Getting the Word out – Unlimited Supports Literature!

A woman sitting at a table leafing through a book is laughing with a woman who is standing up and facing her
Kaite O'Reilly in Conversation at Southbank Centre's Unlimited Festival 2016. Photo By Rachel Cherry

Unlimited is open to commissioning artists across all art forms, but exactly how does that apply, for example, within literature? Jo Verrent, Unlimited’s Senior Producer, talks to Ruth Harrison, Director of Spread the Word, to see just how the scheme can support all writers and not just those writing for performance… 

 JV: Hi Ruth, great to be able to talk. How about starting with a quick description of what you do at Spread the Word? 

 RH: Hi Jo, good to talk to you too. Spread the Word is London’s writer development agency which means that we are here to help writers make their mark on the page, the stage and in the world.  We run a regular programme of workshops, masterclasses and events alongside the London Writers Network, the London Short Story Prize, the Life Writing Prize, and wider development and engagement programmes such as the Young People’s Laureate for London and City of Stories. 

 Our work is focused on developing and supporting emerging writers from across London’s communities, both in their craft and career development. We know there is a demand from disabled writers for craft and career development opportunities as our writers’ survey (December 2016) showed that 28% of writers engaging with our work identified as disabled. 

 JV:  And I assume that covers all kinds of writers? 

 RH: Yes! We work with fiction, short story and non-fiction writers, playwrights, poets – basically if your work involves words we are interested! 

 JV: At Unlimited, we are currently offering two types of awards: R&D, up to £10,000 for artists to research and develop an idea, and up to £10,000 for emerging artists, who can either create something or run participatory projects – how do you think might these appeal to writers? 

 RH: For a lot of writers out there these awards will appeal in various ways: they provide a chance to develop that story, play script, poem, graphic novel etc. that they have always wanted to do; they provide the financial support to buy time to write and potentially space to write (a couple of the main barriers for writers in developing their work); they provide the opportunity to bring in, for example, a mentor to support your craft development or writers you have always wanted to collaborate with and they provide the opportunity to start developing your networks and contacts with publishers, agents, literature organisations and platforms to get your work out to readers and wider audiences. 

 Page writers – especially for prose – often assume they are not eligible for any kind of funding and that the only route is the commercial one via an agent and a publishing deal and/or they don’t take themselves seriously as writers until they have a publishing deal of some kind – so perhaps the emphasis for the awards is that this IS an opportunity to get the support in place that they want and need without having the final destination secured.  

 JV: We’ve supported a number of writers before, but they’ve tended to be writers who are creating work for performance. Why do you think that might be, and what do you think we can do to stretch our net even wider? 

 RH: I think one of the issues may be in the language used in the awards guidance. There is an emphasis on ‘exhibition’, ‘showcase’ and ‘performance’ – these are not necessarily terms you may relate to if you are a writer whose work is more focused on the page and therefore you may not think that the awards are relevant to you and will provide the support you need as an emerging writer. A slight change in language may make all the difference alongside active examples of what it could look like for a writer. 

 JV: That’s great advice and we’ll get onto that to make improvements for the next time we run our call out next year. 

 RH: We know that there are many disabled writers out there looking for opportunities to develop and get audiences and/or readers for their work, linking with literature development organisations such as ourselves and putting the offer out via other literature networks will help to reach a wider range of writers. 

 JV: What do you think the literature sector as a whole is doing to support disabled writers – and do you think it’s enough? 

 RH: There is support out there for disabled writers to develop their craft and career but I believe there is a need to make this offer more visible to disabled writers so they can access the opportunities that are available and for the sector to be more aware of the barriers that disabled writers face. As a sector we need to be actively working with disabled writers as tutors, judges and co-producers, working in partnership with projects and organisations such as yourselves and Shape Arts, and to be promoting through writing and work by disabled writers to readers.  

 JV: So, beyond clarifying what we can offer, linking with yourselves and other literature agencies, pushing the word out there to disabled writers who might be interested – what more can we do? 

 RH: Writers are more willing to get involved and interested if they can see themselves within the opportunity (for example, projects such as the Almasi League and City of Stories both attract a diverse range of writers because it is explicitly clear that the opportunity is for them) and it would be good to make clear how you can support the specific needs of writers by, for e.g.: putting in place expert literature assessors. 

 JV: And that’s something we have done before. If ever we feel the panel members may not have the knowledge needed to assess applications, we bring in expert assessors to add an informed perspective to the mix. But you are right, we can be more explicit about this. 

 RH: Interviews with page writers about how they have been helped with funding and/or development opportunities and what encouraged them to do so (for example, Ray Antrobus, Sophie Woolley, and Penny Pepper’s recent experience of crowdsourcing her book through Unbound) would be great.  

 Spread the Word is happy to talk to writers who are interested in applying for Unlimited if they need help with thinking through the kind of support they want to go for.  

 JV: That’s a fantastic offer, Ruth – thank you. These are such brilliant ideas about how we can improve; we’ve been speaking to literature relationship managers at Arts Council England too so hopefully the word is getting out! Anyone interested in taking up that offer can contact Ruth through the Spread the Word site or by emailing us and we can put you in contact (info@weareunlimited.org.uk). 

 Disabled writers out there – better get scribbling your Unlimited applications! 

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