How Computers Have Made Grant Writing Worse

In most ways computers have made our lives better. In some, however, they’ve made our lives worse.* In grant writing, computers have enabled a level of neurotic, anxious behavior that was simply impractical before frictionless communications. Some of those problems include:

1. More drafts.

Isaac existed before computers. Well, technically, so did I, but I wasn’t writing proposals. In the pre-computer era, most proposals only went through two drafts: a first and a final. First drafts were written long-hand on legal pads, dictated, or roughly typed. The second/final draft would be typed by a secretary with great typing skills. Still, the final draft usually had typos, “white out” blotches and lacked any formatting apart from paragraph indents and tabs to create “tables.” Since proposals couldn’t logistically go through numerous drafts or interim drafts, two drafts were sufficient.

The perpetual editing make possible by computers also means that we can do something, someone else can do something (that is possibly wrong), and then we have to fix the messed up problems. Versioning can be endless, and in the last couple of months we’ve gotten into several seemingly unhappy versioning loops with clients. Versioning loops don’t make anyone happy, but the easy editability of documents means that it’s tempting for everyone to have a say (and everyone to make edits that later have to be carefully reverted). Computer editing also makes it more tempting to change project concepts mid-stream, which is not a good idea.

2. Longer drafts.

In keeping with point one, proposals can now be much, much longer. We’ve worked on some Head Start drafts that topped out around 100 pages. That’s ridiculous, but computers make it possible in general to write far longer drafts. “Longer” is not necessarily “better.” A longer draft has more room for internal inconsistencies (of the sort that can kill your application, as described at the link).

Longer drafts fatigue writer and reader. We’re the iron men of writers, so we of course never feel fatigue. But few writers are as sharp at page 80 of a proposal as they are at page 10. Few readers read page 80 with the same care as page 10. Isaac and occasionally speculate about how funny it would be to drop a sentence, late in a proposal, like “I’ll give you $20 if you read this sentence” or “Don’t you think 50 Shades of Grey really does have a legitimate point?” We’d never do that, but we bet that if we did, few reviewers would notice.

3. More screwing around and eternal availability.

In ye olden days, one had to call someone to express an idea or make a change or just to badger them. Since fax machines weren’t common until the 80s, drafts to other offices/readers had to be mailed or sent by courier. Copies were harder to make, so editors had to do one review, not 12. Today we’re available for eternal electronic pinpricks via email, and yet every pinprick has a cost. We mostly ignore those costs, but they add up.

It’s easier to spend way too much time changing “that” to “which” and “which” to “that.” Sometimes such changes are appropriate but too many of them lead to tremendous drag on the entire project. They cost scarce attention.

4. Convoluted instructions.

Before computers, attachments were (generally) fewer, RFPs were shorter, and instructions were clearer because 20 people didn’t have the opportunity to “contribute” their thoughts and words. Now instructions can be infinitely convoluted, weird data sources can be more easily managed, and random attachments of almost infinite size can be ordered.

Sometimes, too, applicants will be tempted to add extra attachments because they can. Don’t do that.

5. Data mandates that don’t exist, or don’t exist properly.

We’ve written before about phantom data and its attendant problems. Computers and the Internet often tempt funders into asking for more esoteric data. Before the Internet, most data had to be manually, laboriously extracted from Census tables and similar paper-based sources. This meant long hours at a library or Census office. Now it’s possible to request all sorts of weird data, and sometimes that data can’t be found. Or, if various applicants do find it, it comes from all sorts of methodologies that may not be comparable. Poverty rates are one good example of this. Is the 2013 poverty rate 14.5% or 4.8%? Depends on the data used. And that’s for a well-known metric! Others are worse.

6. Email has also shifted the “Cover-Your Ass” (CYA) memo to the “CYA” email.

The famous CYA memo predates email, but email has made conversations that would once have been ephemeral permanent. Anything you say or write can be used to hang you, as innumerable politicians (like former Congressman Weiner) and everyday people have learned. This has consequences of all sorts, as teenagers have discovered in the course of sexting and as even spies have learned (that link goes to an article about a totally crazy hit the Israelis pulled in Dubai: if you abandon this post to read it, I wouldn’t blame you at all).

Permanent records mean that nothing can be ignored and that everything can be interpreted in the worst possible light. It is now possible for clients to send us (and us to send them) dozens of emails in a way that never happened in the snail-mail world. In a snail-mail world, each missive took a day or two send, receive, and reply.

The new email world means we—and clients—can waste fantastic amounts of time mulling over minor issues and misunderstandings via email. Anything sent by email lives forever, so it must be written with great care because it can later be used to hang the writer. Every word has to be considered as if it would be judged by a judge and jury. That means a level of precision is necessary in a way that wouldn’t be necessary on a phone call.

7. Conclusion

In Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, Kentaro Toyama writes: “It’s often said that technology is a cost-saver; or that ‘big data’ makes business problems transparent; or that social media brings people together; or that digital systems level playing fields. These kinds of statements are repeated so often that few people question them. Yet none of them is a die-cast truth.” Toyama is right, and we’ve witnessed the problems of relentless communication, which let people endlessly niggle over minor, unimportant points, while misunderstanding bigger, more important pictures.

This post is an attempt to share the bigger picture.


* For one example of how things are worse, see Alone Together by Sherry Turkle or Man Disconnected: How technology has sabotaged what it means to be male by Philip Zimbardo. We aren’t luddites and aren’t condemning technology—indeed, our business couldn’t exist as it does without technology—but we are cognizant of the drawbacks.

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