Category Archives: Writing

“How Jeff Bezos Turned Narrative into Amazon’s Competitive Advantage”

How Jeff Bezos Turned Narrative into Amazon’s Competitive Advantage” should be mandatory reading for anyone in nonprofit and public agencies, because narrative is probably more important for nonprofits than conventional businesses; conventional businesses can succeed by pointing to product-market fit, but nonprofits typically don’t have that metric. Nonprofits have to get their stories out in other ways than profit-loss statements or sales.

Bezos is Amazon’s chief writing evangelist, and his advocacy for the art of long-form writing as a motivational tool and idea-generation technique has been ordering how people think and work at Amazon for the last two decades—most importantly, in how the company creates new ideas, how it shares them, and how it gets support for them from the wider world.

New ideas often emerge from writing—virtually everyone who has ever written anything substantive understands this, yet it remains misunderstood among non-writers. Want to generate new ideas? Require writing. And no, “Powerpoint” does not count:

“The reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than ‘writing’ a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related,” he writes, “Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.”

I’m not totally anti-Powerpoint—I have seen books about how to do it well—but Powerpoint does not substitute for narrative (in most cases). Most people doing Powerpoint have not read Edward Tufte or adequately thought through their rationale for choosing Powerpoint over some other communications genre, like the memo. The other day I did an online grant-writing training session for the state of California for 400 people, and the guy organizing it expected me to do a Powerpoint. I said that using a Powerpoint presentation to teach writing is largely useless (he seemed surprised). Instead, I did a screencast, using a text editor as my main window, in which I solicited project ideas and RFPs germane to the viewers. I picked a couple and began working through the major parts of a typical proposal, showing how I would construct an abstract using the 5Ws and H, and then how I would use those answers to begin fleshing out typical narrative sections in the proposal. Because it was screencast, participants can re-watch sections they find useful. I think having a text document and working with actual sentences is much closer to the real writing process than babbling on about a prepared set of slides with bullet points. The talk was less polished than it would have been if I’d prepared it in advance, but writing is inherently messy and I wanted to deliberately show its messiness. There is no way to avoid this messiness; it’s part of the writing process on a perceptual level. It seems linked to speech and to consciousness itself.

To return to the written narrative point, written narrative also allows the correct tension between individual creativity and group feedback, in a way that brainstorming sessions don’t, as the article explains. Most human endeavors involving group activity require some tension between the individual acting and thinking alone versus being part of a pair or larger group acting in concert. If you are always alone, you lose the advantage of another mind at work. If you are always in a group, you lack the solitude necessary for thinking and never get other people out of your head. Ideal environments typically include some “closed door” space and some “open door” serendipitous interaction. Written narrative usually allows for both.

Nonprofit and public agencies that can’t or won’t produce coherent written documents are not going to be as successful as those that do. They aren’t going to ensure key stakeholders understand their purpose and they’re not going to be able to execute as effectively. That’s not just true in grant writing terms; it’s true in organizational terms. Reading remains at present, the fastest way to transmit information. If you’re not hiring people who can produce good stuff for reading, you’re not effectively generating and using information within your organization.

Grant writing and cooking: Too many details or ingredients is never a good idea

As a grant writer who also likes to cook, I understand the importance of simplicity and clarity in both my vocation and avocation: too much detail can ruin the proposal, just as too many ingredients can produce a dull dish. Ten years ago, I wrote a post on the importance of using the KISS method (keep it simple, stupid—or Sally, if you don’t like the word “stupid”) in grant writing. We recently wrote an exceedingly complex state health care proposal for a large nonprofit in a Southern state, but even complex proposals should be as simple as possible—but no simpler.

