Saturday, September 26, 2009


I wanted to write a post about grant application writing because we're in that season and I imagine that lots are thus obsessed. So many of us obsessed, and yet I am also writing this because no one seems to talk that much about this all-consuming process. There seems to be lots of good web resources on how to ready a manuscript for submission, but very few on grant apps. Possibly that's because grant-app requirements vary by country and region, or because not everyone politically endorses grants to artists, or because they are such closed-door processes that people feel little is known and there's no advice to be offered--better just to ignore them and get on with the work itself, which is what really matters, after all.

True that it's the work that matters. But while it probably is also true that no one can tell you how to write a successful grant application, I think help helps a writer to create a decent one, and helps also to keep him/her from going insane while doing so...and money, if you win a grant, certainly helps.

Jim Munro has written both on how not to get depressed about applying for grants, and why they are important to artists and the world at large. (That last essay, four years old, is still extremely relevant and powerful in these times of arts budget cuts--grant-backed work as the R&D of literature is a concept the government is still struggling with, apparently.)

But I wondered if there were people out there who were hoping for something a little more specific, and step-by-step. And, as usual, what I have to draw on is my own incredible luck: when I first started writing these applications, I had what most young writers would love: people to hold my hand and help me every step of the way. So while I'm not wildly familiar with every aspect of the process, I have been doing this a while, and have received some good advice. At the very least, I'd like to pay it forward.

Step 1: Whenever you have time, read over the national, provincial/territorial, and regional/municipal arts council websites (I don't think every region/municipality has one, but I think all provinces/territories do, although I'm not even sure about that--anyone want to report?) Figure out which ones you and your project are eligible for, and note when the deadlines are. Also note which ones you aren't eligible for but would like to work towards (ie., you don't have enough professional publications to be considered a "professional artist" but are close; you don't have the page count for the project to be eligible but are close; etc.)

There are so many grants out there, and it is confusing to find out which ones are for what and whom, but obviously, it could be kind of lucrative if you do. If you have no idea what is meant by something or other on an arts council website, it's definitely worth your time to enquire. I have called the 800 numbers for every granting level, and have been unfailingly met with quick, polite and helpful responses. Once, after answering my question, the administrator said that that bit was actually so confusing he would change it for next year--I helped!! I'm a grant-applicating hero!! Ok, ok....

Not Step 2: Create a project you think jives with the grant guidelines. Not only is this impossible to guess at, but it will be both stressful and boring, and really depressing if you don't get the grant and you've spent all this time creating a project you don't believe in. Just keep right on thinking about whatever project you were hoping to do next, only maybe try to think about it in the form of 1 or 2 clear and concise proposal pages...

Step 2: 3-4 weeks before the deadline, read the guidelines for the grant you want to try for and make sure you are still eligible. Read over all the requirements and figure out what you need to do. For one of my first apps, I skipped step 1, and was far closer to the deadline than 3-4 weeks when I started to process, and became quickly overwhelmed by the various requirements. So I went and took a bath.

Luckily, I had a good and organized friend staying with me, who printed out the guidelines and, when I returned, read them aloud to me and helped me find all the constituent pieces (I'm sure this is exactly what she wanted to do with her weekend.)

Do whatever the guidelines say. Format the pages the way they want, take things off your resume that they claim are extraneous, use the right colour of ink, etc. A lot of these things don't matter, but it's really hard to say which so it's necessary to DO THEM ALL. If you format the headers wrong and your name appears on something that's supposed to be blind ajudicated, it will be thrown out. If you double-side the pages when they ask you not to, so that the app can't be photocopied easily, it'll be thrown out. These are dumb reasons not to get a grant. Don't think outside the box when filling out forms; keep the creativity strictly in the work, which is where it matters. Again, if confused, call!!

Step 3: 3ish weeks ahead of deadline: Write your proposal. This is the hardest part (though some grants don't even call for this), but it's also actually a useful exercise, as it forces you to articulate what exactly you are trying to do (anyone who has ever been interviewed knows this is difficult even after the thing is print!)

The esteemed writer who helped me with another app (eventually I started doing them on my own, I swear) said he never spent more than 2 hours on one of these, and while we can't all be that chilled out, I really think we should try. Mr. Munro says he takes about 2 days for the whole process, which seems about accurate, though I doubt you'll want to take a whole weekend away from whatever writing/real life stuff you've got on to do it all at once.

Write the proposal over a week or so. Say what you are doing and want to do, as clearly and smoothly as possible. If it's a highly theoretical project, sure, make references that are important to you, but if it isn't, don't invent them. Tell yourself it's about the quality of the work, over and over and over. Even if you end up with a highly politicized jury, you have no way of knowing that in advance; you can't make them like your work, you can only make your work good.

Step 4: as soon as you finish the proposal Get a kind friend to proof everything--the forms you've filled out, the resumes, publication lists, anything that has words on it (except the actual work sample; see below). You don't need a fellow writer necessarily, just someone with a keen eye, good grammar, and an investment in you getting the metaphorical spinach out of your teeth. When they read the proposal, encourage them to mention any sentences that don't makes sense/aren't clear--you never know what your fervered brain might have done at this stressful point in the process.

Step 5: whenever you need to Take a little break and think of other things. Really really try not to let the grant app take over your life, or go in the slot where actual writing is supposed to go.

Pep talk: Think about how lucky we are to be writers writing grant applications. Dance, visual art, and musical profressionals have to write them just like we do, only their chosen profession is *not* putting their ideas down on paper in the best possible way. It could be so much worse--imagine having to sing your application, or paint it.

