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On Applying for Grants: Part Two

Being Engaging, Creative, Interesting

Anyone who has worked as a teacher – in any capacity – will know how mind-numbingly boring marking papers can be. You have a few set questions and dozens and dozens and dozens of students all answering the same one or two, all in the same way, using the same phrases, the same examples, and the same format. No matter how lovely these students are as people, no matter how much you’ve enjoyed working with them in class, no matter how hard you know they’ve tried – after reading a hundred average essays you seriously want to shred every last paper and never look back.

Multiply that feeling by at least a thousand, and you’ll probably get an idea of how taxing reading grant applications is for literary panels.

Sympathise with the literature boards? I hear you say. But they are the enemy! They have rejected my applications for the past five-ten-fifteen years! They should feel MY pain!

And I’m sure they do feel your pain – many of the people on grant awarding committees are writers, editors, publishers. No doubt they’ve applied – and been rejected – for awards and grants themselves. Sure, some of these people might be on power trips (they’re only human, after all) but really, most have volunteered to read thousands of applications, to have a bunch of bureaucratic meetings, to work with ridiculously small budgets – all while taking the time away from their own work… So the best thing you can do, for yourself and for the sanity of the people who will read your application, is to make it as polished and interesting as you can.

This means, at the very least:

Think positively. There is no sense applying if you go into the process thinking “I’m never going to get this because of X,Y, or Z.” Rumour has it, for example, that the OzCo grants almost universally go to authors who write Literature with a capital ‘L’ – if you’re a genre writer, so the gossips say, don’t even bother applying for these high-falutin’ awards. Now, I’m not going to go through the list of OzCo grant recipients in order to prove or refute this rumour – the point I’m trying to make here is that if you go into your application with a defeatist attitude, it’s unlikely you’re going to write something that will earn you a grant. Your frustration with the system might mean you’ll just dash an application off at the last minute – “I’m not going to get it anyway,” you might think, “so why waste the time?” If that thought crosses your mind as you’re filling out the paperwork, then don’t bother sending the application. That right there is a recipe for the Self-fulfilling Prophecy of Failure. The only cold, hard reality we have with funding bodies like the Australia Council is that roughly 13% of the applicants will receive the money they’ve requested. It’s tough to get one, no matter how “literary” your work is. However, being aware of this “fact” going into the process shouldn’t mean that you give a half-arsed effort because you “know” you don’t have a chance – it should mean that you try to make your application even more brilliant, to compete with all the other brilliant apps out there.

An engaging tone will keep the assessors awake. You’re a writer. You spend as much time as you can coming up with interesting ‘hooks’ and opening lines, riveting plotlines, and fascinating characters. Sure, this is fiction writing we’re talking about – it’s supposed to be engaging! – but grant applications are, in their own way, fiction. You’re making a pitch about a hypothetical: this is what I will do with the money you give me, if you give it to me (please please please). You have to give it some imagination, think about how it will all come about (and we’ll talk about being specific about your project next time). In many cases, you are already at work on the project you’re trying to fund, so imagining how you’ll spend the next few months completing it might not be that much of a stretch. My point is that grant applications don’t have to read like grocery lists: I have done this, and this, and this. I will do this, then this, then this… If you’re bored putting together a pitch for your project, it’s hard to see how the assessor will find it interesting.

What is exciting about this project? Tap into the energy you had when you first came up with the idea – then do your best to convey this in your application. It doesn’t need to be over-the-top excitement – we don’t need the Steve Irwins of literature screaming in the panellists’ ears – but it should be eye-catching. How would you pitch this project to a publisher? Why should they buy this story? What makes it different to the other books already out there? How does it add to the body of literature in your field? Come up with a hook – sell the idea in a concise way. Most grant applications allow a paltry 1-2 pages for your entire project description; so you have to refine what you’re going to say, whittle it all down to the shiny parts, to the parts that are most unique, the most important, and of the most value (to you and to the funding body – see below). You are in the business of making things that are good to read; don’t stop doing that just because what you’re writing is a response to a tedious, electronic form.