As is often the case with state programs, the RFP was convoluted and required a complex needs assessment. Still, the project concept and target area were fairly straightforward. We wrote the first draft of the needs assessment in narrative form, rather than using a bunch of tables. There’s nothing intrinsically better or worse about narrative vs. tables; when the RFP is complex, we tend toward narrative form, and when the project concept and/or target area are complex, we often use more tables. For example, if the target population includes both African American and Latino substance abusers in an otherwise largely white community, we might use tables, labeling columns by ethnicity, then compare to the state. That’s hard to do in narrative form. Similarly, if the target area includes lots of counties, some of which are much more affluent than others, we might use tables to contrast the socioeconomic characteristics of the counties to the state.

Many grant reviewers also have trouble reading tables, because they don’t really understand statistics. Tables should also be followed by a narrative paragraph explaining the table anyway.

So: our client didn’t like the first draft and berated me for not using tables in the needs assessment. The customer is not always right, but, as ghostwriters, we accommodate our clients’s feedback, and I added some tables in the second draft. Our client requested more tables and lots of relatively unimportant details about their current programming, much of which wasn’t germane to the RFP questions. Including exhaustive details about current programming takes the proposal focus away from the project you’re trying to get funded, which is seldom a good idea. It’s best to provide sufficient detail to answer the 5 Ws and the H), while telling a compelling story that is responsive to the RFP.

Then, stop.

The client’s second draft edit requested yet more tables and a blizzard of additional, disconnected details. Our client disliked it the third draft. We ended up writing five drafts, instead of the usual three, and the proposal got steadily worse, not better. As chef-to-the-stars Wolfgang Puck* is said to have said, “Cooking is like painting or writing a song. Just as there are only so many notes or colors, there are only so many flavors – it’s how you combine them that sets you apart.” Attempting to use all the flavors at once usually results in a kitchen disaster.

A given section of a proposal should be as short as possible without being underdeveloped. Changes from draft to draft should also be as minimal and specific as possible.


* Jake sort-of-met Wolfgang, albeit before he was born. His mom was eight months pregnant with him when we went to Spago for dinner. Wolfgang was there in his Pillsbury Doughboy getup, and, despite not being celebrities, he couldn’t have been nicer and made a big deal out of a very pregnant woman dining at his place. I think he wanted his food to induce labor, but that didn’t happen for a couple of weeks; instead, Nate ‘n’ Al’s Deli (another celebrity hangout in Beverly Hills), was the culprit. A story for another day.

Charrettes live: Cite them as a planning tool in your proposal

Ten years ago we advised that grant writers and nonprofit Executive Directors “know your charrettes!” (the exclamation point is in the original title). Since then, though, we’ve heard less about charrettes than we really should. Until this week, that is, when charrettes hit me from two separate angles. The first is from Steven Berlin Johnson’s book Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most. The book itself is highly recommended; large swaths of it could make their way into many proposals.* This passage, though long, has special resonance for me:

A few years ago, the water authority in the Greater Vancouver region faced a decision not unlike the one that confronted the citizens of New York two hundred years ago as to the fate of Collect Pond. A growing urban population meant that the region’s existing freshwater sources were not going to be able to meet demand in the coming years. New sources would have to be tapped, with inevitable impact on local environment, commerce, and communities. The city’s home in the rainy Pacific Northwest gave it the luxury of many potential options: three reservoirs could be expanded, new pipelines could be built to a number of distant lakes, or wellfields could be drilled along one prominent river. Like filling or preserving Collect Pond, this was a decision whose consequences would likely persist for more than a century. (Water from the Capilano River, for instance, was first delivered to Vancouver residents in the late 1800s, and continues to be a major water source for the city.) But this decision began with an earnest attempt to model all the important variables from a full-spectrum perspective. It built that model by consulting a wide range of stakeholders, each contributing a different perspective on the problem at hand: local residents living near each of the water sources being considered; indigenous people with sacred ties to the land being surveyed; environmental activists and conservationists; health and water-safety regulators; even local citizens who used the various bodies of water for boating, fishing, or other water sports. Stakeholders evaluated each option for its impact on a wide range of variables: “aquatic habitat, terrestrial habitat, air quality, visual quality, employment, recreation, traffic and noise, and property values.”

