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Grant writing tips: how to win gold

Every writer toiling away in their garret could use a small pot of gold, right?

Grants come in a variety of shapes and sizes and can further your creative practice in so many ways. I’ve received grants to attend professional development opportunities, to travel overseas to undertake research for a book, to provide a living wage to carve out a dedicated chunk of writing time, and to take up residency at Varuna Writers Centre, aka writers’ heaven (three times — how lucky am I?). Grants also offer reassurance that the work you are creating has genuine merit, and encourage you to keep forging ahead. In short, they are invaluable.

Yesterday I spoke on a panel with Tania McCartney and moderator Shaye Wardrop about the world of grants, which is often mystifying for new writers. So I thought I’d share some of my top tips gleaned from years of both successfully applying for grants, and sitting on panels assessing grants. As a brief aside, if you are ever invited to sit on one of these panels I would highly recommend it. It is an opportunity to learn firsthand how these panels work and what they’re looking for. You get to see what applicants do wrong, and what they do right. It is immeasurably helpful when it comes time to apply for a grant yourself.

  1. Apply for the ‘right’ grant

Look at the criteria closely to make sure you qualify, otherwise you will be wasting your time (and the assessors’). For example, if the grant is earmarked for emerging writers, what is this particular organisation’s definition of emerging? It can vary between an unpublished writer or a writer with a limited publication record. Check the parameters carefully. Short stories in literary journals might be acceptable, for example, but not a full-length short story collection.

Also consider the list of past recipients — the kinds of work being funded, and the level of the recipients’ experience. If previously successful applicants have several published and critically acclaimed novels to their name, and you have only published a handful of short stories, the likelihood of success is slim. In this case you would need to build up a more significant publishing track record before applying.

Local or state funding bodies are a good place to start as an emerging or developing artist. But remember that you will still need to be able to demonstrate some kind of publication history and dedication to your craft.

  1. Know that it’s highly competitive

All assessment processes vary, but often assessors will be asked to give each application a numerical grade which will then be tallied. As a starting point for discussion, all applications will be ranked from lowest to highest. It is often the case that assessors agree that the bottom third aren’t up to the required standard. And also that the top few are outstanding and should be funded without question. It is the middle block of applicants where much discussion takes place.

With every panel that I have worked on the assessors have taken their role, and its inherent responsibility, very seriously. Often assessors don’t know exactly what funds will be made available and therefore where ‘the line’ will fall. Everything above the line will get funded, everything below the line won’t. This uncertainty means that there will often be projects that the panel dearly wanted to see funded that may fall just below the line.

If you want to cross that finish line in first place, you need to bring your A game. Be a literary Cathy Freeman or Usain Bolt.

  1. Before you apply, discuss your project with the funding body

This isn’t always necessary but it can sometimes be useful to speak to the grants officer to check that your intended project fits within their framework. Funding bodies can shift their priorities and a quick phone call can save you a great deal of time.

  1. Writers applications tend to be the worst written!

One thing I’ve learned from sitting on assessment panels is that among arts practitioners writers are not the greatest at writing grant applications. This always takes me by surprise — after all, we’re writers, right? But a grant application is a very different beast to a creative work. (For the record, it’s the visual artists who know how to put together a damn good application.)

So carefully read what is required and then make sure that you give the assessors everything they need to tick all the boxes. Always address the funding criteria. This might sound obvious, but so often the arguments applicants put forth disregard the organisation’s specific criteria.

There will usually be tight word limits so use them effectively. Before you start, determine the key points that you need to communicate. Then be clear and concise. Don’t waffle and don’t use grandiose language. And, even if the question isn’t specifically asked, make sure you answer…

  1. Why is your project worth investing in?

This is the crux of what you need to articulate. You need to demonstrate and justify the project’s creative worth. What is unique about it? How is it different from other published works? How will it contribute to the literary landscape? How will it benefit the community? How will it support your creative practice and result in significant professional development? In other words, why should the funding body invest in you?

  1. Include a letter of recommendation

This could be from an interested publisher, or from another industry professional of standing. It might be an experienced writer who has a good feel for and appreciation of your work. It is important to know that these letters can make or break an application. A hearty endorsement from a well-respected individual can convince a panel of the worth of your project and your ability to deliver. On the other hand a letter that damns with faint praise is worse than no letter at all (and I’ve seen a few of these when assessing applications).

  1. Support material

Applications often call for a sample of your creative work. Be sure to select the strongest and most relevant example. Always stick to the word limit (assessors will not read additional material, and it will reflect poorly on your ability to follow instructions). Don’t include additional material that has not been requested.

  1. Make sure your budget balances

Many writers go cross-eyed at the thought of balancing a projected budget. But remember, you are asking an organisation for money and the budget demonstrates that you know how to deliver the project you’ve outlined. Always make sure the budget is realistic, and that it balances. If you’re struggling, ask a friend who is good with numbers to help you. And some organisations (the state and federal funding bodies for instance) are happy to discuss budgeting issues over the phone.

  1. Proofread, proofread, proofread

The quality of your application creates an impression about the quality of your work. A flawless application is one sign that the panel can have confidence in you creating a polished, quality project. If your application is full of errors it will not reflect well on you. It’s like showing up to a job interview in an unironed shirt with bed hair.

If proofreading isn’t your forte, ask a friend who will spot all those typos and punctuation errors. Even if it is your forte, it’s still a good idea to have a fresh set of eyes review it. When you’ve been working on an application and reading it over and over it’s easy to miss things, or read what should be on the page instead of what is actually there.

  1. If you aren’t successful, get feedback from the organisation

Don’t give up. There is never enough money to go around and you may have only just missed out (see no. 2). Ask what you could have done better (sometimes the panel will provide specific feedback to those applicants who were close but didn’t quite make it). Use the feedback to improve your next application. Try, and try again. Eventually you will reach no. 11.

  1. If you are successful, crack the champagne!

Receiving a grant is a wonderful thrill. It’s a validation of your work, and it’s the beginning of a new project (or a new stage of the project), full of exciting possibility. The writing life is a rollercoaster of highs and lows. Take the time to savour this moment. You did it!

5 thoughts on “Grant writing tips: how to win gold”

  1. Thank you so much for this post Irma. I’m planning on applying for residencies again this year and I’m never really sure what I’m doing with these applications! Your tips are a great reference.

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