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The Art of the Grant

How to Get Arts Council Funding to Finish Your Book
Guest blog by Sandra Jensen

I am a writer. I am a writer with a chronic illness: M.E./ Chronic Fatigue Syndrome being but two of the names doctors use. I’ve had this for over 25 years, with increasing debilitation. Writing has, in a way, saved my life, giving me a sense of purpose in what is for the most part a very limited existence. I’m just grateful I never had a dream to be a Wimbledon champion!

‘I credit this success largely to two things: practice, and excellent assistance.’

Nevertheless, there are many impediments to writing with a chronic illness: having enough well hours to put in the work on a manuscript, the despair that accompanies a bad stretch, and, to be honest, financial scarcity. When I heard my recent application for an Arts Council England Project Grant was successful, it was an enormous boost. I can now focus on writing rather than how to bring in an income. The grant will pay me a living wage for my writing time, cover professional editing expenses and allow me to share my journey here, with you, via four blogs, two podcasts and a webinar. Most of all, I’ll be able to finish my novel, Seagull Pie. This is a comic coming-of-age story about a 13-year-old girl who wishes her family were the Waltons and her boyfriend Alexander the Great. Instead, her father is dead, her mother is a welder, her older brother makes bombs and her grandmother is waiting for the Ding Dongs to arrive in a “rocketship”.  It is largely based on my own chaotic childhood experiences…

This is my second successful application to ACE, and I credit this success largely to two things: practice, and excellent assistance.

I have made a number of literature grant applications. I’m a Canadian Citizen and am eligible to apply to the Canada Council for the Arts. I lived in Ireland for a number of years, and applied there. In both cases, my initial applications were not successful, but I kept at it until they were. I learned what each organization was looking for, and I also realised that even if an application wasn’t successful, the (often eye-watering lengthy) process was useful creatively: writing a synopsis of a novel or a short story collection is never easy and in doing so, over and over, I discovered aspects, negative and positive, about my project I might have overlooked if I hadn’t made the application in the first place. And, if I had to submit my manuscript with the application, that always inspired me to give it a bit more work.

When I returned to the UK in 2013, I decided to make an application to ACE. The process seemed daunting and complex when compared to the (then) process for Canada and Ireland. And, a few people said without a published book, the likelihood of me being successful was slim at best. I almost decided not to bother – especially given the severe brain fog that is one of my frequent symptoms. It felt as if I’d needed a PhD in the art of grant applications!

But I don’t give up easily. I believed that all I needed was help. The right kind of help. With a bit of online searching I discovered that a number of unpublished writers did in fact receive ACE grants, and many of them were Norwich based. So I approached what was then called the Writers’ Centre Norwich (now National Centre for Writing), one of many regional literature development agencies in England. I was lucky enough to be put in touch with Sam Ruddock, who was at the time Programme Manager for the Centre.

His review of my application was detailed and extraordinarily insightful. He gave me specific suggestions, which I implemented, and after another review with him I sent it off, and was successful. Of course I sought Sam’s help again for this recent application. Since 2013, ACE has implemented a new application process using online software that has its drawbacks so it was extra helpful to have Sam’s encouragement as I went through the process.

For all my grant applications I’ve sought help: preferably from someone familiar with making such applications, but at the very least from someone who understands the creative process and who has a good eye for language. Clarity and confidence are, I believe, critical. It’s not always obvious to me if I’m failing in either area, particularly self-confidence. Essentially you are selling your work, and yourself, so coming across as uncertain isn’t a good idea! I’m also blessed to have a friend who has proofreading experience. She’s caught all my typos and weird sentence constructions.

‘Don’t let yourself be put off by the application process.’

As I have a chronic and unpredictable illness, the open deadlines for the ACE Project Grant are great. I became bed-bound shortly after starting this recent application. It was some time before I could return to it, so I was grateful not to have the extra pressure of a deadline. ACE also offers access costs for the application process – they want to ensure anyone can apply, so if you have a disability that precludes you from using the online system, or another health condition or disability that makes it difficult for you to apply on your own, they will pay for someone to help you.