The approach taken by the Vancouver Water Authority has become commonplace in many important land use and environmental planning deliberations. The techniques used to bring those different voices together vary depending on the methodologies embraced by the planners (or the consultants they have hired to help run the process). But they share a core attribute: a recognition that mapping a decision as complex as establishing new sources of drinking water for a metropolitan center requires a network of diverse perspectives to generate anything resembling an accurate map of the problem. The most common term for this kind of collaborative deliberation is a “charrette.” The word derives from the French word for wagon; apparently architecture students at the École des Beaux-Arts in the 1800s would deposit their scale models and drawings in a small wagon that would be wheeled out to collect student submissions as the deadline for a project approached. Students making last-minute tweaks to their projects were said to be working en charrette—adding the finishes touches as the wagon made its rounds. In its modern usage, though, the design charrette does not refer to a last-minute cram session, but rather to an open, deliberative process where different stakeholders are invited to critique an existing plan, or suggest new potential ideas for the space or resource in question. The charrette makes it harder for a complex decision to be evaluated purely from the narrowband perspective of a single business group or government agency.

One way in which charrettes differ from the more traditional forum of a community meeting is that they conventionally take the form of a series of small-group meetings, not one large gathering. Keeping the groups separate reduces the potential for open conflict between groups that have competing values, of course, but it also generates a more diverse supply of ideas and assessments in the long run.

The term “charrette” is under-used today, even though many RFPs include planning process questions, which can be best responded to by describing a charrette-like process. I’m not sure whether I’ll quote this passage directly in future proposals, or quote small sections and paraphrase the rest, but I’m confident the concepts will appear.

The second way charrettes arrived came from a client, who said that her organization was founded following a series of local planning charrettes. We’ve rarely heard origin stories like this; most nonprofits start the same way businesses do, when an individual or small group of people create a nonprofit corporation and file for a 501(c)3 letter. The charrette structure is unusual, and it struck me because it’s so rarely used. Too rarely used, one could say. An organization with that kind of origin story should flaunt the story. Which we, being good grant writers, will.


* Remember that reading is one of the open secrets of grant writing. Read a lot and incorporate what you find into your proposals.

Write proposals for grant reviewers, not your colleagues or bureaucratic peers

We’ve written many times in many ways that the golden rule of grant writing is “he who has the gold makes the rules“—and that means organizations that want to be funded should follow the funding guidelines as closely as possible. While “follow the funding guidelines” seems like an obvious point, a temptation frequently arises to write not to the funder, and the reviewers, but to one’s peers in an organization, real or imagined. Don’t fall into this trap—your audience is always the reviewers.

That temptation arises when the writer or editor fears what their peers may think, or how their peers, supervisors, board members, city council people, etc, conceptualize the organization or project. Giving in and targeting that audience causes the writer to shift the focus from the proposal and funder at hand—often fatally. The writer may lose the ability to put the most important thing in the first sentence. The writer will forget that, even with grant reviewers, attention is a valuable, rare resource:

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.

We can, and will, tell you what the point is—which we do whenever we write a proposal. We try to use the reader’s attention as best we can. But when the audience shifts from the reviewer to some other audience, the coherence and quality of the proposal often drops. Don’t do this.

(As you may imagine, we’ve seen many examples in which clients forgot to write for the reviewer, but we can’t cite specifics here. Nonetheless, if you find yourself thinking, “What is the Board going to think about this description?” instead of “What is the funder going to think about this?”, you are entering the danger zone.)

Why do grant writing firms market so many disparate services?

We’ve seen a lot of would-be grant writing competitors come and go, and the ones that commonly go have something in common: they offer a huge array of disparate services. Grant writing. Program development. Board training. Evaluation. Curriculums. Lobbying. Staff training. Guacamole recipes.

