A Place For Words: Models of working

So, you want to work with a writer, but what will a project look like? How long will it take and how much will it cost? There are different models but no rules to working in this way, and your choices will depend on the specific situation, agendas, funding package and partnerships. Additionally, projects that are about engaging with a specific place at a specific time will inevitably be unique and present their own set of opportunities and challenges. This section pulls out some of the main issues and suggests possible ways of approaching projects. Also take the time to explore ‘Tips and Suggestions’ for practical hints and advice; and the bank of case studies which highlight different project structures and learning points.

Aims and expectations

It is important to clarify your aims and expectations at the beginning of a project, and be confident that they are realistic and achievable. Your aim might be to work with young people in a particular area to explore their aspirations for a new public space; or it might be to work across a community to articulate the ‘essence’ of a place and communicate that to the urban design professionals putting together a masterplan for the site; or it might be to create a series of temporary installations that highlight the past, present and future of a new development.


What will the outcome be?

There are different options here.

  1. You can define the project outcome from the beginning. It might be a permanent piece of work, a temporary sound installation or projection, a publication or an event. Ideally you would leave some flexibility within the specified outcome, so there is room to respond to the specific issues and ideas a project throws up.
  2. You can leave the outcome open, and allow the writer and the people they're working with the time and flexibility to decide on the best way to present their work. This can allow for exciting, innovative and unexpected outcomes. It needs to be managed carefully though, from a budgetary point of view, and to ensure the writer and community aren't left feeling aimless and unsupported.
  3. You don't have an outcome at all, but see the process as being the important element of the project. Again there are arguments both ways: sometimes an outcome can help focus a project, make sense of a process, and give participants and writer/s a sense of pride and achievement, but sometimes process driven work that builds connections and strengthens communication within a community can be more (if subtly) sustainable.


What am I asking the writer to do?

Writers can work in different ways and work can range from commissioning a writer to give their own personal creative response to a place; to commissioning a writer to work collaboratively with a community, creating work that combines the words and skills of writer and community; to asking a writer to work with a community to create a product that is solely the work (with guidance) of that community; and all shades in between these points.

A writer should be employed as a writer, not as a substitute for other roles. They cannot solve all the problems a regeneration project throws up. They shouldn't be used to simply communicate a developer's or council's decisions about a place, nor should they end up trying to be ‘the voice of the community’. Careful planning and communication can help avoid unrealistic and inappropriate expectations.


What will the project look like?

Most of the case studies on this site use the model of a writer's residency. The term residency comes with the idea and expectation that a writer will spend a significant amount of time in a particular place and create/facilitate work in response to that place. So a writer is given a brief (ideally structured with aims, objectives etc. but with enough space for the writer to explore and experiment), and paid for a certain number of days work. There are different ways of structuring residencies – from giving a writer a flat and three months to live and work there; to paying a writer to spend one day a week in a place over the course of a year; to setting up specific workshops with specific groups to achieve a specific aim.

There is scope for a huge variety of different projects. Some possibilities include:

  • A six month residency at the very early planning stages of a process to create writing that captures specific responses to, and relationships with, a place, which can then be presented to developers, architects etc. and used to inform their process. The end product could be a combination of the writer's work and others', or it could be written by the writer in response to conversations with individuals and groups.
  • A series of workshops with key interest groups that create group poems articulating a collective response to a place.
  • A week of conversations that feed into the process of writing a ‘characterisation of place’ (prior to master-planning process).
  • A 6-12 month process that results in a series of guided walks (for public and urban design professionals) that tour personal (rather than general and institutionalised) landmarks of an area.

Projects may well involve collaborations between writers and artists working in other art forms, particularly if the outcome will be presented in the public realm, as temporary installation or permanent piece. Writers might collaborate with sound artists, blacksmiths, sculptors, etc. Again, careful planning and communication can ensure these collaborations are successful.

A project might identify certain groups of people it wants to engage with before the writer comes on board, or might give the writer time and space to decide who they could work with (bear in mind the second option is a riskier one, and will involve a lot more time on the half of the writer, yet it also ensures the project is an organic and responsive one). A good project manager/creative producer is an important role: someone who can negotiate the different relationships involved and support the writer to access the people and information they need.


How long will it take?

The length of the project will depend on the project aims, and of course the resources available. As a general rule of thumb, the longer a project is, the stronger it will be. If a project is aiming to meaningfully engage with the community of a particular place, it will take time. Some people are suspicious of and resistant to arts projects, or to consultation, or, indeed, to the idea of writing and writers; although often those most reluctant at the outset become the most loyal supporters of successful projects. There needs to be the time available to visit, cajole, contact, to run workshops where no-one turns up and talks when no-one comes, because the longer someone is there – and the more persistent and genuine they are about the project – the higher the probability of them really engaging and doing meaningful work.

Timing is also crucial. If you are aiming to run a creative consultation project, it needs to happen at a ‘useful’ time, when the work created can have a real platform and stand the chance to genuinely influence decisions.


How much will it cost?

How long is a piece of string? The better resourced a project is, the more chance it has of success. Literature projects do tend to be cheaper than projects using other art forms, as costs for materials etc. are often lower. There is no stated industry average, but currently writers tend to charge £200-350 per day, arts organisations/consultants £250-600 per day, plus travel and accommodation where appropriate. You will also need to factor in costs of equipment, other artists' fees if necessary, transport, venue hire etc. There are pots of funding available from public bodies and trusts and foundations to support this kind of work. Arts organisations, local authority arts officers and independent consultants can often advise on applying for additional funds.