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Writing Well

Writing Exercises by Witheyes on Flickr Creative Commons

Writing Exercises by Witheyes on Flickr Creative Commons

One of the things you get a lot of practice doing when taking on this kind of work is writing – for grant applications, press materials, other supporting documents. There are a few things I have learned along the way, and they may not necessarily be what would get you through a masters writing program, but they seem to work for me:

1. Love the outline. Put down the list of things you want or need to address in your proposal* and then reorganize that in a manner that makes your story compelling. This helps to organize your thoughts and ensures you get everything in up front. (Writing the bulk and then adding big pieces of information can make the writing seem disjointed).

2. Write once, twice and three times. Write your project proposal. Then put that away and write it again. Then if you have it in you, write it one more time. Then take out all three documents and use them to write the final version. I don’t usually manage to do this up front (although often at least twice) but I find that it isn’t until about the third grant application that things are written well.

3. Write in the third person. I sometimes find it helpful to write about the work from an outside point of view. I wrote a press release about myself and my work to get a better perspective of what might be interesting to other people (not just me) and what facts were really important to include.

4. Remember the 3 C’s: Clear Concise Compelling. Check your writing, does it achieve each of these? Or is it convoluted, wordy and interesting mostly to you. Make use of the outline to help with clarity. Also avoid jargon, assume your audience doesn’t know what you know. (Just because the app is for an environmental grant, don’t assume they know what you mean by remediation or urban heat island, or if applying to art grants, while you can assume art historical references, your ability to clearly communicate your ideas is better than using overly academic language). Don’t be afraid to use simple language (more syllables isn’t necessarily better). To ensure that it is concise, try tip #5. For compelling, ask other people what they find interesting about your work/project, you may be surprised.

5. Characters count. Self impose a character count. If there is one already, write generously and then go back and edit, trim, delete and edit again. You will be surprised at how much this aids in achieving clarity & concision (is that a word?) And don’t be afraid to be brutal with your editing, it often helps.

6. Have a busy person read it. My friend Aaron Landsman is a big proponent of this, he suggests grabbing someone on their way out the door. I use my busy or distracted friends. If someone who doesn’t have time to read it thoroughly can both get the gist of the project and get excited about it, then the writing works. Also remember that most of your audience – whether journalists or panelists – aren’t going to have much time to devote to reading your proposal.

7. Use bullets & lists. This is a great way to organize data or call out important information. I always do this for listing project goals or process steps. It enables the reader to learn a lot in a scan.

8. Pay it forward. If you are admittedly a terrible writer or disorganized in your thinking/writing, then hire someone to help you. But make sure that you also learn from them. Have them go over their recommended edits & changes with you and that they explain it to you. This becomes invaluable knowledge for you to use on future writing projects. (Paying a good grant writer to work with you once can pay off for many years of your own writing).

Other resources:

*I’m using the term “proposal” but most of this applies to everything you are writing about your project.

Do you have some ideas that help you write about your work? Share them in the comments…

Where’s the puppy?

There’s a saying in the non-profit world regarding fundraising efforts. The question is “where’s the puppy?”

What that means is ‘show me what I am paying for’ and ‘make it compelling.’ Ultimately it also means appeal to my heart, not my mind.

If you are embarking on a fundraising drive, make sure you let people know what they are paying for and why. The best way to do that is to give concrete examples of how their money will support the project, i.e.:

  • $25 will pay for 2 bags of chalk (which will mark 6 miles)
  • $50 will pay for a lighted beacon (there will be 50 in total)
  • $100 will pay for 200 information packets, and
  • $1000 will pay for the tricycle for transportation

If you can, include pictures relevant to the project.

So if you are writing an email or a letter, first describe the project (be concise!) Then your suggested donations. Finally,make sure you have a call to action: “donate now.”

Here’s a great example from Julia Mandle Performance.

Artiscycle Platform

My friend, Chris Kennedy was interviewing me for a project he is working on – one which will be valuable to artists who work in communities. The working project information is on his site. The summary or basic premise is that he is looking to archive and codify the work that artists are creating in communities and through that provide a tool for educators and non-profit organizations to connect with art and or artists to help realize their goals. While a pretty huge undertaking, the project would be extraordinarily helpful for both sides.

He and I both have talked at length about the power of experiential learning and the accessibility that art has within communities. We tried to talk more in depth about how or if this kind of work is measurable and or even anecdotal-ly effective. I had a couple of anecdotal pieces to share with him, but nothing in the way of metrics.

Sal Randolphs What Do You Vote For?

Sal Randolph's What Do You Vote For?

We also talked about what are barriers (besides funding – the biggest most obvious one) to participatory, community, interactive, *insert cliche here* types of work. I decided that it was a lack of knowledge on three fronts.

From the educational/non-profit side, a lack of knowledge in the ability of artists & their work to be effective in either educational or initiative efforts.

From the artist side, a lack of ability to talk about one’s work in a language that matters to the educators/non-profits. (Maybe this is a matter of lack f knowledge as well, not knowing what outcomes the other party might be seeking).

And finally, an institutional lack of knowledge – this explains the funding gap, but I think also the knowledge gap. Arts institutions aren’t showcasing or talking about this kind of work. And art educational institutions (at the university level) are not educating their students about this kind of work and therefore artists are not equipped to think or speak about their own work in a way that helps create a sustainable career.

To Do by Illegal Art

To Do by Illegal Art

Now, I should throw in a disclaimer that these are crass generalizations, there are definitely educators, non-profits, institutions and educational institutions who absolutely get it. It’s just not broad knowledge.

This is where I think the Artiscycle Platform becomes valuable. If even one person within an organization is interested in working with arts/artists, the Platform will give them the tools to promote this within their own organization.

Another point that we talked about, which I think is worth reprinting/reiterating here is my answers to two questions that Chris posed. What’s the most valuable piece of advice that you could offer anyone working on this type of project, and what do you think causes failures?

My answer to the first was to think big, really big. The larger the project that you take on, the greater its impact.

The second was that you absolutely must consider the impact that your project will have on a community – and you must think through this conscientiously and considerately.(I talked about this in the post, Know Your Audience).

Funny enough, I think those two could also be switched, the best advice would be to know your audience and the cause of failure would be to think too small. (With all the work ahead of you the payoff should be big!)

Leah Gauthiers Sharecropper

Leah Gauthier's Sharecropper

Interestingly enough, two of the events I just posted are addressing some of these questions:

I would love to hear other people’s thoughts on this as well.