Okay, I made that last one up. Still, a cliché encapsulates the disparate-service approach of some firms: “Jack of all trades and master of none.” I see firms marketing half a dozen (or more) different services and think they’re likely not very good at any. How many restaurants make six different cuisines well? None, or nearly none. Any single field, including the highly specialized form of technical writing that is grant writing, is extremely difficult to master. Few firms are likely to have mastered many, vaguely related, and specialized services.*

To my mind, claiming to do even three disparate things at a professional level is improbable. Advertising many together seems like the mark of an amateur, or someone chucking as many stones as they can in order to see what hits. Individual targeting of one or two services is more likely to yield a good outcome.

Grant writing and marketing, for example, have very little to do with each other. Even grant writing and donor management are very different skills, much like coding software is a very different skill from selling software—even if both positions involve software in some way.

Not surprisingly, I recently saw a particular firm’s website that demonstrates some of these themes. I’m not going to name it, but if you’ve been around the nonprofit block a few times you’ve probably seen it or ones similar to it.


* The possible exception to this is of course Amazon, which is (so far) successfully mastering an astonishing and growing array of unrelated-seeming services.

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.

Everything complicated is hard, including writing grant proposals

I was just listening to Tyler Cowen’s conversation with Atul Gawande and noticed this part:

COWEN: Why do surgeons sometimes leave sponges behind in the bodies of patients who are being operated on?

GAWANDE: You zeroed in on one of my very first projects in creating intervention.

COWEN: Great paper.

GAWANDE: We had done a case control study of this problem of surgeons leaving sponges inside people, and got it published in the New England Journal [of Medicine], partly because of our whole method of going about solving this problem, which was, we studied 60 people who had sponges left inside them, compared to 240 people at the same institution at the same time with the same operation who didn’t have sponges left inside them.

I don’t want to focus on the interventions Gawande developed (he is the author of The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, the title of which gives you a pretty big clue about one of those interventions); instead I want to focus on the fact that surgeons—who go to four years of undergrad, four years of med school, at least five years (in most cases) of residency—and who are highly motivated to not screw up procedures, because if they do people die—still manage to make seemingly elementary mistakes. Like forgetting a sponge in a patient.

Those mistakes happen, even to brilliant people, because as the cognitive load on a person increases, so does the tendency for error—even simple error. The same kinds of things happen, of course, in grant writing, although our “patients” are unlikely to die as a result. Still, the grant writing process is cognitively complex, which in part explains why so few people can become good grant writers. Interactions among the staff operating the program, the person writing the proposal, the funding agency, and the RFP are complex and can lead to errors. Even the nature of RFPs themselves lend themselves to error.

For example, I was just working on an HIV testing proposal for a client in a big Midwestern city. The narrative section of the proposal is limited to ten pages, with 1.5 line spacing, or about 7 single-spaced pages. The RFP, however, is 111 single-space pages. That’s right, the RFP is about 15 times longer than the allowed response. The possibility for error in such situations is enormous—it is cognitively difficult, and maybe impossible, to hold 111 pages of sometimes contradictory instructions, background on the applicant, and project design in one’s “RAM,” while also keeping to the max page length.

Part of our job as grant writers is to minimize error and understand where and why it might happen, so that we can prevent it to the maximum extent possible. Surgeons, who face life and death issues, don’t always manage to get the sponges out of people, even when they are very highly incentivized to do so. As such, it should not be surprising that the rest of us, who are doing cognitively complex tasks, also face major challenges in getting things right.

Everything is hard. Sometimes there is no way around that. If you’re old enough, you likely remember computers from ten or fifteen years ago that were slow and unreliable by today’s standards. Today, computers are probably more than a thousand times faster (transistor density tends to double every eighteen to twenty-four months) than they were 15 years ago. Yet Firefox is still kind of slow at times, Word still crashes, and various other programs have their foibles. One would expect computers to have transformed medicine, especially now that they’re so fast, yet every doctor hates their Electronic Medical Record (EMR) system. Isaac’s primary care physician uses eClinicalWorks and routinely complains about it being slower and less efficient than hand charting. He says finding the information he needs is harder with eClinicalWorks than it was when he charted by hand. In other words, he likes a millennia-old technology better than the latest software release.

