Many new writers soon face the hard truth that making a living solely from writing is extremely difficult. Both the fantastic anthology Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin, and a recent article by Canadian writer Leah Horlick speak to this reality.
A long time ago, I accepted that I would likely never make much income from my creative writing. Then, when the pandemic hit and I found myself suddenly back home in Canada after eight years abroad, I decided it was time to apply for my first writing grant.
At first, I feared the lengthy application process would end up being a lot of work for nothing. But once I submitted the proposal, I was elated. I felt a new excitement and clarity about my long-time memoir-in-progress and was motivated to follow the steps I’d outlined regardless of whether my manuscript received funding. Simply applying for the grant had proven to be a useful career-building and project-planning exercise, providing me with:
- A clear articulation of my project description and goals, many of which I’ll refashion into my book proposal.
- A realistic, well-thought-out timeline for the completion of my project, which I decided to embrace regardless of whether funding comes through.
- Raw material to shape for future grant applications. Questions and word counts will vary, but I can adjust my responses to fit into a new grant proposal. A blinking cursor on a blank page can make me break out into a sweat, so having something already on the screen is a big plus.
- A serious evaluation of the risks and challenges of my project activities, and how I plan to address them. My memoir deals with trauma, so I incorporated a slower pace into my timeline to allow for a self-care routine including a healthy diet, exercise, and meditation. I noted that I would regularly check in with my body and its limits, and seek outside support from close friends and a therapist.
- CONFIDENCE! Talking about my creative accomplishments and polishing already strong writing samples filled me with pride. It was a great way to remind myself of how far I’d come in only a few years. Since submitting, I’ve reviewed my grant documents a few times when I’ve felt down, and they’ve helped reassure me that my hard work is leading somewhere worthwhile.
- Appreciation for the people who’ve helped me to get here. This included the people who offered guidance and feedback on my application, as well as everyone who helped me develop as a writer along the way. The breadth and depth of the grant questions pushed me to ‘zoom out’ and situate my creative life in a bigger context. Seeing everything come together in a handful of pages left me feeling both awe and gratitude.
If I knew I’d gain so much from submitting a grant proposal, I would have put one together much earlier!
After an extended break, I began signing up for information sessions and discovered more grant programs. An application for a research grant helped me further refine the steps I will take to examine my collection of old documents, track down legal records, and talk to family. Though I didn’t end up receiving funding, I will still follow this approach. Another application for a professional development grant encouraged me to map out my next project and the activities that would support it. Even if it isn’t successful, I’ve now settled on an exciting new idea for my next manuscript that would have otherwise not been on my radar.
Regardless of whether it results in funding to help sustain a writing practice, I’ve found that the grant proposal exercise has helped me think about my writing career in the long term, allowing me to better prepare for what might be coming next.
GRANT WRITING TIPS
There are many resources offering tips for applying for grants. A fantastic, free manual I highly recommend is this guide to grant writing, which I followed last fall to complete my very first application. It focuses on programs in Canada, but the principles can be applied to grantors in many other countries. Whenever I felt overwhelmed by the process, which was often, I opened up this guide and followed its advice.
Here are the best tips I’ve learned from this whole process:
- Get started early. Give yourself plenty of time to put together the application. For my first grant that was due in October, I worked on it piecemeal beginning in early August, and my pace of work increased with time. In the final week before the deadline, I blazed through the rest of my proposal for eight days straight. Having this extra time allowed me to go through the documents at my own pace. And some of that extra time was necessary: it took four to six weeks for my profile to be approved before I could begin filling out the application itself.
- Have a clear project in mind and make sure it fits the granting criteria. I was lucky to have a memoir project near completion. Having a clear vision of my endpoint helped when writing the project description and reflecting on the other grant questions. The near-complete draft was saddled with a lot of old writing, so I proposed that with funding I would write the remaining 20,000 words to complete it, consult old letters and journals for research, and then revise and proofread the manuscript to prepare it to send to agents.
- Get outside help. Many organizations are happy to answer questions from applicants and even offer feedback on a specific project idea and how it might fit the grant’s criteria. Be sure to ask a friend or fellow writer to look over your application for any typos or issues with clarity.
- Don’t take the results personally. There are many reasons why excellent projects may not receive a grant this time. Budgets can change from year to year, affecting the number and amount of grants available. Grant review committees and their personal preferences also change, and your position in your particular cohort will shift each time too. Instead of feeling down about yourself or the writers who received a grant, focus on what you can learn from the process. Does the program offer feedback? Try asking successful applicants in your orbit if they have tips and resources they can share. Perhaps they can offer feedback on your next application. If it will help, avoid social media during the time you expect the results to be released.
- Keep applying! Now you have a head start on those same grants next year, and they may have more funding then, in addition to different readers. In a recent grant workshop, the presenter said it was okay to submit the same application two or three times to the same grant. But after three rejections, it may be a sign that the project needs to be sharpened or the application needs to be strengthened. Take another look at what you have and keep trying!
- Use your past grant applications as a basis for your next one. The questions and application criteria will vary a little for each grant, but I’ve found that my original project description and other replies can be tweaked to fit new grant applications. And any new writing becomes a draft toward another granting question in the future, or even your query letter or book proposal.
I’m thrilled to report that six months after submitting my first-ever grant proposal, I got the grant!
– Guide to Grant Writing by Sierra Skye Gemma and Chelene Knight. It focuses on Canada but the tips and strategies are applicable elsewhere.
– Some grants to get you started:
Check residency requirements for each grant. For example, the Canada Council for the Arts is available to Canadian citizens and residents of Canada, while provincial and city grants are often available to residents of a year or more.
*Disabled creators can apply for application assistance, but remember to apply extra early! See their websites for more details.
My American friends tell me that fellowships tend to be more common than grants, where if chosen you receive a lump sum of money for your project in exchange for also performing specific tasks. Check with local universities and your state and local arts councils for grant and fellowship opportunities in your area.
National: National Endowment for the Arts
This Twitter thread gathers opportunities open to writers in Asia, Commonwealth countries, and elsewhere.
The Write Life’s collection of international grants from 2016 may still be relevant; be sure to check each grant to see if it’s still operating in 2021.
Funds for Writers lists grants available in the U.S., Canada, the U.K, and Australia.
What grants are available in your area? Please let us know in the comments so we can share resources. Thank you! And good luck with your next grant proposal. Remember that no matter what happens, it’s a fantastic career-building exercise!