Getting in the mood for grant writing: Illustrations from DOL YouthBuild and SAMHSA TCE-HIV

Maybe its because I’m somehow no longer 35* and might be as old as dirt, but TV ads seem entirely focused on buying/hoarding gold, reverse mortgages, probiotics, the odd Cialis couple holding hands in a bathtub and lots of others for “getting in the mood.” That got me thinking about getting in the mood for grant writing.

While getting in the mood for grant writing does not involve a little blue pill or turning on a red light bulb like Woody Allen in Annie Hall, here are some of the ways we use at the Seliger Industrial Grant Foundry and Word Works:

  • Decide if you’re an early morning or night owl writer. I like to start writing early, as my muse seems to depart around cocktail hour. Jake, however, only has one eye open until noon most days and is more of a midnight rambler writer.
  • Develop a writing pattern—say, write four hours, then go to Go Get Em Tiger for an iced macadamia milk latte, then another four hours shackled to your iMac.
  • Jake and I generally don’t use outlines, being stream of consciousness writers, and we just start writing (we use the RRP as a surrogate outline). Others may want to outline each RFP section, starting by putting the headers and sub-headers into a Word doc and then outlining the responses thematically. They may also want to find/organize the data and citations for the needs assessment (e.g. census data, labor market information, etc.). No matter how the RFP is organized or what your writing style is, you must always find a way include the 5 Ws and the H in your first draft. RFP writers often forget to ask all six.
  • As you write, keep in mind that you’re in the proposal world, not the real world. When writing the “what” section, for example, distinguish the applicant’s current efforts and future activities. The current efforts are whatever the agency is doing now that relate to the project concept, while future efforts are what the grant will fund. One way to keep this straight is to be careful with the present versus future tense. This will also help you avoid inadvertently implying the dreaded supplantation issue.
  • With respect to the “what” section, different RFPs/project concepts require different emphases. For example, in a workforce development proposal like our old DOL pals YouthBuild and Reentry Projects (RP), training sites and employer commitments are very important. In contrast, when writing a SAMHSA TCE-HIV proposal, if the agency lacks full capacity to deliver all required services, it is critical to detail the partner(s) providing HIV and substance abuse treatment.

As in all writing projects, the key to writing grant proposals is to actually complete the first draft in time to meet your deadline, no matter what your writing style and habits are. There is no substitute for doing this.


* In most fiction involving a male hero (or anti-hero) protagonist—like James Bond or most of Elmore Leonards books—the lead character is almost always described as being about 35 years old—old enough to be knowledgable, and irascible, but young enough to still be dashing and handsome.

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