If you’re buying apples, more apples are (usually) better. A faster processor in your iMac is (usually) better. Same for a higher capacity hard drive. But longer is not necessarily better with, say, books. Few readers think, “Gee, this 1,200-page novel is intrinsically better than a 350-page novel.”* They also don’t think a 1,200-page novel is worth three times as much as a 350-page novel. Readers want a novel length appropriate to the story and material. Fiction writers often gravitate towards either short stories or novels. For example, Mary Gaitskill’s collection Bad Behavior: Stories is excellent, and I say this as someone who prefers novels. Gaitskill’s novels, however, are not the best. Some writers can go short or long but she doesn’t appear to be one.
You can see where I’m going with this point. Longer grant proposals are not necessarily better than shorter ones and in many circumstances are worse. This is clearest in foundation proposal writing, where five single-spaced pages are more than enough for an initial submission narrative. Many foundations actually require less than five pages.
When we conduct a foundation appeal, we write an final draft that’s about five single-spaced pages and ultimately use that version to customize proposals to the best five or ten foundation sources we identify. Clients often want us to write longer proposals, but we strongly suggest that foundation proposals be no longer than five pages, since most foundations will reject anything longer and even those that technically accept longer unsolicited proposals rarely read them.
To understand why, let’s look at the process from the funder’s perspective. A foundation may get hundreds of proposals every quarter. Each proposal probably gets read initially by an intern or junior staff person who does a reality check to see if the proposal meets the foundation’s basic guidelines. A foundation that only funds in Texas and gets a proposal from a nonprofit in California will chuck the latter. A foundation that only funds healthcare but gets a proposal for after school services will chuck the latter. Proposals that are simply incoherent or incomprehensible will get chucked.
Once the sanity check has been conducted, however, dozens or hundreds of viable proposals may remain. Each overlong proposal costs foundation officers time. Each proposal that isn’t clear and succinct increases its odds of getting rejected because the reader doesn’t have the time or inclination to figure out what the writer is babbling about. For this reason the first sentence is by far the most important sentence in any proposal.
The same thing is as true, and maybe even more true, of government proposals. There, reviewers may have to slog through dozens or hundreds of pages for each proposal. We’d like to imagine each reviewer considering each proposal like a work of art, but more likely than not they behave like you do in a bookstore. A good bookstore has tens of thousands of titles. How do you choose one? By browsing a couple of books based on covers or staff recommendations or things you’ve heard. Proposal reviewing is closer to bookstore browsing than we’d like to admit, and good proposals shouldn’t be any longer than they have to be. Shorter proposals are a gift to reviewers, and they’ll appreciate any gift you can give them. Anyone who has reviewed grants understands this. Over-long proposals are a failure of empathy on the part of the writer for the reader.
While you should never go over the specified page limit, in many circumstances being under the page limit is desirable. When you write a proposal you are no longer in school and will no longer get brownie points by baffling reviewers with bullshit.
Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever heard: “Omit unnecessary words.” Right up there with “Omit unnecessary words”, however, is: “When you’re done, stop.” Arguably the latter advice is a special case of the former. Many novice writers experience ending anxiety, which may occur in part as an artifact of “the way schools are organized: we get trained to talk even when we have nothing to say.” When you have nothing more to say, say nothing.
* Though physical books also have some cost limitations based on binding processes. Books that are longer than something like 418 printed pages are more expensive to print than books that are shorter (for most commercial publishers). Commercial publishers will use formatting tricks when possible to get a book under that number of pages, and, if they have to go over, they’ll go way over.