Some hints on applying for arts funding & fellowships
Recently I was invited to assess some fellowship applications for an arts organisation, which I was very happy to do. It’s one of the ways writers can contribute to those organisations which have supported them in the past, so I always say yes if I can manage the time. I’ve done a bit of this assessment sort of work in the past, for organisations offering mentorships, independent working retreats, or financial grants.
This time round, I was struck once more by how many applications are let down by very basic errors. I made mention of a couple of these on Twitter, and came away with the sense that many writers – especially beginners – were keen for advice on how to write a grant application.
This list is entirely subjective – I have no idea whether other grant assessors will agree with these points, and many of them will definitely disagree with some of them. But with more than a decade of experience in both writing my own applications (with a reasonable strike rate) and reading others’ applications alone and as part of a panel, I think most of these rules would hold up for most forms of funded support. I’m going to use the word ‘grant’ as shorthand for all types of support including mentorships and so on.
So, here goes: my rough-and-ready rip-and-read guide to applying for literary grants & fellowships.
BEFORE YOU APPLY
- Decide whether the application process itself will help or hinder your work. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not always a good idea. While writing a project description and selecting support material can be heartening (Wow, I have more than I thought! Writing this has made me finally see what my book is about!), it can also be the opposite. Think carefully: if rejection or cool scrutiny of your work in progress will disturb or destroy your project, don’t apply yet. Just keep on with your writing.
- If you are not willing to write the book without a grant or fellowship, forget it. Lack of honest and sincere commitment always shows in your application and, more importantly, beyond a brief surge of confidence, a grant really won’t help you write a book you aren’t passionate about anyway. In fact, a grant for a book you don’t want to write can become a rotting albatross around your neck. You won’t believe this, but it’s true.
- Applying for grants is work, and takes time. Don’t think you can dash off a good application in an hour or so. For an Australia Council grant application, for example, I would spend the best part of a week working on my proposal.
- There is no ‘trick’ to getting a grant or a fellowship. Occasionally I’ve been asked by emerging writers what my ‘trick’ is, or where I get my ‘inside knowledge’. I have had to bite my tongue, and I’ve felt insulted by the question. There is no trick. There is no secret inside knowledge. Succeeding in securing arts funding is not a matter of who you know, or friends giving grants to friends. If your application doesn’t succeed, there is no conspiracy against you. However, there certainly are fashions and trends in writing as in anything else – you may well fall outside what’s currently popular or what garners attention. On the other hand, if you develop a reputation as a professional who follows through, completes the work and acquits the grant (i.e. does what she proposes to do in the application and writes a decent report back to the funding body), it will stand you in good stead for future opportunities. It is true, I think, that success breeds success in these things.
- To my knowledge there is no central, organised List of Grants and Who Should Apply for Them, though there are plenty of websites around. Start with the Australia Council, state and territory arts ministries, state libraries, universities, artists’ centres, writers’ centres. Ask your writing friends.
- Carefully read the guidelines and any other material about applications provided by the organisation. I can’t stress this enough. They don’t put the guidelines there for their own amusement, but many applicants appear not to have read them at all. If I am unsure about details of the process, or have a burning question, I would ring or email the appropriate contact person and ask their advice. Be well prepared for this conversation and succinct with your questions.
- If you do make contact with staff at the funding body, don’t be impolite to them, even if they are abrupt with you. Mostly they are impeccably charming and helpful and polite and generous with their time and advice. One or two I have come across are breathtakingly rude and patronising. Roll with it.
- Realise that the person assessing your application is most often not a funding body staff member but another writer – someone like you, who like you, has tried and failed and sometimes succeeded to write, to get a grant, get published. Your assessor will often be unpaid, and be squeezing in this assessment work around their own measly writing life, part-time job, their family, sick mother, and annoying boss. Don’t waste their time.
