Apply yourself: how to improve your application writing skills

  • Scribal Drift by Meg Rahaim (Printmaking 2014)

Writing about your practice can be a daunting task. How do you put into words the ideas you have been developing visually? How do you communicate your practice effectively to potential employers, funders, or clients? Writing about your work is a necessary part of any art and design practice, and although it may seem difficult to begin with, it can be a really productive and rewarding experience. Not only can it help you to communicate your ideas more effectively to others, it can also give you renewed clarity and insight into what you are doing. Here’s a run-through of the process of writing an application, from reading the call to writing about your work, focusing on practical strategies for writing and editing

Reading the call

Begin by reading the call through carefully. Print it out and read it through a few times, underlining key points to address.

When you think you've understood everything, make headings on a separate piece of paper for the main elements you need to include, such as artist's statement, CV, proposal, and images of your work. Then, within each of these, list any specific points that the call has asked you to address, for example they may ask you to explain why your work would specifically benefit from receiving this residency, funding or opportunity.

Your list should be written out on a piece of paper or printed out when it's finished, so you have it on hand to refer to as you work. Work methodically through each point, making notes first, then gradually expand them into full sentences. As you complete them, you can cross them off your list. This way you will make sure you have responded to everything the call has asked for.

Some organisations might be able to help you directly: the Arts Council, for example, have a helpline you can call and their team can help you fit your application into their guidelines.

Sometimes the call itself will be badly written, generic or vague. If this is the case, you may want to consider whether this is really something you want to apply for. Do some research on the organisation, and try contacting them for more information before you spend hours or days on your application.

If you do decide to go ahead, it is worth bearing in mind that some organisations putting out calls may really be open-minded about what they want. It is often tempting to try to second-guess what they are looking for, and mould yourself and your responses to fit in with what you think they are looking for. But remember that in most cases, arts organisations want to know about you and what you feel passionate about, and they are interested in your work and ideas, more than looking for someone who fits exactly into a preconceived mould.

Writing an artist’s statement

Most applications for residencies or funding will require some kind of general statement about your work. Regarding this type of writing, the first and possibly most important piece of advice is don't be intimidated by words! They are just another material to learn to work with. Although we all use words to communicate every day, writing well doesn't necessarily come naturally. Like learning to make ceramics, or draw, or build a cabinet, it takes a bit of practice to get a good result; the first attempts might look a bit shoddy, but it is important to go through the process and make mistakes in order to learn. Many artists and designers are perfectionists in their work. We are used to being good at what we do, and it may feel frustrating if something doesn't work straight away, or we can't get into the flow of it.

A great way to start putting your practice into words is to have a conversation about it. It could be with a tutor, curator, or one of your peers. Most artists I know talk about their work all the time, but sometimes it's helpful to have a more formal conversation. For example, you could ask a friend who knows your work well to interview you about it. I find that if I try to write things down as they are said, I don't always record the most relevant points. Instead I recommend writing your notes from memory afterwards, but don't leave it too long! You will find that your brain has filtered the most relevant information, and what stays with you is often surprising. If you are really worried that you will forget something important, you could record the conversation electronically, as long as you check with the person you're speaking to that it's OK. If the conversation has been constructive, these notes can form an excellent basis for your artist’s statement.

If you struggle with getting started with your statement or get stuck half way through, try this automatic writing exercise. Take a loose sheet of paper and write for 10 minutes without stopping. Time yourself strictly, make sure you keep writing for the whole 10 minutes, and stop yourself when the 10 minutes is over. If you really can't think of anything to write, describe the room you are in, or write about how difficult it is to write. Don't read what you've written. Crumple the piece of paper into a ball and throw it somewhere. Now have a break. Have a cup of tea or browse Ebay for ten minutes. Then find an image, it could be of your own work, or another image that is significant to your practice. Put this in front of you. Then choose a book, any book, and open it on a random page. Find a sentence that relates to the image. Write down the sentence at the top of a new sheet of paper. Repeat the exercise using the image and the sentence as prompts. This exercise is like a warm up for a dancer. You're not supposed to use what you've written, you don't even have to read over it, the point is to loosen your joints.

Artist's statements generally have to be short. You'll need to edit what you've written and be concise about your ideas. Read what you've written out loud to yourself to help you editing. Print it out and edit on paper. You'll find that you notice different things on the page than on the screen. 

Organising your application 

You need to make it as easy as possible for the person reading your application. If you can, combine all the separate elements of your application into a single PDF and make an index with the page numbers of each item. Your cover letter should be short and simple. If you are sending something unsolicited, such as a portfolio to a gallery or a piece of writing to a magazine, they may have submissions guidelines on their website, so always check before you send. Introduce yourself very briefly, explain clearly why you are contacting them, what you are sending them, and how you'd like them to respond. 

Hopefully this has helped you with how to write an application, but it's up to you to come up with the ideas. Don't be afraid of failure! You are working in a highly competitive field, and the harsh truth is that nine times out of 10 you will be rejected. Don't dwell on it. Have some ice cream, watch some old episodes of The X-Files – or whatever you like to do to feel centred and better – and move on. 

Beatrice Schulz is an artist and writer based in London. She recently performed the Story of Joan of Arc, based on an essay commissioned by Babak Ghazi, at Rematerialising Feminism, and attended a residency at the Cornelius Foundation in Langue D'Oc