitive residencies like Yaddo or MacDowell accept 10 to 20 percent of applicants, according to MacDowell and FutureFarmers. The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown had 1100 applicants for 18 spots, which represents a less than 2 percent acceptance rate, according to Future Farmers. These are some of the most elite residencies that pay writers to attend, so it’s no wonder that everyone wants to go. Plus, having a name like Yaddo or MacDowell in your bio brings major flex.
With acceptance rates comparable to the most elite universities, it’s no wonder that writers apply to more than one opportunity. But with application costs at $25-and-up, this can add up to several hundreds of dollars before you’ve even gotten in!
Working writers can deduct these application fees on their taxes. However, it still represents money out of your pocket, with no certain payoff.
Room and board
How much does the residency charge for the term of your stay? If the residency charges room and board, this will be listed on their website. Knowing the rate per term of stay (i.e. week or month) will help you determine your total cost. Note, some residencies offer full or partial scholarships. If you win one, this can offset your expenses.
Unless the residency subsidizes travel costs, you’ll need to pay for your transportation. This too is tax deductible for working writers, but an upfront cost.
To save money on writers residencies, look for ones nearby. If you can drive yourself there or take public transit, you’ll save money compared with ones that require a flight.
Opportunity/lost work cost
For those without paid time off, this reflects money you would have made if you were working on paying work during that time. Don’t forget to factor travel time into your costs. So for example, if you get a 2-week residency but it’s a 6-hour drive away, you’ll be gone for at least 16 days. How much would you have made if you spent at least 10 of those days working? This figure is your opportunity cost.
Childcare or pet care
If you have children or pets, someone needs to take care of them while you are away. While family members or friends may care for your precious ones for free, you may need to hire help. What will this cost you?
Other costs might be someone to care for your plants while you are gone, someone to mow the lawn/take care of the house, etc. Ask yourself what would need to happen around the house/apartment/etc if you were off grid for the term of your residency. Then figure out who will perform these tasks for free (or mutual aid), or whether you will need to pay someone.
Unless meals are included, you’ll need to pay for food. I’ve kept it super cheap before by bringing my own food to my Alaskan writers residency. But I still have to pay for the pasta, quinoa, oatmeal and other dried goods I carried in my bag. It just cost me less at Costco than it would’ve in Alaska, where food costs are inflated due to distance.
Don’t forget about meals consumed in transit!
What to bring to a writers residency depends on what you’re working on. If you are editing a manuscript, you’ll probably want to show up with a printed copy, and you may want fancy pens, flash cards, notebooks and other nifty organizing materials. If you’re generating new work, notebooks and books to read for inspiration might be top of mind. If you need coffee to function, like I do, you’ll probably want to bring your own supply!
Not every residency program will have every one of these costs, but it’s important to know what to expect. Understanding the full range of costs will also help you compare residencies to one another to decide which is the better fit for you.
Note: some exclusive residencies like MacDowell are working to lower the financial burden on writers. Currently, MacDowell lets writers who can’t afford the $30 application fee request a fee waiver in writing. They also offer travel reimbursement and scholarships for those fortunate to receive a residency.
It’s wonderful to see an exclusive program like MacDoweel recognize the high burden of cost residencies and other opportunities place on artists. Many of us have to work other jobs to subsidize our art. We can’t easily afford opportunities like residencies, even if we know how valuable they can be.
Putting it out there into the future, I’d love to see more writing residencies change their funding models in ways that are aligned with equity, diversification, and supporting artists who have historically been excluded from opportunities, paid token advances, or expected to labor for free in exchange for ‘exposure’ (defunct, predatory scholar-waiter program at Breadloaf, hi, I see you).
Are you a marginalized writer?
Many artists residencies are committed to equity work. They offer fee-free applications or scholarships for marginalized writers, including BIPOC writers and LGBTQ writers. If you fit the criteria, you could wind up with a free writer’s residencies.
Competition for these can be intense. Yes, it’s a smaller pool of applicants who share an identity. But, there may be more names in the hats than when a residency comes with a price tag.
Still, it never hurts to try!
How to fund a writer’s residency
No residency is worth the stress of taking on debt, in my opinion. Most writers don’t get paid enough for their art as it is.
But if money is tight there are a few ways you might be able to fund a writers residency.
