A Page from Our Handbook: Writing About Your Work

Welcome to the second post of our series “A Page From Our Handbook.” Every few weeks we’ll be posting tips straight from the Professional Development Program’s Artist’s Tools Handbook, a 200+ page resource we give to Core Workshop attendeeswritten by PDP Core Leaders Jackie Battenfield and Aaron Landsman. The book covers everything from writing to budgeting, websites to fundraising, elevator pitches to work samples. Similarly, each post will be packed with practical ideas to make your life run more smoothly, leaving you even more time for your creative practice. Learn more about our PDP workshops and webinars here.

Writing About Your Work
Many of the materials you produce on behalf of your work—from artist statements to media releases to proposals to simple emails—involve a good bit of writing. In some cases you are writing about a project or series that you haven’t yet made. This is daunting, we know.

What you need to know in a nutshell is this: writing about your work is essential, but you can find a way to make it great, useful, more fun and easier. Remember that you can always get help—hire a professional, barter for services, or ask a colleague or friend. The sooner you start, the better off you’ll be.

A General Tip Regarding Tone
Artists often fall into one of two traps that can be easily avoided: Aggressive writing is language that claims to know what the viewer’s response is going to be (i.e. “the viewer will be forced to reconsider his notions of community, war, poverty, and the color “blue”). The great thing about art is that you can never quite predict how it’s going to affect someone. If you try to override the reader’s subjective response, they will trust you less. Passive writing is when you as the artist are not clear and direct about your own intentions (i.e., “I seek to explore some of the seemingly myriad possible connections between art and the color blue”). Neither of these examples answers the essential questions of what and why, nor do they help the reader get to know your work on their own terms. Instead, write directly and assertively (i.e. “I am making a series of paintings about the abstract and literal connections between war, poverty and the color blue in American history”).

Writing an Artist Statement
A great place to start finding language for your artist statement or “elevator pitch” is to consider what questions people ask when viewing your work. Your artist statement should answer the following questions: what is your work like, why do you make it, what are you trying to do with it and what is your process? A few simple exercises to get started:

  1. Write 7 words about your artwork in general or about a new project you are working on.
  2. Expand the list to 14 words.
  3. Now use those words to come up with a one paragraph artist statement or project description.
  4. The interview: Give whatever you wrote in step 3 to a friend and ask them to ask questions about your work or your statement and write down what you say in response. Now take the paper back, ask your friend questions about your statement, and write down his/her responses.
  5. Using the notes from the interviews, rework your statement or pitch.

Writing a Cover Letter or Letter of Inquiry
Paragraph 1: Opening
Get directly to the point. Don’t begin with a long story or try to be artificially intimate. Go back to the questions above. What is your purpose in contacting them? Is it to introduce your work? Does it follow up on previous meetings or correspondence? Are you writing at the suggestion of a third party? Your purpose needs to be addressed immediately.

Paragraph 2: Body
Use this section to relay specific information about yourself, your work or your skills. It is also the place to demonstrate that you have done your homework and are familiar with the reader’s space or organization.

Paragraph 3: Closing
Clearly (and politely) state what you would like the reader to do (i.e. make an appointment to discuss the project further, go to your website, preview the show, schedule a studio visit, publish or play your work). Don’t forget to inform the reader of any next steps, how/when you will contact them or how to contact you if more information is needed.

Writing a Project Description
When writing about your project, focus on these questions: What is it, and why is it important? The “what” part of this is easy—make sure that in the first paragraph, you describe your work clinically. The “why” is a more fluid explanation. You can call attention to the thematic core of the work: “I’m making this work to illustrate the gray area between surveillance and voyeurism in contemporary American cities.” You can discuss formal properties: “My work explores straight lines, grammar and the color blue.” You can highlight your work’s importance to your community, to the field, to your career as an artist. Just let them know why you feel you must make this work now.

Always Save Time for Editing
Look for redundant information, unnecessary words and awkward phrases. Relax stuffy language. Simplify and shorten sentences. Write in an active voice. Use positive language.

Exercise: Write a list of the most overused jargon in your discipline.

Check back regularly for more Pages from Our Handbook. Coming soon: Managing your work samples.

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About Jackie Battenfield and Aaron Landsman

JACKIE BATTENFIELD is an artist known for her luminously colored paintings and prints of natural forces. Galleries throughout the United States represent her work including: Addison-Ripley, Washington, D.C.; Addington Gallery, Chicago, Illinois; Allyn Gallup, Sarasota, Florida, Michele Mosko Fine Art, Denver, Colorado; and DM Contemporary, New York. She is the recipient of a Pollock-Krasner Award (1991), the Warren Tanner Award (1996) and the Fulbright Scholars Program (2011). Jackie was the founding director of The Rotunda Gallery in Brooklyn, York overseeing its development into a stable art organization. She has been teaching Professional Practices to artists since 1992, first as seminar leader in The Artist in the Marketplace Program (AIM) at the Bronx Museum of the Arts and currently in the MFA program at Columbia University School of the Arts. Battenfield is author of The Artist's Guide: How to Make a Living Doing What You Love, Da Capo Press, 2009. AARON LANDSMAN’s performances combine formal experimentation and long-term community engagement. His works are often staged in spaces where people go every day, such as homes, offices and meeting rooms. Current projects include: City Council Meeting, a participatory work presented in four US cities in 2012-13; Appointment, a suite of performances for single viewers in small offices, presented so far in New York, Oslo and Detroit; and Running Away From The One With The Knife, a play about suicide and religious faith, to be presented at the Chocolate Factory in 2014. Previous work has been produced by The Foundry Theatre, PS 122, DiverseWorks and other spaces in the US, UK and Europe. Landsman’s work is funded by the NEFA National Theater Pilot, Jerome Foundation, MAP Fund and NPN. He has performed with award-winning theater ensemble Elevator Repair Service and other artists, taught at Juilliard and NYU, and guest lectured widely. He lives in Brooklyn, NY and Urbana, IL with his wife, Johanna Meyer, and their son Harold.

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