Writing a Proposal

Proposals come in many shapes and sizes: from simple fellowship applications that require a work sample, a brief description and bio, to lengthy project proposals that involve budget spreadsheets, significant writing and other supporting materials. Frequently, we are creating proposals for work we have not yet completed. This means we have to find ways to make a panelist or program officer see what does not yet exist. It’s a big challenge, but a worthy one.

While grants and other opportunities requiring applications won’t be used to fully fund your artistic career, they should be a part of your ongoing professional practice. They can help you take major steps forward; just the act of applying puts your materials before a room full of experts in your field.

Making Proposal Writing Manageable

Make it really good.
The materials representing your work have to be the best they can be, because the people looking at your proposal will not have seen your work in person. If your proposal sings, if the writing is clear and direct, the work sample is focused and compelling, and the budget adds up, those same singing traits will be attributed to the work itself. Of course, the converse is also true. If there are typos and the dimensions of a piece are confusing to understand, panelists will assume your work is not as rigorous as it could be.

Imagine being on the other side of the table.
It is important to know what the readers of your proposal have to contend with. Often they are reading many hundreds of applications in a short period of time and seeing a hundred or more work samples in a day. To maximize your impact, keep in mind that high-concept writing is less successful than clear and passionate language, and that you need to present your best work first.
Put yourself in the shoes of the reader. Imagine this: It’s four in the afternoon and you’ve been looking at proposals since 8:30am. Mostly in the dark. For the third day in a row. You’ve had a heavy lunch and some cookies and the coffee has run out. You’re trying to keep up with the conversation but there are eight other people in the room, each with their own opinions, tastes and something to say. This is the person you want to write for, not your best friend or collaborator. This person desperately wants to be wowed, but may have obstacles getting in the way of their enthusiasm. You want your materials to help that person get behind your work. A panel wants to do a great job of figuring out which proposals are the most deserving of support. They are struggling to glean as much from each application as they can. Your job is to help them understand your work and how it fits within the parameters of their stated mission and guidelines.

Your proposal should:

  1. Be clearly presented, typed, spell-checked and easy to follow.
  2. Adhere to the application guidelines.
  3. Reflect the mutual interests between you and the funder.
  4. Reflect your knowledge of a funder’s guidelines, prior funding commitment or a donor’s interests in your materials.
  5. Be on time, complete and not loaded down with irrelevant materials.


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