Kickstarters and other personal fundraisers are top of mind for a lot of writers – especially after Brandon Sanderson used the platform to such success. If something is a big deal for you in your career, it’s an absolutely valid choice to put up a page and ask for donations.
Lambda Literary Writers Retreat maintains a Kickstarter to fundraise for their emerging writers program. Many accepted writers create individual crowdsourcing campaigns.
Some grants for writers can be used to fund professional development opportunities like writing residencies. Google grants for writers to find opportunities, like this list of grants and residencies for parent writers.
If you plan ahead, you can factor a residency opportunity into the budget and narrative for your grant. This way, you can tell the story of why you need a residency and (hopefully) secure a residency to attend should you be lucky enough to win the grant.
As a rule I would not recommend relying on something like grants to fund residencies. If you don’t get the grant, you’ll need another source of funding. Even if you do get the grant, you might need to pay the residency fee before the funds are dispersed.
Professional development funding
Do you work for a generous employer or have a spouse with great employee benefits? Some professional development funds can be put toward things like writer’s retreats and writing conferences?
Find out all the details in advance. Make sure you understand what the rules are, what expenses are eligible and what documentation to submit. This way, you don’t wind up paying for something you can’t afford only to find out it isn’t actually covered!
Let’s get real. Writing is our side hustle, it pays crap, and we don’t want another one.
But a side hustle can help you save for costs associated with a writers residency. When I was heading to Alaska on writers residency, I used summer catering work to offset the cost of my flight.
How to get a free or cheap writer’s residency
Writer’s residencies can be expensive but they don’t HAVE to be.
Once you understand how much you can realistically afford to pay for a writers residency, you can look for residencies that match your criteria. These might be local, driveable stays that won’t require a flight. They might be residencies with no application fee, keeping your initial expenses at $0. Or they might be residencies that cover your costs or even pay you.
There are some of these, and as you can imagine they’re quite competitive.
I wrote a full guide to writer’s residency applications, so I won’t go into the full details here. Read that post to understand the elements of a writers residency application and what committees are really looking for.
One word of advice on those deluxe residencies.
They can be a game of who you know, or how esteemed you are. If you have a mentor or famous writing friend willing to be your recommender, your application might stand out in the slush pile. If you are a famous author or had a hugely successful book, go ahead and apply. For those of us still emerging, the odds are long and may they be in your favor.
I had a two week residency last May that cost me $0 thanks to Trusted Housesitters, the housesitting site I use to find pet care when I travel.
We have a dual membership that allows us to host and take pet sits. I found a local couple needing cat care for two weeks. They were artists themselves and loved the idea of giving a fellow creative time and space to work. I used the time away to prepare an outline for novel revisions and work on a craft talk I’d been hired to give.
I packed clothing and food from my pantry. All it cost me was a bit of gas driving there and back.
Do you love the idea of housesitting your way to a writer’s residency? Save 25% off the cost of a membership to Trusted Housesitters with this link. When you use my referral link, I’ll get my membership extended at no cost to you.
You can also hack a writer’s residency by booking a super cheap hotel or Airbnb for the weekend. If you have a hotel loyalty program, your stay could even be free. I haven’t done this but I did tag along on my wife’s business conference, hosted at the Fairmont Pittsburgh. While she was in meetings I considered myself a writer in residence, taking trips to the sauna and drafting an essay. Minus the deadening seven hour drive, it was an enjoyable weekend.
There are just a couple examples of how I’ve replicated the residency environment for myself on the cheap. The Charmed Studio has a post on sneaky ways to get artist residencies that will help you broaden your perspective beyond the grind of applying for writing residencies.
If you find a writer’s residency you love but can’t afford, look at what you love about it. Is it the physical environment or location? The chance to network with other writers and find writing community? Is it the idea of dedicated time away to write, perhaps with lovingly prepared meals slipped under your door by a caretaker?
Whatever catches your eye—you can make it happen for yourself.
You can rent a cabin in the woods and be alone to write. You can hole up in a hotel and order room service. You can find ways to connect with other writers online or in person and build the supportive writing environment you imagine a residency can give you.
Writer’s residencies can be amazing opportunities. I’ve been on two formal residencies and hope to do more. But the truth is, you don’t need a structured residency environment, or the high costs associated with it, to make meaningful progress on creative work.
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