We have faster computers, but EMRs still suck. We have faster computers, but Word still crashes. We have faster computers, but we also demand more of them. As hardware capabilities expand, we demand more of software. The software gets more complex and eats the gains from hardware speed. If I only ran programs from 10 or 15 years ago and made demands like those from that time, I could have a blazing-fast computer, but without the capabilities I like (like the ultra-high resolution 5K display on my iMac). Making software is hard, so it has problems and trade-offs.

The analogy to grant writing seems too obvious to belabor. I’ve also got to get back to the 10 page opus I’m extruding from the 111 page RFP; it’s too early for a cocktail.

Oh, and that story about the sponges? Gawande did come up with a technological fix for lost sponges: bar code each sponge and make sure that each sponge is “checked in” and “checked out.” That simple intervention means that virtually no sponges are lost in patients today. But not all problems lend themselves to technological fixes. Writing doesn’t.

Cal Newport’s “Deep Work” and grant writing

Jake recently gave me Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.* Newport describes “deep work” as:

The ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task . . . And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep-spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.

While I’ve not yet finished the book, I’m not sure Newport’s thesis is all that applicable or practical in today’s connected work places. Still, as a grant writer, the concept resonates with me. As I’ve written above before, grant writing is mostly a solitary activity—one RFP, one writer, one iMac, one project concept, and, eventually, a finished proposal. I’ve known this since dinosaurs walked the earth and I wrote my first grant proposal on a cave wall (not quite—a legal pad**—but it was so long ago that it might’ve been a cave wall). The challenge of any writer is to stay focused, which phone calls, texts, emails, random Internet browsing, Facebook (or in my case, LinkedIn) all conspire to dissipate, more or less meeting the general definition of entropy: “a trend to disorder.”***

In the nascent days of Seliger + Associates, I was much better at staying focused while writing. That was due in part to my relative youth, terror at the prospect of missing a deadline (since I had no backup), and no Internet, email or texts—just plain old phone calls, the occasional fax, and howls from Jake and his siblings when they got home from school. As the decades have unfolded, it’s become harder and harder for me to remain in a state of deep work for more than hour or two, compared to as long as ten hours in the good old days (to be fair, they weren’t actually all that good—just different).

I have strategies for deep work—especially when we face intense deadlines. These include listening to music while I write (I’ve never been distracted by music, unlike most writers), starting to write as early as 6 AM when I’m fresh, setting goals for the day’s output, taking walks every couple of hours (my dog insists on this anyway), a 20 minute nap at midday, a very comfortable Herman Miller Embody desk chair, and so on. Jake hews to Newport’s recommendations more faithfully than me by using a program called Freedom to suspend Internet access for designated periods of time, turning off the ringers on his cell and office phones, and turning off his email client.

I can’t turn off phone ringers or my email client during the work week, as I always have to be alert for incoming emails and calls from current and prospective clients. I probably wouldn’t anyway, because I’ve just have lost some of my ability to stay on point, perhaps due to age or the amazing allure of Internet access to all manner of distraction. Like many people, I don’t want to disconnect distraction.

Deep Work is worth reading, not only for grant writers, but anyone involved in knowledge work. Interestingly, Jake’s younger sister, who is a manager with a tech company, saw the book when she came over one day and told me she’d already read it and found it useful. I’m not sure how tech workers can concentrate in the open offices of most tech work spaces. I can’t even write in a coffee shop, let alone in a 5,000-square foot open office space with dozens of coders and other workers within earshot and vision.

