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How to write proposal prose

I got my first grant in my early 20s and have applied for many fellowships, grants, and artist-in-residence programs since. Here I tell you how I approach such applications and share my best tips for writing proposals.

The genre of text required for grant applications and funding proposals is sometimes called »proposal prose«. Hardly anything in cultural production and academia in Germany works without a written effort to obtain funding, and this has led to a language full of phrases that is torturous both for those who write it and for those who read it.

But writing a text in response to a call for proposals can be fun—especially when your whole project or income doesn’t depend on it. And if it’s fun, it’s worth it, even if the effort isn’t rewarded with an acceptance every time. At least that’s what I think. But it may be that I’m making assumptions about others.

50,000 euros for two pages of text

My penchant for proposal prose allowed me to get my master’s degree in the USA. Two years at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the most prestigious art schools in the U.S.—this would have been unthinkable without a Fulbright scholarship.

My application for the scholarship was based on two pages of text: a resume in prose and an explanation of why I absolutely had to study in the USA. The fact that these two pages had an equivalent value of around 50,000 euros impresses me to this day.

Why apply for scholarships?

Money and the desire to bring your own projects to life are the most obvious reasons to apply for grants. But grant and fellowship applications are often time-consuming and the effort doesn’t always pay off financially. For me, it’s still worth it:

Putting my ideas into words for a proposal helps me to reflect on and classify my own work.

The deadlines force me to get to a point and push forward.

Juries that say »cool project« motivate me to keep at it and take my ideas seriously.

Grants, residencies, and awards are good for my reputation as a designer and artist.

For me, these applications are also a kind of gamble: let’s see if it works out!

Where can I find calls for proposals?

The funding finder of the Hamburg Kreativ Gesellschaft is a real treasure trove, not only for regional but also for national funding opportunities. Not every city has an institiution charged specifically with strengthening it’s creative industry. But googling grants always helps, of course.

Pro-Tipp: pay attention to what your colleagues are doing and people you admire. Many list the grants and residencies they’ve received on their vita.

Writing is like designing

For me, writing is easy. While I put myself under pressure when I’m designing—my designs have to be terrific, after all, I went to art school and do this professionally!—I am quite relaxed when copywriting: I don’t have any formal training for it, so I just do it in any way I can.

When I tell other designers that I enjoy writing, they often only half-smile because they have such a hard time with text. But writing is like designing: the creative process is similar, only the result is different.

9 steps to a successful proposal

People who rarely write often think that those who write a lot and like writing simply sit down, whip up polished sentences, and write a fluent text from beginning to end in one go.

But this is rarely the case. For most people, writing is not a linear process, but a cyclical one with multiple steps that you go through several times. After all, when I design, I don’t create the perfect design on the first try either.

I start with notes and sketches, research the topic and gather material. I make a first draft and revise it a few times before showing it to others to get feedback. I revise the draft further, create the final artwork, and only then do I have a presentable result. It’s the same with writing.

My writing process consists of nine steps.

1. Researching

➜ I carefully read the call for applications and analyze it: What is it about? Who gives the money? Who are the jurors?

➠ I put myself in the shoes of the institution that offers the funding. What is important to them?

➨ Does the call for applications sound formal or informal? Which keywords do I see in the text? Can I include these buzzwords in my text?

⇶ What are the criteria for the award? Usually they are clearly stated. I address these points in my application.

➽ How can I make my project or work fit the call?

➳ I take note of the formal requirements. Should everything be submitted digitally in one PDF or by mail? Is there a character limit for the text? Is a certain font size specified or line spacing? What other documents are required—a resume or a portfolio?

➤ I tattoo the deadline on my arm and aim to have my application done two days before the deadline to make sure that I’m actually done five minutes before.

2. Brainstorming

➽ I jot down all ideas in bullet points and half-sentences.

➸ I do this on paper because it gives me a better overview.

3. Writing the rough draft

➜ Based on my notes, I write everything out—without stopping and without paying attention to grammar and spelling.

➸ It’s ok if the rough draft is really, really bad; writing a shitty first draft is perfectly fine, because it will be revised x times anyway. It’s just about creating the raw material that you need to do the real work: editing.

4. Edit, edit, edit

➽ When I revise my first draft, I knead the raw text and make it more concise. I cut out everything the text does not absolutely need. Deleting text this way feels like writing backwards. The final version is usually only a third as long as the raw version.

➦ I strive for clarity and brevity. Jurors often do jury work on a voluntary basis; they don’t have much time. This spring, I was on a jury myself for the first time and now I know how much terse, well-structured texts increase the likelihood that they will be read.

⇶ Editing also means deleting worn out phrases and filler words. The jurors are human beings; no one wants to read phrases.

➸ I make my text reflect some of the wording from the call for entries.

➤ I decide on an interesting and catchy lead for the beginning of the text – a picture, an idea, a statement.

➠ I try to stay true to my own language. In the past, I often straightened up inwardly when writing and then wrote formally and stiffly because I thought that official texts had to sound like that. But they don’t have to. They have to sound like me.

➜ While I write, I read the text aloud to myself to check it’s sound and rhythm.

➦ To distance myself from the text, I print it out, read it aloud, and correct it on paper. This way I notice discrepancies more quickly.

5. Proofreading

➽ I have almost every one of my texts proofread. There are three or four friends, I can always ask to comment on my texts and in return I read theirs.

➤ I ask for specific feedback. Not just »What do you think of this?« but »Where is something unclear?«, »Which parts did you find interesting?«, »When were you bored?«

➜ I get feedback from different people—some see the structure of a text, others pay attention to details.

➸ Along with my text, I send my feedback friends the call for applications as context so that they know what I am referring to.

➳ When I have their feedback, I decide which comments I want to consider and which to ignore. Not every feedback is useful and valid.

6. Editing in the feedback

Step 6 is like step 3—I edit again, taking feedback into account.

7. Final proofreading

Finally, I have the text proofread again. If no one has time to help me with this, I read the text on paper or in a PDF, which makes it easier to spot mistakes. At this point, it’s all about spelling and grammar, not about the content and structure of the text.

8. Fine-tuning

I correct the spelling and make any final changes.

9. Design and layout

I usually organise the text as I write it, adding subheadings, spaces, and emphasis. Designers have a clear advantage here, because they know how to structure a text visually so that it looks appealing and is easy to read.

Be brave!

The preparatory seminar for the 250 Fulbright scholarship holders of my year took place in a fancy hotel at Berlin’s Alexander Platz. »YOU are some of the smartest people of your country!« we were told. Really?!

Scholarships are only for the very talented—this assumption persists. In reality, many don’t even try, which increases their chances. And when you’ve been funded once, it becomes easier for other juries to invest in you, too. So just give it a try, it costs nothing, just a little time and energy.

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