ACE has a number of guidance sheets and will also answer any questions that come up. If you are not successful, they will offer some feedback on why. Sometimes an application is very good, but there simply are too many very good applications and not enough funding.

I would say five things are vital when making a grant application:

  • Don’t let a lack of self-confidence in your work or yourself stop you from applying
  • Don’t let yourself be put off by the application process
  • Give yourself plenty of time
  • Find someone to help you
  • And, most importantly, don’t give up if you aren’t successful!

Sandra Jensen’s work has been published in a number of literary magazines and journals; her awards include winning the 2019 Bridport Prize for a first novel.

She was a guest writer and panelist at the International Conference on the Short Story and a workshop leader at The Galle Literary Festival, Sri Lanka. She’s received writing and travel grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Arts Council of Ireland and Arts Council England. You can find out more about her at www.sandrajensen.net.

This is the first in a series of blogs that Sandra Jensen will write for Your Writing Launchpad over the next year. We will also be co-hosting a webinar in 2021.

If you would like help in accessing funds to support your writing, you can find out more about how Your Writing Launchpad can help you here.

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Strengthen your Arts Council application

I have read lots of draft applications for funding to Arts Council England. They may have been for the various different pots of money – from the old Artist Development Funds and Grants for the Arts, to the current Developing Your Creative Practice and Project Grants funds – but there are common errors that crop up time and again.

Arts Council funding has always been competitive. The success rate for applications (once the application has met basic criteria) has hovered around 40-45% for years. Now, with Project Grants reopening post-lockdown, it is reasonable to assume that this success rate will plummet.

That makes it more important than ever to ensure your application is as strong as it can be. Tailored feedback from me can help you do this. I would estimate that at least two-thirds of applications I advise are successful, and I offer a ‘You’re ACE’ service to read and feed back on your draft application for a standard fee of £50.

If you can’t afford that at the moment – here are three general tips that can vastly improve your application. Avoid these errors, and your application will have a far higher chance of success.

1. Stop Using Qualifiers
‘I have had some success in my career so far.’
‘In this project I will try to create…’
I get it: most of us hate blowing our trumpet. It can leave us feeling exposed. But it is doing you no favours. If you can’t speak positively about yourself in a funding application, when can you? If you can’t write confidently about your experience, practice, and proposed project, then why would Arts Council chose to fund you? You have to remember that every application is read by someone who (probably) knows nothing about your practice. Using qualifiers in your application serves only to introduce doubt into the subconscious of the person reading your application, raising questions about whether you will be able to deliver your project. Take a marker pen and go through your application crossing out every single qualifier you have used, and read it back. I promise you, it will be stronger.

2. Stop treating ACE like a kind relative
Arts Council England exists to invest in the creation of new work that might not otherwise be able to be made, and to support it to reach audiences. It doesn’t exist to give you money to take time off work to write. Time isn’t the outcome of your application, it is the means to producing the art. This may seem a small distinction – after all, we all need time in order to create new work – but it is crucial. When you introduce your project, talk about the work itself. Excite ACE about what you will create and why it maters. Treat every sentence in an application like an elevator pitch to a prospective investor. Focus on the opportunities rather than the challenges. ACE isn’t going to award you funding because the person reading your application is sympathetic with your challenge. Your application will only be successful if you convince ACE of the artistic value of the project you are proposing.

3. Pay yourself and other artists properly
Arts Council has a remit to support the entire ecosystem of the arts. Decisions on funding are made on the value of investment, rather than a lowest cost basis. Not only do you get no benefit from not paying yourself and other artists properly, you harm your application immeasurably. If you don’t pay yourself an industry standard day rate for research and creation (and probably admin around this, too), then you will be unlikely to be successful. I advice an absolute minimum of £90 day rate for an unpublished author. Other artists should be paid industry standards for their labour, which are often higher than that. You can include unpaid services, but these should only ever be treated as Support In Kind and always demonstrate the value to the person or organisation offering that unpaid service.

I hope these tips are useful to you. Feel free to drop me a line if you would like to take advantage of the ‘You’re ACE’ service, or have any questions. And good luck.