- Once I decide to go ahead with an application, I think it’s a good idea to apply for everything I can with that project. This won’t suit everyone, but I like this approach for several reasons. First, it’s not that much work after you develop a solid project description and support material – you can use the same basic template again, tailoring it each time for each grant of course. I will go for years without applying for anything, but then every four years or so I have a blitz and apply for everything I can in that year. For me, this normalizes the rejection – it becomes routine, and expected, rather than a personal blow. It also prevents the all-eggs-in-one-basket crushing defeat; once I get over the momentary disappointment, I have the next one to look forward to. I might be rejected ten times, but sometimes the eleventh is the one I really wanted, and the one I get. However, you need stamina for this approach, and you need to be prepared for all of them to be rejected. If that will be too destructive, don’t try this at home.
- For new writers: it is extremely hard to get funding – I mean cash grants – without any sort of publishing track record. Apply for mentorships and manuscript development programs by all means, but I wouldn’t put much energy into applying for money until I had published something. I didn’t apply for any financial assistance until after my first novel was published, though I did have several mentorships for that book. I think it’s fair for taxpayers to expect some kind of evidence that you have the stamina and the commitment to writing before you are allocated money. The same goes for fellowships of course, which after all are usually taxpayer funded, but even applying for those is already demonstrating that you are prepared to work. Not so much with applications for cash.
- Many organisations will now only take applications online, using an online form. Always draft and proof and revise your application offline, in your word processing program, then copy and paste it into the form. It can be very annoying for assessors to wade through multiple copies of your answers because you’ve saved the form six times or there’s been a glitch and it’s saved the wrong version. Much worse, if you write it straight into the form and there’s a technical problem, you could lose it all.
- Again: read the guidelines, and write accordingly. Submit only the required number of pages /words. Do not go beyond the stated length; it won’t be read. If the application says ‘400 characters’, do not write ‘No room – see Annexure A’ and attach reams of work. The guidelines have been developed over years, and are designed to make assessments comparable and the assessor’s job manageable. Your departure from these guidelines will make their job harder. Do you really want to piss them off before they even read a word of your work?
WRITING THE APPLICATION
Most applications have several parts: a letter stating why you want the grant and/or a project description, a CV, and support material. Sometimes there is also a section for referees, or a proposed budget.
- By far the most important part of this is the support material – that is, the sample of your actual fiction, poetry, non-fiction or whatever it is you’re applying for. A fine project description is all very well, but your support material is the evidence that you can do what you propose. And even if your project description or rationale is a little wobbly, stunningly good creative writing always speaks for itself. Put most of your effort into selecting good support material.
- Don’t worry if the sample is not from the beginning of the book, and there is no need for lengthy explanatory notes. Choose the best writing you have. Nor do I worry if the sample is made up of disconnected chunks – assessors don’t expect finished work. They just want to see that you can actually write.
- There are different schools of thought about whether to only include published work in the sample / support material. However, I always submit a sample from the work in progress, even if it’s very new. I think it is an expression of good faith – you’re demonstrating that the book actually is in progress – and as well, a previously published work may not adequately ‘support’ what you’ve said in your application. They need to be complementary. To me as an assessor, if you’re submitting a proposal for a verse novel but your sample material is from a biography you wrote ten years ago, I might be unconvinced you can pull off the new proposal. To my mind, at least half of your support material should be from the new work in progress.
The rest of the application
The support material is where to demonstrate your experimental, poetic, quirky, creatively wild writing talent. The rest of your application should be cool as a cucumber and as professional as possible. Clarity is key. Don’t try to grab the assessor’s attention with quirky offbeat questions or little drawings or long descriptions of your emotional state. Neutrality and professionalism in your tone will convince me more than anything else. After I’ve read sixty applications, quirky answers to basic questions aren’t endearing, they’re just irritating.
- If the space is for ‘project description’, start with a description of the project. You might be surprised how many applicants use this space to detail their working routine, spruik reviews of their last book, complain about the lack of a market for their work, or confess they are losing confidence and only this grant/fellowship/residency will save them. If the heading is ‘project description’, describe your project first. If you have room, you can then cover the other stuff.
