I’ve lost count of the scholarship and residency applications I’ve had rejected. But in 2014, I won a scholarship to the Wesleyan Writers Conference, and this year I was honored to be an Artist in Residence at Trail Wood, the memorial sanctuary and former home of nature writer Edwin Way Teale. I’ve thought about the difference between my prior attempts and my wins, and here are a few lessons I learned:
- Go local: FundsforWriters (FFW) often lists state- or region-specific grants — watch for them! Far-away locales don’t necessarily equal prestige or a higher level of success. My motivations for going local were at least in part due to limited time and money for travel, but familiarity with the physical locations (both in Connecticut, my home state) and the local culture made a difference in terms of how I penned my applications, and, probably, how judges accepted them.
- Go niche: Even if your work crosses genres, take ownership of a specific writing category. When I finally figured out that nature writing was my “thing,” the tide began to shift. When I applied for the writers’ conference scholarship, my voice took on a more confident tone as I talked about my specialty. In the case of the residency, the Connecticut Audubon Society sought writers with a strong interest in nature. Again, FFW lists many of these niche awards for categories such as mystery writers, journalists, or specific demographic groups.
- Be yourself: In all forms of writing, genuine shines through. My applications included enthusiasm and revelations about my personality, while being careful not to overdo it by being overly-effusive or writing solely to impress the judges.
- Don’t skimp on research: If you are able to visit the physical location of your opportunity, do it to get a feel for the place. But whether or not a visit is possible, research the history of the award and its former recipients and read descriptions of the place/event. This will engender a tone that reflects in-depth understanding of the award. Besides being able to visit my intended award locales, I scoured the application websites and other sources for details that resonated with me and informed my submission.
- Plan ahead and pace yourself: Savvy research and authenticity won’t help if you aren’t practical about writing well in advance of deadline, allowing time for many rewrites. Setting milestone dates and reminders in my electronic calendar helped me stay on track. It’s also important to avoid “trigger finger.” Like many writers, I tend to send work out prematurely, driven by both enthusiasm and impatience. You may need to step away for a while to gain perspective (another reason to plan a generous development timeline!). Reading aloud is another important strategy — no doubt my office neighbors were wondering about the muttering next door.
- • Choose your readers carefully: Read up on the contest judges; consider that in some cases the judges are not writers. Ask trusted friends/colleagues to read your work, paying close attention to their overall reactions and specific comments. In my case, the input of some carefully chosen nonwriters was as valuable as that of my peers.
It should go without saying that you also need to pay attention to technicalities — word count limits, writing sample format, etc. Check your work against the guidelines a final time. When you hit the send button or the post office, you can be confident that you’ve done your best and improved your odds. In my case, the work I put in was rewarded many times over in a sense of fulfillment at finally finding funding for a longstanding dream. I wish the same for every hardworking writer.
Katherine Hauswirth’s career as a writer and editor spans more than 15 years. Her freelance work oftencenters on themes of nature and ecology. Her blog, First Person Naturalist,, is a reflection on experiencing and learning about nature in Connecticut. She has been published in forums including The Christian Science Monitor, Orion, Postconsumers, Whole Life Times, Wilderness House Literary Review, Chronogram, Seasons, and The Writer. She was a biweekly columnist at BiblioBuffet, a Web site for book lovers, and was awarded a Wesleyan Writers Conference scholarship based on her nature writing in 2014. In 2015, she was awarded the honor of Artist-in-Residence at the Edwin Way Teale writing cabin and home site in Connecticut, an Audubon property. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org