Put the most important thing in the first sentence

Did you know Dave Barry used to teach business writing? Neither did I. But he did and in this conversation with Tyler Cowen he points to the most consistent problem he sees with business writers, which is the same problem we see in the writing of so many of our clients (and their supposed grant writers); this is a long quote but it encapsulates so much of grant writing that I’m not going to cut it:

COWEN: What’s the main thing they get wrong from the business mentality?

BARRY: OK, the most consistent mistake . . . not mistake, but inefficiency of business writing — and it was very consistent — is the absolute refusal on the part of the writer to tell you right away what message he or she is trying to deliver. I used to say to them, “The most important thing you have to say should be in the first sentence.” And “Oh, no, you can’t. I’m an engineer. We did a 10-year study, this is way too complicated.”

And inevitably, they were wrong. Inevitably, if they really thought about it, they were able to, in one sentence, summarize why it was really important. But they refused to do that because the way they found out was by spending 10 years of study and all this data and everything, and that’s the way they wanted everyone to look at what they did. They wanted their supervisors to go plowing through all they had done to come to this brilliant conclusion that they had come to.

COWEN: Through their history, through their thought patterns.

BARRY: Drag everybody through it. And it was the one thing the newspaper people were taught to do that made more sense. You don’t have your reader’s attention very long, so get to the point. I found it was very difficult to get even really smart businesspeople to get to the point. Sometimes it was because they really couldn’t tell you what the point was.

What I wanted to say, but rarely felt comfortable saying, was, “If you don’t know what the point is, then you can’t really write this report.” But it was always too complicated for a layperson like me to understand. That was the way they did it. I was being hired by their bosses to tell them, “No, we want you to write clearly, and we want you to get to the point.”

Barry worked for newspapers for many years, which means he learned about the 5Ws and H (that linked post of ours, by the way, is one of the most-read we’ve ever produced). The most important sentences comes first, and every sentence after it should appear in declining importance. If you have to cut a proposal to make the page or character counts work, you should be able to cut each section from the bottom up.

It’s almost always possible to make even very technical subjects somewhat comprehensible to the generally educated and reasonably intelligent lay reader. That engineers or executive directors often haven’t learned to do so doesn’t meant they’re dumb (they’re not)—it just means they’ve never learned how to write. Which is fine: I’ve never learned how to write a compiler or build a bridge that doesn’t collapse. An intelligible description for regular readers will obviously lose important technical nuances, but in many cases that’s desirable rather than bad.

Part of the reason we can write scientific and technical grant proposals effectively is because we’re good at understanding technical concepts, picking out the most important parts, and then putting those important parts in the right order the RFP. We often get something technically incorrect in first drafts, in which case our client corrects us. Still, we are very good at telling compelling stories that will get scientific and engineering proposals funded. We have the business we do for many reasons, one being that we’re good at putting things in the right order in proposals. Proposals that aren’t structured properly because they don’t get to the point are often unreadable.

The first sentence of this post is the title. And it is the most important sentence: “Put the most important thing in the first sentence.” If you learn how to do this, you’ll be ahead of 80% of grant writers and would-be grant writers. Most proposals prepared by other “grant writers” fail the first-sentence test.

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