Step 6: a few days before you send the whole thing out Take the best [however many pages you need] from the project as started, or of a past project that is similar in style, and format them according to the specifications of the application. This should be stuff that's been previously edited and proofread--I would strongly suggest that you not add that to the sundry grant-app pressures--it should be ready-to-go materials taht have been previously submitted it for publication or were actually published or just stuff you have already gotten to a point where you are happy with it. Of course, there's no reason you *can't* be editing now, or even writing new materials if you feel you need to, but if that's your plan backdate the whole process a whole lot weeks, and brace yourself for the extra stress.

Step 7: at least a week before the deadline if you are mailing it Package everything up in an appropriate new envelope (just this once: spring for exactly the right size instead of trying to cut down/tape together/recycle an envelope), address it carefully, and take it to the post office to be weighed and stamped. If you are a tense type (ie., me) you'll probably need to pay a lot of money to have a mailing option with a tracking number--suck it up and save the receipt for tax season, since it is a professional expense.

Pep talk #2 Try to think of grant applying as part of the job description of being a writer (unless you don't believe in grants, in which case, why have you read so far in this post?) When I fretted about it not being worth all that time and energy for a grant that I probably wouldn't get since I was just starting and I should just get on with the project anyway, my mom pointed out that since I was *going* to do the project anyway, and work very hard on it, it would be silly not to even suggest to anyone that I get paid a bit for all that work. No one, I don't think, is entitled to a grant just for working hard, but we are certainly all entitled to ask.

Exception to pep talk Don't apply for grants if it will eat up all the time you have for writing. If you are that pressed for time that regular adherence to the grant application schedule would make you more a grant-applier than a writer, it's obvious which one has got to go. It's the work that matters.

Step 8: after mailing app, for about 4-6 months Forget it. Go write something. Apply for a different grant. Talk to your loved ones. Look at kittens!

Step 9: 4-6 months later An envelope comes in the mail. We've all been trained by *The Facts of Life* to think that thick envelopes mean acceptance and thin mean rejection, but there's often a lot of extraneous forms in there, so you'll have to open it to know, probably standing in the foyer of your building, with a pizza guy glaring at the back of your head.

If you get rejected, feel surprised and a bit sad...say to yourself (and others if they ask) "Huh, I thought that was a pretty good application. Well, can't win'em all." Then go file the letter, or log it in your spreadsheet, or make it into a paper airplane, or whatever it is you do. Get someone who likes you to buy you a drink.

Pep talk #3 Canada Council funds about 20% of grant applications, and Toronto Arts Council perhaps 22-24% (I don't have other stats, but feel free to extrapolate or share). That's because that's what they have the money for, not because all the other apps they get are unworthy, or even that the committees think they are. I've never sat a committee myself, nor even known anyone who has well enough to ask more than general questions, but I firmly believe they weed out all the bad ideas, bad writing, and crazy writers, and then put the good sane materials in a hat, out of which they draw names until they run out of money. Believe that you were in the hat, ok? Rejection doesn't mean it was a bad project; it means this wasn't your year. Feel surprised and a bit sad, and put it behind you. It's the work that matters.

Note: if you have information that contradicts my theory, sure, let me know; if you have a *theory* that contradicts my theory, please keep it to yourself and allow me to remain relatively Rose-coloured.

If you get accepted, feel surprised and extremely thrilled. Hop about for a bit (you should probably leave the foyer now, and let the poor pizza guy in.) Tell someone who likes you (and buy him/her a drink); toast yourself and your good work and good luck. Examine all the paperwork they've sent you so that you know how to a) get your money, b) file your taxes, and c) fill the Final Reports that are months away from being due, at which point you will have lost every piece of paper telling you how or where to send them or what to say. Or, erm, not, because you are not as dopey as some of us.

Ok, now get back to work. And for heaven's sake, don't put that you've received a grant in your author bio, unless it's in print with the work that the grant actually funded, and the granters are being credited--otherwise, that's like putting your salary on your resume. Getting paid is nice but it's--wait for it--the work that matters.

Good luck, everybody! And if you find something erroneous, confusing, or missing in this post, please get in touch!

Keep the faith


August said...

This is the most useful thing I have ever seen.

I would write a more useful comment, but I'm afraid I've somehow gotten myself lightly toasted. I am a sesame seed, a crouton, an almond, lightly salted and infused with hickory, floating gently away from the shores of sobriety.

I am drunk like something that rhymes with drunk, but not a skunk, because skunks, cute as they might be, don't smell very attractive, and while I can't imagine that I emit some miraculous, soul-cleansing olfactory extravaganza, I do actually smell bad.

But seriously now, this is incredibly useful, and I am very pleased that you wrote it. When it comes to discussing such matters the Canadian literary/publishing community is so vague they make cryptographers look positively indiscreet.

August said...

Er, do *not* smell bad. A typo to be sure.

Anonymous said...

I gave a worskhop on grant writing for the Writer's Trust some time ago. They've still got my notes posted on their site:

I don't contradict anything you say. I've received grants, served on juries, and my ex worked a few years at the Ontario Arts Council, so I'm pretty familiar with the process.


Rebecca Rosenblum said...

August, so glad you found this helpful...and I'm sure you don't smell.

Michel, those notes are an awesome resource--thanks! I actually thought of you when I was writing this; that time I said grant-writing was a long dark night of the soul, definining who I am and what I'm writing, and you said something like, "I just try to fill in the forms properly." I henceforth considered those words to live by.

August said...

Heh. Sorry about that. I wasn't just in my cups, I was in everybody else's too. :)

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