Writing and Revising Proposals

I started writing this post while procrastinating on two of my latest proposal revisions, one for the Pulitzer Center and the other for National Geographic. So far in the last two months I have revised and rewritten at least 5 versions (not including drafts, which probably doubles this number) of a single proposal to do a story in remote Siberia (details withheld for the time being, sorry!).

From the original 8 page manuscript for a major grant at my University to the latest 250 word ‘abstract and distribution plan’ for the Pulitzer people, I’ve had to radically reengage with my ideas about this project and revise my methods for convincing people that this story has to happen. One point I’m making is that if you have to write the proposal a dozen times to a dozen people, maybe something isn’t right the first time!

20 image edit for my website, www.mattlutton.com. My ‘standard’ edit of my 2008 story ‘Kosovo: New Born”

Not sure if I’m breaking any new ground for our readers out there (I feel like you’ve already had to deal with this yourself, or that it doesn’t apply to the work you do) but I’ll try. Here are some things I’ve realized about being a freelance documentary photographer trying to do his own stories, by pursuing story ideas and trying to convince publications and editors to take them up. Bear in mind, though, that I haven’t had much success yet..
I’ve been shocked to learn in the last year how much writing is a huge part of this job. Reading and writing, not looking at, shooting or editing pictures, takes up almost all of my time as a photographer. For example, I want to shoot a story in Vancouver, BC. How am I going to get an assignment to do it? I’ve got to convince an editor that the story is important and that they’ve got to send me to do it. The way this is accomplished is putting down the information in a succinct package and submit the story idea as a proposal.

The best advice I think I’ve ever received on how to write these things is from (god, I’m dropping his name again, forgive me) Jonas Bendiksen: paraphrasing, ‘First you have to convince them that this story has to be done. Then that it has to be done right now. Last, that you are the only person that can do it and that you are the one that has to do it.

Seems to work exceedingly well for him, he is one of the few photographers I know who gets by more on stories he wants to do than assignments. And I think it really wouldn’t hurt to take those points to heart for any kind of persuasive writing.

10 image edit of both my 2007 and 2008 Kosovo work for the PhotoLucida Critical Mass which I edited and submitted last week.

As far as (re)editing, it seems similar to the process we have to go through with portfolios. You have to figure out what your goals are with this particular iteration, who the audience is and what requirements (8 pictures? 10? 20?; 250 wds, 500, 2 pages?) you have to meet. As I said at the top, for me, going through these different versions has definitely left me with a firmer (death-hold) grasp on what is most important about the story and what absolutely has to be communicated and what doesn’t. I started with an 8 page ‘report’ on this topic and its relevance to the world and have been forced to cut and cut this until my current 167 word (exact! for Nat Geo) ‘abstract’ of the issue. While this brief certainly doesn’t not have the depth, ‘narrative power’ or nuance that I feel is required by this or any other important issue, I do think it contains enough of the story to convince someone it has to happen.

I had a conversation with a photographer friend last night who was visiting Seattle, and he was relating his current experiences in the freelance market, and he is taking a very different angle on all of this than me. Having to pay rent, on the east coast, he is in the position to having to make money somewhere/somehow with pictures right now (i.e. weddings, PR) and from that security create the freetime to do whatever stories he wants. He is planning to finish some of these projects outright, and then try and find a home for them. What I am doing, for better or worse, is trying to find funding and space for projects at the start. I’ve been focusing on editorial, a very limited market especially when you’re not established, to pay for more editorial. I’ve been trying to do this via ‘good ideas and good photos’ but I haven’t unlocked the key yet. I started this post to try and think through some more of these issues (am I doing things right? am I doing things well?) .. and hopefully get closer to knowing if I need to radically change my approach. Should I just take a day job until I get more established? I’m considering it.

At this point in either of our careers (I think M Scott would agree) doing this as a straight-up editorial (not to mention documentary) shooter this is a tough preposition, but it is what I’m after. Wish me luck, cause I’m still waiting on a break. (Or, as I’ve started calling it, waiting to win the lottery, because I’m positive that it isn’t simply a skill game. some luck is involved).

8 image edit of 2008’s ‘Kosovo: New Born” for the College Photographer of the Year competition

If there is enough interest, I’ll consider posting what the proposal(s) I’ve been writing for my ‘Graceland’ project. Leave a comment and I’ll see if it is worth opening up that can of worms.

PS – I see that Hey, Hot Shot! is now accepting entries for their second round of competition for the year. $60 to enter, but if you are selected you get $500 (whoo…) and what seems like very nice exposure. Maybe even get to participate in 20×200… I like that idea a lot and might even try something similar here..

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