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On Applying for Grants: Part One

After yesterday’s fantastic news – which still hasn’t quite sunk in, to be honest – several people mentioned that they’d like to know how I went about getting this funding. So I thought I’d do a series of blog posts on applying for grants – with a few caveats.

Caveat the First: I’m no expert. I’ve never been on a grant committee, but I have successfully applied for grants: yesterday’s Arts SA grant is my fifth successful application, for various projects. However, I have yet to bag the big one – OzCo still eludes me!

Caveat the Second: Each state has different guidelines and different funding schemes. So the processes I’ve experienced in South Australia may not reflect those in place elsewhere.

Caveat the Third: See item one above. These are just my opinions — you should listen to or ignore them as you see fit.

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I should also point out that nothing I say here is going to be revolutionary. Applying for grants, at least in my experience, is mostly about three important things:

  1. Reading the guidelines carefully;
  2. Being engaging and creative;
  3. Being clear: who, where, what, when, how, and why.

To save your eyes, I’ll split this discussion into three posts based on the above points. So today we’ll start with reading guidelines, and I’ll put the next two up after Christmas.

Happy holidays!

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Reading Guidelines Carefully

By “carefully” I mean two things.

First, make sure you are actually eligible for the award / prize / grant you’re applying for. Few things are more frustrating than wasting your time filling out all that paperwork for nothing. For instance, for a few months I’ve been planning on applying for a fellowship in the UK. I printed the paperwork off sometime in June, but since the deadline wasn’t until January 2012 I put off finishing the application until the end of semester (as you do). In the meantime, my first book, Bluegrass Symphony, was published.

“Hooray!” I thought. “Now my application will look even more impressive!”

Except, it actually won’t.

Upon re-reading the fellowship guidelines, I discovered that applicants “must be writers of fictional or non-fictional prose in English” (check!) “who have not yet published a book” (wah-wahhhhh). So while most funding bodies look for people who have impressive publication lists, in this instance the purpose of the fellowship was to write a first major work, so experience is actually a drawback.

I’m not trying to say that if you’re a new writer, you shouldn’t bother applying to competitive grants – not at all. There is a great culture of support in Australia for newbie writers, so don’t let a short list of publications deter you from applying. Having a good track record will obviously help – especially if you’re applying for an Australia Council grant – but if you are applying for a state or local grant, then an exciting and viable project by a newbie should be considered with equal enthusiasm.

Having said that, what it all boils down to is the ability to prove you can come up with the goods. A writer who has published a string of novels has already demonstrated that they are able to produce what they set out to; so from the funding body’s perspective, it makes sense to fund Well Established Writer X over Unpublished Writer Y, because the former is likely to use the grant effectively (namely, to get a book published which will bear the funding body’s logo, and thus demonstrate to the world what wonderful projects that organisation supports) whereas the latter is a bit of an unknown quantity.

Nevertheless, don’t bignote yourself needlessly. Be honest. If you are an ‘emerging’ writer, make sure you apply for grants designed to help ‘emerging’ writers — there are more of them out there than you’d think. Sure, you’ll get less money than ‘established’ writers, at least at first. But you have to start somewhere, and you’ll never be ‘established’ without the list of publications to prove it. Getting ‘emerging’ writer grants will help give you the time to develop into an ‘established’ writer — and every bit of funding you receive helps.

Second, reading guidelines carefully also means read between the lines. More often than not, application guidelines are brief and uninformative: ‘Outline your project in two pages or less’ or ‘Provide support’ – general things like that. You sit there and think, “What do you mean, exactly, by project?” Must a project result in a tangible product – a novel, a collection, an avant-garde installation? Or can it include other things? Is going to a manuscript assessment service a valid part of your project? Can you include workshop attendance and mentorships as part of your project? Is it all right to include travel – to conventions, to meet potential agents, to book fairs – as part of your project? Do you have to be the sole author – or even an author at all? Can you edit an anthology as a project? Can you produce a journal?

These are all questions you should ask yourself before pitching your project. What do you want to achieve with this funding? Most people will instantly respond with: “I want to write my book.” And of course that’s what you want, but so do hundreds of other applicants. What is it that will make your project stand out? (We’ll talk about that more in the next post.) Thinking about all of this will also help you write the clearest application possible, which I’ll focus on in the third post.

I also want to emphasise that it’s really important to get in touch with the grant ‘contact’ person (or people) if you have any of the sorts of questions I’ve listed above. They are the experts – they are the ones who have seen a million applications, and have probably written the guidelines themselves. They will tell you honestly whether your field trip to London counts as valid for your project. They will advise you on who would make the best referees for your application. They will tell you that you can’t double-dip: for instance, if you received a scholarship to write a novel for your Creative Writing PhD, then you can’t get funding from the state/federal government again for that particular project. They’ll tell you specifically what can and can’t be included in your outline. Once you’ve sorted out what exactly it is you want to do, then these people are great resources. (If you are unsure about what your project will be, if you have vague ideas and/or vague questions, you might want to clarify your points before getting in touch with them. Great questions will lead to great help. Vague questions inspire vague advice.)

Most importantly, if the application guidelines give you a word restriction, follow them. If they instruct you to mail hardcopies via carrier pigeon, do so. Don’t use bullet points unless instructed to – you’re a writer, so you should be able to explain yourself in complete and concise sentences. And as with submitting manuscripts to editors, follow the formatting instructions to the T. Don’t give them the chance to ditch your application because it’s riddled with typos or grammatical errors.

This is all well and good, Lisa, you’re probably thinking. But knowing how to apply doesn’t help if there are no funding opportunities.

Allow me to put on my dayjob hat for a second (for one of the last times!!!) and point you to a resource I’ve been compiling for the past several months. The Australian Consortium of Humanities Research Centres (ACHRC) website has a fantastic (if I do say so myself) ‘Opportunities’ page which lists, among a whole bunch of academic grant opportunities, all of the Arts and Philanthropic funding opportunities I’ve been able to find since building the site six months ago. I’ve tried to keep these lists up-to-date, so hopefully you’ll find grants for which you’re eligible to apply.

Visit the Opportunities page here.

Next week: Being engaging and creative in your applications.

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7 thoughts on “On Applying for Grants: Part One

  1. Brilliant, thank you. I’ve made several Australia Council grant applications to no avail and inevitably crashed and burned, so I was certainly doing *something* they didn’t like!

  2. What I’m curious about is the application of an outsider to a grant in a different country. You said you wanted to apply to a UK fellowship, which means that there are opportunities for such people [like moi]. I’ve seen that the site you linked to has a number of links on the subject, so I gather that is possible. BUT I guess I’m asking is, how popular is the idea.

    • It is possible to apply for overseas opportunities, but you really have to read the fine print in the guidelines to be sure. All of the ‘international’ links I put on the ACHRC website are for fellowships or awards that explicitly said they were open to applicants of any/all nations. I suspect — and this is just a feeling — that applying for international fellowships (i.e. at a university) will be much more feasible than applying for local government Arts grants. Basically, it is in the government’s best interest to support local talent with local taxpayers’ money. However, this doesn’t mean that a grant recipient will have to restrict his/her ideas to a local context — in other words, you could apply to your state/provincial/federal government for funding to send you overseas to work on your project.

      • The things is that I’m located in a country, which does not support arts with funding and even if did, I would not really count, because I write in English and not my native language, which is pretty much not the talent the government would be interested in. The government can barely fund libraries and culture centres, so I kinda signed off the idea of applying for a grant. Now that I see this, I’m feeling rather optimistic.

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