Make it interesting. In this instance, being ‘engaging’ is not quite the same as being ‘interesting’. Being engaging comes down to tone – to writing in such a way that the assessors don’t want to gouge their eyes out by the time they reach the end of your document. But being interesting comes down to the good/beneficial/career-changing ways you will use this money. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve come to realise in the process of applying for grants is this:

Demonstrate that you will be working on this project whether you get the money or not.

You are the one who has to be interested in this project in the long term – you are the one who has to produce the work. In my experience, funding organisations are a bit wary of hypothetical projects. In the previous section, I said you don’t have to list everything in a boring way: I have done this, and this, and this. I will do this, then this, then this… However, it does pay to show what you have done as well as what you will do for this project. If you are already in the process of writing your novel – for instance, if you’ve drafted it but now want to do it properly, including edits – then you can apply for a “new work” grant to complete this process. The phrase “new work” has thrown me in the past – I assumed that this meant I had to be pitching a “new idea” – that is, one I hadn’t yet started to write. But after receiving feedback on several applications, it is now abundantly clear to me that this is not the case. “New work” can be interpreted as “work that hasn’t yet been published” not just “work you haven’t yet had a chance to begin.” It actually works in your favour to pitch a project you are working on. Polish up the best parts you’ve written and include them as part of your supporting documents – the assessors would like to see not just what you’ve written in the past, but what you’re working on now. They want to see what it is they’ll be funding – what’s more, seeing that you’re in the process will reassure them that you’ll come up with the goods in the end, that they won’t be throwing money at a hypothetical book that may or may not become reality.

“Being interesting” also means that your application should demonstrate a level of commitment to this project beyond the production of a single “final product”. Government Arts organisations are interested in fostering the growth of arts and culture in society. In other words, their primary interest isn’t that you have your book published. That’s your primary interest. Theirs is, believe it or not, much more humanitarian than that: they are investing in perpetuating the creation of art, literature, music, theatre for the benefit of the general populace. From their perspective, awarding grants isn’t so much about cranking out dozens of “home-grown” artists, but in supporting those artists that show that they’re in it for the long haul, whose works will (hopefully) impact upon the greatest number of people possible.

This is where it pays to ask questions of the funding contact person. Is a trip to a convention or conference or important meeting overseas a valid thing to propose in your project? Is attending a writers workshop (like Clarion or Odyssey or Tin House) something that falls within the parameters of the grant? Of course, you must demonstrate that you intend to do these things whether you get the grant or not – but showing that your interest lies not just in publishing a single book that may or may not ever be read, but in improving yourself as a writer, as building your skills for a long a fruitful career, as becoming an ‘ambassador’ of Australian writing overseas are all approaches that might make your project more ‘interesting’ in the long term – and thus more interesting to the folks who hold the cash.

Next time: Being specific…

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8 thoughts on “On Applying for Grants: Part Two

  1. I’m going to look forward to the later instalments, before I ask any more questions, because I think one of the ideas I’m fostering for a project will be quite, quite fitting for a grant [at least in my imagination]. I shall be awaiting the follow-ups. 🙂 Thanks for doing this, by the way. Much appreciated.

  2. Loving this series. Have had some successes and some failures with grant applications and it’s really good to read your point of view and assess what I’m doing right and wrong. This post has really made me think about it from the point of view of the board and realise I need to focus on making it interesting to read.

  3. As a past member of the Ozco Literature Board, Lisa, I thank you for the definition of being engaging as “writing in such a way that the assessors don’t want to gouge their eyes out by the time they reach the end of your document”.

  4. Loving these blog posts! Thanks for sharing your experience, Lisa. So useful as I find applying for grants extremely difficult and never know what they are really looking for and as you already know, it’s hard pitching your project in two pages. You have some very useful tips and can’t wait to read the next instalment. 🙂

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