- Cover the basics first. Be clear about the form, and be specific. Is it a novel, short story, memoir or poetry or biography? Some funding bodies are assessing visual arts and dance or music in the same lot of applications; I have reached the end of some applications without ever finding out if the project is a novel, an interpretive dance or a painting. So don’t say ‘This project is an exploration of grief and history’. Instead, be specific and informative: ‘I am writing the second draft of a historical novel set in a Queensland mining town in the years between the World Wars. It’s my third novel. I expect it to be about 70,000 words long, and expect this draft to be complete by early 2015.’
- If the application asks for a synopsis, include one. This is a short description of what happens in the book. Be concise. If you don’t know the ending yet, make this clear.
- I think it’s fine for applicants not to know everything about a work in progress – but if you have gaps and doubts, express them in terms of the ideas you are exploring. Don’t make something up to ‘sound good’ – it usually doesn’t, the attempt is transparent and shows a lack of confidence. Instead, I would say something like ‘At this stage, I’ve yet to resolve the plot in the last third of the novel.’
Rationale or covering letter
- Again, save the fancy writing for the support material. Professional writers don’t use pretentious word forms like ‘entitled’ instead of ‘titled’, ‘personages’ instead of ‘characters’ and so on. Crisp, elegant, energetic but plain writing is best.
- Be honest. It’s surprisingly easy to pick up fibs and half-truths, particularly about accolades or publications. There is a line between self-confidence and hollow self-promotion, and I don’t think it’s an especially fine line. Confidence shows in the way you express yourself and the way you discuss your work. Don’t talk it down, obviously, but exaggerated self praise (‘My thriller will have you on the edge of your seat, gasping in shock!’) is silly. If you’re using exclamation marks, that’s a bad sign.
- Leave out the self-pity. This is a big one, and one of the main differences between amateurs and professionals. I am always surprised by how many applicants treat the process as an opportunity to whinge about how hard their life is. The assessor is a writer, remember. They already know how hard writing is, how it’s difficult to find time between other commitments, how little writers earn, how much rejection hurts. They’re experiencing all that right now. By the time you are applying for grants or money, you should be beyond moaning. Yes, writing is hard. So what?
- This does not mean your life circumstances are irrelevant. It is relevant to me as an assessor to know that you are a single parent with a full-time job – all other things being equal, I would lean towards giving you the opportunity over someone else I perceived to have a lesser need. But tone is the key – mention relevant factors like this briefly, in a neutral tone, and move on. Don’t milk it.
- Don’t be too casual in your language, but don’t use jargon or academic or literary theory buzzwords either. Think of your assessor as an intelligent general reader, not an academic. On the other hand, don’t come over all sales-pitchy or hippy-trippy Creative Spirit either. Professional writers are not floaty, emotional dream-speakers (except in their work), and they are not cheap advertising copywriters. In their administrative dealings they are efficient, clear communicators with elegant language, good grammar and no typos.
- As an applicant, I usually try to include a brief statement of what makes this project different from other books I’ve written, to show that I am challenging myself and striving to develop as an artist.
- If the guidelines ask for a CV, provide one. For the purposes of a literary grant this is a list of your education, relevant publications (i.e. literary publications, not engineering reports or corporate brochures!), employment (brief and relevant), achievements and accolades, with accompanying dates. It is not a quirky story about how you want to follow your dreams.
- List your achievements but don’t exaggerate, and put them in the right categories. A writing course, for example, doesn’t go in ‘awards and accolades’ – it goes in education.
- Name dropping won’t do much for you. A writer’s private remark to you in a classroom isn’t a statement of their public support for your work, but an encouraging teacher’s work. Nor does a public figure’s passing remark that your family history ‘would make a great novel’ belong in an application. Reviews are another matter – they are on the public record and good evidence of your standing – but ‘Hilary Mantel told my cousin she liked my poem’ is not verifiable or convincing, and can just look desperate.
- Never be so rude as to leave out requested material. Never add notes like ‘See my website for CV’ if one is requested. If you can’t be bothered including all the relevant material, an assessor is unlikely to look beyond your application for evidence that you care.
- Make sure referees actually really believe in you. Often references are not required, and a lukewarm statement from a referee is worse than none at all.
