How many hours do we put into our work? Days? Weeks? Months? YEARS?? Soooooo much time. And yet, when the opportunity comes time to apply for a nice chunk of change to help us stay in our studios, buy supplies, travel to conferences, and y'know, make a living AS artists in a system that generally treats us as though we are little better than a kid with a lemonade stand in winter, oh, the slacking that ensues. Frankly, it's embarrassing. If we can't play the same game the rest of the world plays in terms of professionalism, how can we be expected to be taken seriously? And by taken seriously, I mean getting COMPENSATED the way we should be for all those years of training, 60 hour weeks in the studio, and sacrificed activities and relationships we can never get back? And by compensated, I mean PAID.
So, my dear compatriots, for whom I wish nothing but the best with regard to your continued success, here are a few tips from your friendly neighborhood artist/activist who has taken several turns as a grant/fellowship reviewer, as well as the recipient of several awards herself.
1) Every working artist needs the following on tap AT ALL TIMES which can be tweaked according to the application guidelines:
* Artist Bio - Keep two types of bios saved on your desktop/USB drive. A short 50 word bio and something a little longer, but no more than 200 words. That way, you can drag, drop, or easily tweak to fit the needs of the application.
* Artist Resume - Keep it to a page or so, certainly not more than two. This should include your current and past professional positions that pertain to your current artistic occupation, gigs, publications, events, awards, recognitions, by the year/date. You should be keeping a calendar full of these anyway.
* Artist Statement - 250 words or so explaining your aesthetic, your process, what drives you, inspires you, and who your influences are (personal as well as professional), and how all of this shows up in your work. Be specific. Use an example or two.
* Work Sample - This is going to differ depending on the medium, but you should be able to pull up 10-12 poems, 15-30 pages of prose, 10-15 images, 3-5 videos, etc. that have either been published/exhibited by a CREDIBLE publication or gallery or performance hall or whatever. Do not under any set of circumstances turn in material that is un-workshopped (and by workshopped, I don't mean a quick spell-check, I mean revised based on the feedback of an objective audience). If it's already been published, you know it's suitable for public consumption. Don't be turning in the dance routine you made up in your bedroom or the piece you wrote a month ago because you're just really feeling that topic right now.
* Elevator Pitch of Current Project - No more than a sentence of two of what you are currently working on. Have a pitch for each project.
* Letters of Reference - Have a list of maybe 5-7 credible people you know and have worked with or who know your work really well (NOT FAMILY MEMBERS) in mind who have already agreed that they would be willing to craft a letter of reference on your behalf. Then, when the time comes, give them PLENTY of time so they're not pressured to write something the night before which could strain your relationships and just come out sort of half-assed. Give these people a copy of your resume, your artist statement, and your elevator pitch of the project if it is specific to that, and let them know if you got the award or not. Make sure you THANK THEM lots of times to let them know how appreciative you are of their time and energy spent on your behalf when they could be doing at least five-hundred other things. Keep copies of the letter and if you need them to dust it off down the road, all they have to do is change the date. Help them help you.
2) When panelists are reading through the material, this is the only impression we have of you. Often, the judging is blind and sourced from out-of-town. If not, and a panelist has a conflict of interests, they have to state that up front and inform the organization and withdraw themselves from the conversation about your work. So, typically your work is going to be reviewed and assessed by strangers. This is the only shot you have at standing out, so make sure you're not standing out for the wrong reasons. Make sure the following happens before you press that submit button or drop your app off in the mail:
* Clean Copies - Make sure if the work is a hard copy, you send the exact number of neat, PAPER-CLIPPED (unless otherwise stated) collated copies of everything the application requires. Use plain type, single-spaced (unless otherwise stated), no smaller than 11 pt font. Don't mess with the margins. If you're including a budget for a project, make sure it's large and easy to read on some sort of table with explanations of numbers. All physical samples including DVD's and CD's should be clearly labeled and tested BEFORE you send. If it's in Dropbox or something, links should include at least your last name and a sample number/title.
* K.I.S.S. Method - Avoid jargon and technical terms that require a lot of explaining or will alienate the reviewer who may or may not be familiar with your exact process. Avoid large words and long convoluted sentences. I might have a hundred other applications to get through. I'm human. If you bore me, I will glaze over. Bullet points are your friend. So are paragraphs. And bold type to separate sections.
* Fully answer all the questions - If you have 3,000 words to tell us about your process and you write three junky little sentences, uh, how am I supposed to know what you're tryna use this $$$ for or if you even deserve it?? Also, follow all the directions in the application. If they want you to only list your name on every third page, then do it. Do everything they ask down to the letter!
* Proofread your work - Don't just read on the screen when you're typing. Print it out and read it aloud. You'll catch tons of errors that way. I've even heard of people reading it on their Kindle because the perspective changes. Also, learn the rules of semi-colons or don't use them.
3) Keep an open-mind. Sometimes applications have little to do with the work sample and more to do with missing components in the application itself. Remember, when you're playing the game, don't let the game play you! I've seen plenty of applications come through where the work sample is off the chain and so is the resume, but the artist statement is either really pretentious and unnecessarily long-winded, or way too short and smacks of entitlement "Just give me the dang award already! Can't you see how magnificent I am??" Sometimes parts are left out altogether. Important parts. Don't be ashamed or give up if you don't get the award the first or second time even. Crafting an application like this is an art in and of itself. The more you do it, the better you'll become, so save your work! Thankfully, most processes will offer you some feedback from the reviewers or a workshop beforehand which you should attend if you're a first-timer for sure and ask lots of questions. Keep talking about the project to anyone who will listen. Ask a friend to go over the application with you or at least listen to you talk about it. Buy them lunch or something to grease the wheels. Record the conversation if you feel comfortable doing that. Most people are better at saying than writing anyway. Even for a lot of writers this is true, when it comes to talking specifically about their work. Talk long enough and eventually you'll get to the heart of why you want this award.
4) Give yourself plenty of time to turn in the application. The last minute thing will show like a wonky seam in your materials. If there's software online you have to register to use, create an account at least a month before the deadline and plan on turning in the application at least ten days before the deadline in case there are kinks, setbacks, stalled screens, finger fumbles, etc. Same with the hard copies. You'll need multiple copies of your work samples, at least one trip to Kinkos, and so on.
I may not be able to give you the award, folks, and this all may seem like common sense, but as an occasional reviewer, trust me, it's not common sense to PLENTY of people. And if you follow these suggestions, you're almost guaranteed to get out of the slush pile and onto the next round!