I am not great at a lot of things, but I am great at writing grants. Not my own, particularly, but for others. I fell into grant writing out of necessity—writing my own in my contemporary dancer days, and then writing them for friends, and now, it’s my full-time gig, writing grants for artist and non-profits. I know a lot of people hate grants—they can be daunting and intimidating, but I love them—I get to tell the stories of artists and their projects, of company’s amazing ideas in tiny short forms—300 words here, and 750 words there. I love the constraints, especially when my other writing (the novel kind of writing) sprawls on and on indefinitely!
I also love the timelines. Unlike writing novels that takes, well, forever for me, grants have hard deadlines and once they’re done, they’re done!
It’s not always easy to translate your writing project into the tiny spaces in a grant portal, but it can be helpful to reframe the process and remember that grant writing is storytelling.
Here are my top 13 grant writing tips:
1). My very first tip, and if it’s the only thing you take away from this, let it be this: BE SPECIFIC. As specific as you can possibly be. Be specific in all of your answers. Be specific in your budget—no rounding up or rounding down, put in ACTUAL researched numbers. If your project requires travel, find out EXACT fares and put them in. If your project involves interviews, be specific about WHO you will be interviewing instead of vague generalities. “A collection of poems” is great, but “A collection of 42 poems” is even stronger, EVEN IF you don’t know for sure-for sure what the final number in the collection will be. I’m not advocating lying by any means, but take a moment and really think about what you want the project to be and add that in.
2). ALWAYS write your grant in a word doc (or equivalent) instead of straight into the portal. Portals crash ALL THE TIME. Portals don’t autosave. Portals are the BANE OF MY EXISTENCE. In word docs, you can edit and tweak, and most importantly, cut and paste for other grants!
3). Have a title. Know that it can always change, but put one in. Giving money to “Work in progress” is not as compelling as giving money to a project with a title.
4). Direct language is your friend: Example: “With this funding, I will complete a novel-length manuscript about Polkaroo”—it’s direct and clear—versus: “I am hoping to work on a book about Polkaroo.”
5). In the question about your proposed project, don’t begin with your plot synopsis, but instead start with an overview of the project—themes, ideas, etc. Start big picture, then you can go into a plot synopsis.
6). Include where you’re at in the process—a first draft, half of a draft, less than that even—and then include what you want to do with the funding: complete a full draft, do research, conduct 13 interviews, integrate feedback from confirmed beta readers, etc.
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7). Word counts: on the questions about you and your project, try to get as close to the word count limits as possible. You have a 500-word (ish) window to shine, so use as much of it as you can.
8). In the Canada Council grants (and others), there’s always a pesky question about your artistic development and advancing artistic practice. It can be daunting, BUT try to reframe it and see it as an opportunity to let you and your project shine. Start with you: spell out what have you done in the past writing-wise, and then how this new project builds on those themes/projects/ideas, and include what you’re exploring that’s new for you and your work. And for the advancing artistic practice: this one can be hard! I suggest including a bunch of other books/writers/traditions you’re inspired by, and how your book builds on that work, and how it will be different.
9). For the timeline Q (and I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but): BE SPECIFIC. Break it up month-by-month and include what you’re going to accomplish each month—completing the first section, integrating feedback from beta readers, interviewing XX person, etc. Of course this is a guideline for you, not a timeline that is carved into stone, but it lets jurors know that you’ve really thought about what the project will require, and how you’re going to achieve it. (It also can be helpful when you get the funding to stay on track!)
10). This is a small thing, but when you copy and paste text into the portal, it takes out all of the formatting, so I like to put titles in quotation marks (instead of italicizing).
11). Budget: BE SPECIFIC! For Canada Council grants (and Toronto Arts Council grants), childcare expenses are eligible! Note: you can’t buy computers as a grant expense, but include expenses like printing off your manuscript, any required travel, etc.
12). When you get the grant, celebrate! And then make sure your formally accept the money (sometimes you can split up the money over two fiscal years if that’s helpful tax-wise). Remember that you have to pay tax on grant funding (don’t even get me started), and write down the report due date in your calendar so you don’t forget!!
13). If you don’t get the grant, mourn! Rage if you need. Text your writing friend and commiserate, then shake it off, remember that everyone receives grant rejections. THEN, and this is the most important part: reapply at the next deadline. You might want to review the text, the budget, etc, but you’ve done the bulk of the work. REAPPLY!!!!
Great grants for Ontario/Toronto-based writers:
Canada Council for the Arts’ Research & Creation grants (max. $25,000)
Ontario Arts Council’s Recommender Grants for Writers (generally people apply for ~$2,000)
Toronto Arts Council Writers Program ($5,000 for writers in the early stages of their career / $10,000 for writers with an established writing career)
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Lindsay Zier-Vogel is an author, arts educator, grant writer, and the creator of the internationally acclaimed Love Lettering Project. After studying contemporary dance, she received her MA in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto. She is the author of the acclaimed debut novel Letters to Amelia and her work has been published widely in Canada and the UK. Dear Street is Lindsay’s first picture book, and is a 2023 Junior Library Guild pick, a 2023 Canadian Children’s Book Centre book of the year, and has been nominated for a Forest of Reading Blue Spruce Award. Since 2001, she has been teaching creative writing workshops in schools and communities, and as the creator of the Love Lettering Project, Lindsay has asked people all over the world to write love letters to their communities and hide them for strangers to find, spreading place-based love.