Reviewing and revising
- Your application needs to be absolutely error free. This is a writing application. Precision and accuracy are absolutely essential. Even one typo in an application will annoy me as an assessor, because it shows you are not paying the attention to detail that good writing requires.
- It’s surprising – and very deflating – to read so many applications with grammatical howlers, spelling mistakes, tense changes, missed words, typos and literal errors. Spell-check your application, and then read it aloud to yourself or someone else.
- In the early days of applying for grants I would send all my material to a writing friend to check. Often I still do. Ask someone to proof it for you if you tend to miss errors.
- Write in the active voice as much as possible. If you don’t know what that means, look it up.
- Never use the term ‘fiction novel’. It’s sloppy and makes it look as if you don’t actually know what you’re doing.
- Cut and pare and refine and revise. Remove repetitions and rambling descriptions. Tighten every sentence.
- Check and double-check that you have filled out the application correctly. Make a checklist for yourself and include all relevant material. Send it before the deadline.
After the submission
- Either refine and revise your application for another grant, or try to forget about it. Obsessing over getting a grant is a complete waste of time, and your chances of success can be as much about the tastes of the assessor and the quality of the other applicants on the day as the quality of your work.
- If your application is rejected, try not to feel too disheartened. It could be too soon, or perhaps this book simply is not destined to get support. Write it anyway.
- That said, applying again with the same project is perfectly acceptable. Your application may be virtually the same application, but your idea might be further developed and easier to articulate, and you could have better support material the year after a failed one and succeed the second time.
- If you are rejected, I really recommend taking up offers of reports and feedback where appropriate. The first time I was rejected for an Australia Council grant I huffed and flounced. At the second rejection, I asked for feedback. It was exceptionally helpful, not just for that organisation but for all others since.
I’ll leave you with some more advice, from Patrick Allington. Patrick (@PatrAllington) joined the Twitter discussion about this the other day, and I asked him to contribute here. Patrick is a novelist, critic, editor and lecturer at Flinders Uni, who has done his share of assessing applications over the years. His points below are excellent and I thank him for them. You can read more about him and his work at www.patrickallington.net.au.
On the question of grant applications, below are a few thoughts:
One big thing that bothers me — and this is utterly anecdotal but I think it could be quite common — is that some new and emerging writers seem to tailor their writing priorities — what to write, where to send it, etc. — around minimum eligibility requirements for grants. As in, ‘I really, really want to work on my novel but I need two more short stories before I can apply for that grant. Or maybe I could try a four poems, that might be easier.’ I don’t think the money involved warrants that sort of twisting of priorities. But more to the point, it doesn’t sound like a recipe for a writer to produce his/her best, most compelling, most urgent work.
As for grants themselves, I’ve observed people twisting themselves in knots with budgets. Writers are often asking for something quite simple: time to write. However, some budgets asking essentially for writing time somehow end up resembling one of those equations that geniuses scribble on vast blackboards. It’s important to get the feedback from the relevant bureaucrat, but in general I’d suggest that if it is simple, then keep it simple. It’s useful, also, to ensure that the columns actually add up. And it’s useful if the application doesn’t come across as if the candidate is seeking funding for an overseas holiday.
The tone of self-promotion is tricky. Everyone is told ‘you must sell yourself’ but some sorts of self-praise come across as tacky and false. For writers, self-reviewing of their own works, whether published or unpublished, whether finished or a work-in-progress, can invoke the opposite reaction than what the writer hopes for.
If a writer is including support letters, think hard about who to ask. A lukewarm endorsement (or worse) can be counter-productive.
The main thing with grant applications, however, is the supporting material. If a writer is applying for financial support for a particular project, and the sample of that project that he/she supplies is a mess, it will be very hard to convince a panel to fund it.
Well said. Now, if readers of this have other advice for artists on applying for support, please, please add your points in the comments. It would be brilliant if this post turned into a really useful resource for writers. Now, it’s time for me to disobey all my own instructions, not reread or revise this or check for errors. I’m going to get a glass of wine. Happy Sunday evening all.