Welcome to a new series on In the Classroom, in which we address various practical aspects of the writing world, from writing craft papers to revising craft papers, to writing other materials that might be valuable on the job market.
Above all, writers need time to write. Sometimes we need research materials, photocopies, scanners, printers, postage, and travel budgets. Problem is, time, travel, and equipment are expensive. Few writers are getting hefty advances nowadays and the royalties aren’t exactly pouring in, so what to do? Write a grant application. And then another one. And another one. Keep writing because, in large part, grant writing is a numbers game. The more applications you write, the better you’ll get at it. The more applications you submit, the better your chances are at winning.
Grants beget grants. Even the smallest grant is worth applying for if you’re just starting out. A small grant goes on your CV and it makes you a better contender for the next competition.
I’ve applied for hundreds of grants over the years — so many that it’s now become part of my creative process. Entering grant competitions is one more way for me to work out ideas, test the waters, and see if a project has legs. I’ve had a lot of success partly because I’ve learned how to talk about my work in a way that makes sense to granting agencies.
A few rules of thumb as you embark on this process:
- Finish what you start. Do the the thing you said you’d do with the grant money. No granting agency will fund someone who has already flushed someone else’s $10,000 down the toilet. Because while grants beget grants, good work begets even more grants. Funding agencies want to give money to people who won’t waste their good will and cash.
- Research what you can include in a research or writing budget. Budgets aren’t hard to write but they are part of the job of grant writing, so don’t underestimate the time it takes to do this. Think about what you need to do your work and then cost it out. If you’re writing your first budget ever, ask for help. Writers tend to be generous and you may even find someone willing to share an entire grant application with you. If the grant application was successful, then that’s even better.
- Remember that grants are taxable income. Put some money away to pay the man at the end of the grant period. Seriously.
- Don’t hold your breath for every grant. Write the application, submit it, and then forget about it and get back to your work. The grants system can be capricious and unjust. Brilliant projects can get rejected and duds occasionally get funded. It’s best not to get tied up in knots about a rejection. Chalk it up to bad luck and move on. Better yet, take your proposal, work on it, make it better, and send out another application.
Where can you find grant announcements?
Poets & Writers keeps a database of grants and residencies. Other databases can be found at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Foundation Center. You can find calls for applications to various programs listed at the back of The Writer’s Chronicle, which all AWP members receive. Keep an eye on social media, where calls for applications often circulate Finally, librarians: university reference and subject librarians can help you access databases and search for appropriate funding sources. All you need to do is ask.
What kind of funding is there to be had?
Of course, there are the big and prestigious awards like the Guggenheim Foundation, the Canada Council for the Arts, the NEA, the Fulbright. Easier to win (though still very competitive) are geographically determined awards, the CALQ (Conseil des Arts et Lettres du Quebec or Quebec Arts Council) or Portland, OR’s Regional Arts & Culture Council.
Artist Residencies are a good way to go for short periods (weeks or months) of uninterrupted work away from home. Some cover all costs; others ask artists to kick in a share of the cost. Sometimes there are small application fees. There are well-known colonies like Yaddo, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Banff Centre for the Arts. Universities, like McGill and the University of Alberta, for example, often have writers-in-residence, so keep an eye out for those too. These are prestigious and coveted positions, but it’s good to have goals!
Don’t overlook library grants. Many public and specialized libraries offer fellowships to writers. Prominent examples include the New York Public Library Fellowships and Chicago’s Newberry Library Fellowships. But smaller libraries run similar programs. Around Montreal, for example, public libraries offer modest fellowships to local writers, so see what your community does that might be comparable.
Other aspects to consider are subject matter and genre. Look for grants available to fund work in a specific genre or in a particular subject: Holocaust studies (Yad Vashem), biography (Leon Levy Biography Fellowships at CUNY), and American history (The Library Company of Philadelphia) are just a few examples of areas in which targeted funding is available.
Think about who you are. There are grants for writing parents, for women, for LGBTQ individuals, for native people, for older emerging writers, for people of color, for nationals of various countries, and so on. There may be a program for you.
Finally, remember that grants beget grants, so don’t sniff at small awards like those of between $500 and $1,500 offered by Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Foundation. I won this grant when my son was a toddler and I managed to buy myself enough childcare to finish my second book.
What makes for a successful proposal and grant application?
- Give a one-sentence description of your project.
- Tell why this project is important. How will it contribute to knowledge? What will it do that’s new and innovative? You may want to boil down the central point of your project in the form of a question (or up to 3 questions).
- The body of the proposal is its longest part. Tell your story here in a number of paragraphs in an engaging way without jargon. Use your storytelling skills to draw the reader of your grant application in as you would any other reader. Be very specific. Never use terms like “and so on” or “etc.” I tend to stay away from references to other works and authors in this section. You must be able to demonstrate that your project original and compelling enough to stand on its own. If you have to rely on the words of others to shore up your proposal, your project may not yet be strong enough.
- How will you achieve your goal? If you are writing a book, tell how much you’ve done and what remains to be finished. How long will it take, and how will you do it? If you have travel plans, then describe them. If there are archives to visit, then say so. If you can give a timeline, then do so. Chapter breakdowns are good (though don’t be overly specific, since this can be dry to read). In some cases, you may want to talk about the overall tone and structure of your project if form is one of your areas of innovation.
- Address the question of finances directly. If you’ve received past funding for this project, describe what you did with those funds. Be specific about how you will use the grant funds you’re now applying for, and be sure to check that your planned uses adhere to the granting agency’s rules. You may have to write a budget, so study the guidelines. If the grant is for $7,000 dollars, then write a budget for $7,000 dollars, not for $24,000 (unless you have another grant for $17,000). I’ve served on grant juries and have seen some odd things in this regard.
- Describe (briefly) your past accomplishments (other publications and fellowships, for example), and talk about how this project relates to your past work and expertise. Is it a departure from what you’ve done before or an evolution? Show that you have forward momentum, that you’re going places, and that your work has a logical trajectory.
- Finally, I like to end a grant application by situating my project within a larger context. How is this project part of something bigger – is it perhaps a rethinking of an historical moment or are you part of a new artistic movement? Who is the audience for this work? Who will care about this project? Is there a place for your book on the shelves of libraries, bookstores of readers’ homes? If you can argue there is, then do so.
- After the grant period is over, always write your final reports (otherwise you can’t get any more grants). What’s more, always acknowledge funding publicly by making a note in the front matter of a book or in a note to an essay as to who funded your work. Finally, let the agency or institution know once something’s come of the project they funded. Doing so will not only help you, but it will help the funding agency.
Happy hunting! Happy writing.
Julija Šukys is an associate professor of creative nonfiction at the University of Missouri and a Senior Editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto (2001) and is the author of three books (Silence is Death, Epistolophilia, and Siberian Exile). Her essay “There Be Monsters” appears as Notable in Best American Essays 2018.