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Money to Write By: A Brief Guide to Grants for Writers (Part I)

For aspiring fiction writers, the typical model of professional practice is to write the whole thing then shop it around, whether to agents, publishers, or directly to readers through self-publishing and self-promotion. Payment (if any) happens long after the work is done. This means not only that income is almost always a gamble, but that critical work time is financially unsupported and often hard to come by. I work as a research administrator for scientists, who also have to do a lot of work before any payoff. The ones I know support their work largely through grants and fellowships. While grants for writers aren’t as numerous (or as lucrative) as grants for scientists, they are out there. This post is a mini-introduction to strategies for finding, selecting, and applying for money to write by. Grants for writing won’t make you rich or give you a cushy life, but they might give you the quiet time you need to finish the critical work.

Types of Funding. There are two basic types of funding available for writers—grants and residential fellowships.

  1. Grants A few agencies will give writers a grant–money to use as the writer sees fit (e.g. pay bills, pay for travel research, pay for supplies) to forward the completion of a project. The National Endowment for the Humanities or the National Endowment for the Arts are good examples of public agencies that provide this kind of award. The Sustainable Arts Foundation is an example of a private foundation that provides this kind of funding. These are highly competitive grants, they get oodles of applications, which means each applicant has low odds of winning.
  2. Residential Fellowships. If your expectation is that writer’s retreats–whether as a small private group or part of an arranged, organized program–always cost money (and often a lot of it), then think again. There are dozens of agencies and foundations across the U.S. (and the world) that provide writers with some version of expenses-paid writing retreat. Some simply provide the room; some also provide board. A very few will provide funds to offset travel costs to and from the retreat location. Many have very specific eligibility requirements (residency within a specific state, gender, types of work, etc.) that reduce the applicant pool and that increase the chance of winning for applicants who do meet those eligibility requirements.

To successfully apply for a grant of any variety requires three steps: A. finding grant opportunities, B. selecting among all those enticing options the opportunities that are worth your time and effort, and C. writing a killer proposal. [This post covers items A. and B.; a later blog will discuss item C.]

A. Finding Grants/Fellowships to Apply For. The internet has made searching for grants easier than ever. You can use google—try typing in ‘best writer’s retreat in x” or “grants for writers with families” and see what shows up. But there are some websites that have done some of your searching for you already. The following is a list of some useful web resources. [Readers–If you’re aware of other resources that should go on this list, please add it to the comments and I will add to this list]

While the internet is a great resource, don’t neglect the personal approach. There are often local funds and foundations that are best discovered through personal networking rather than surfing the internet. Check at local institutions—historical societies, libraries, non-profits–and ask the staff if they know of any agencies or foundations that support local arts and artists, including writers.

B. Selecting Opportunities that are Worth Your Time. Finding grants is like guided dreaming—as a writer you can imagine yourself winning each opportunity and contemplate all of the wonderful consequences. Before you apply to any grant, though, you need to stop dreaming about having won and assess whether or not a grant is worth your time. Each grant comes with different benefits, and sometimes different requirements. Some charge application fees, so applying is not ‘free.’ In the end, the opportunities worth applying for are those that meet three criteria: 1. The prize has to be something you can and will actually use; 2. You have to meet all the eligibility requirements; and 3. You have to be a competitive applicant for the grant.

  1. Is the prize useful to me? Focus your attention on choosing which grant opportunities actually fit your project, your life, and your own writing needs. The most useful grant is not the most lucrative or prestigious—it is the one that gives you exactly what you need to do the work. You could win a highly regarded month-long residential fellowship, but if you can only get away from your life (day job, family, etc.) for two weeks, it’s not so valuable. Winning an all expenses paid retreat is also fabulous, but if winter depresses you and inhibits your creativity and writing, and the retreat is in Alaska in January, it might not be for you. Similarly if you write best in absolute solitude, applying for a grant that provides communal housing and requires group interaction at meals is not going to be the smartest choice. The best advice I can give for whittling down the list of possibilities is to trust your instincts, and to focus on opportunities that remain attractive even as you learn all the details about them.
  2. Am I Eligible? The list of eligibility requirements for a grant can be very short or very long (gender, residency, style of writing, specific dates of availability). In general, the shorter the list of requirements, the larger the applicant pool. So if you are new to applying for a grant, focus your efforts on the smaller grants for which you match a long list of eligibility requirements.
    • You must meet all requirements to make it worth applying. If the grant says you have to be a resident of a specific state, and you live just across the border, you are out of luck. If it says you need to have a draft in progress, then you need to have a manuscript that is beyond an outline and chapter one.
    • If you have any uncertainty about a specific eligibility requirement—ask the granting agency what their ruling is on the question before you submit the application. It will save everyone time and effort.
    • Beyond whether you are eligible, read through all the requirements of what is required of grant winners and make sure you can fulfil them. If you have to give a public presentation during the grant term or at the end of it, and you absolutely loathe public speaking, then it might not be the best award for you.
  3. Am I competitive? This is probably the most nebulous but the most crucially important question to answer. It requires a level of self-awareness that few have as to where their work fits on the spectrum of applications. Fortunately, the answer has to do with not just where you are on the road to publication, but how well you and your project match the granting agency’s agendas and goals. You should be able to answer the following questions with a resounding yes to be a competitive applicant.
    • Can I meet the Prerequisites? If the application requires you to submit a published writing sample, and you have not yet published anything, then you are not competitive. If the application requires you to have a recommendation from one of the members of the foundation board, if you don’t know a board member, either find a way to meet one or don’t bother to apply.
    • Does my project match the stated focus of the Funding Agency? For example, if the agency supports socially transformative work, you should be able to explain how your work is transformative. If you can’t, then you are not competitive.
    • Is my work a good fit, not just in topic and focus, but in level of writing and scope of work? This is a tough question because it requires assessing how others see your project and you. If you have colleagues who are capable of giving you honest feedback, then buy them a drink and pick their brains. It’s also helpful to go through the published list of prior winners of the award. How would you fit in that group? How does your project fit with what they produced? Are they headed for careers that are exactly what you want? If they are your ‘peers’ then you might be a competitive applicant. If you are the odd duck on that list, then you might not be.
    • Is there a personal connection? This is not a crucial question, but it is an important one for determining whether or not to apply. In this day and age, personal connections still bear weight. If you know someone with knowledge of the grant who sincerely recommended you apply for the award, then it is a good bet you should apply.

If you follow these steps, you will end up with a list of possible opportunities. From there it’s a matter of prioritizing which ones to apply for, juggling the deadlines, assembling the pieces of the application, and most of all– writing a killer proposal. I’ll write about that in the next post.

Have you ever applied for a grant or fellowship for writers?  How was your experience? Is there anything that you want to know about finding and selecting opportunities that isn’t answered above?

photo available at: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1372403 [7]