Interestingly, I was talking about Deep Work and the solitary aspect of grant writing with a friend who’s been a successful TV writer/producer for years. She said that TV writers typically work in groups in “writer rooms,” without any real ability to focus. I’m not sure how this gets done, but this seems to be the practice. I know that, even if I could write dialogue, which I can’t, I could never do so in a group setting, headphones or not.


* This is unusual, as Jake typically gives me a WW II book for birthdays, father’s day, etc., which we collectively refer to as “Hitler Books.” It’s always surprising that, 70 years on, someone finds an unrevealed aspect of WW II to write about.

** About 35 years ago, I had to finish a proposal while on a ski trip to Mammoth in the Sierras. Since there were about eight of us in a condo, and everyone else was drunk and disorderly, I actually wrote the draft longhand on a legal pad in the bathtub well past midnight! As the Beatles wrote in Norwegian Wood “and crawled off to sleep in the bath.”

*** Or “kipple”, as Phillip K. Dick refers to the entropy of stuff in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, the inspiration for one of my fave science fiction movies, Blade Runner. And yes, I think Decker was a replicant, despite the implications of the sequel coming out soon.

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.

How we write scientific and technical grant proposals

We’re not scientists or engineers and yet we routinely write scientific and technical proposals. First-time callers are often incredulous at this ability; how can we, with no expertise in a given scientific or technical field, write a complex grant proposal in that field? Though it seems impossible, we do it.

We can write those proposals because we’re expert grant writers—and we’re also like journalists in that we’re very good at listening to what we’re told and reshaping what we’re told into a coherent narrative that covers the 5Ws and H. We do rely on technical content from our clients, and most clients have something—journal articles, concept papers, Powerpoint slides, etc., that describes their technology and proposed research design. We’re very good at reading that material and understanding the rules it offers, the challenges it presents, and the constraints of the problem space.

Once we understand those things, we’re also good at understanding the principles as our clients describe them. So if our clients tell us that Process A and Process B yields Outcome C and Outcome D, we’ll keep repeating that until we see a moment in their background material that says Process A and Process B yield Outcome E, at which point we’ll raise the issue with the actual experts (sometimes the technical experts realize that something is amiss). There are many specific examples of this I could give, but I won’t in this public forum because we respect our clients’ privacy. We also often often sign NDAs, so you’ll have to accept somewhat abstract and contrived-feeling examples.

large_hadron_colliderWhile we’re very good at following the rules our clients give us, we generally won’t uncover specific technical issues that other technical experts might. We’re not chemists or materials scientists or programmers, so it’s possible for a howler to sail right past us; we rely on our clients to understand their own technical processes and the basic physical laws of chemistry, physics, biology, etc. That being said, we do have a basic understanding of some aspects of science—we’ve gotten calls from spurious inventors trying to get us to work on their perpetual motion machines (I’m not making this up), but for the most part we rely on our clients’ deep technical background.

Oddly, sometimes our relative scientific ignorance is actually a virtue. We often ask questions that make our clients really understand what they’re doing and what they’re proposing. Sometimes we uncover hidden assumptions that need to be explained. Other times we find logic or conceptual holes that must be plugged. Having a total outsider come in and tromp around can improve the overall project concept, because we clarify what is actually going on and ask questions that more experienced people might not—but that grant reviewers might. It’s possible to be too close to a set of ideas or problems, and in those situations outsiders like us can be useful.

As I’ve written throughout this post, our ability to write scientific and technical proposals is predicated on our clients’ technical background. For that reason we generally don’t offer flat-fee bids on technical jobs because we don’t know how much background material we will receive or when we will receive it. For most social and human service grants, we’re able to accurately estimate how many hours a given project will take us, based on our past experience and our understanding of the field. We can and often write quite complex social and human service grants with near-zero background from our clients. But we’re not able to do that for projects related to new drugs, new solar technologies, and the like. We also don’t know how usable and coherent the background material our clients provide will be; coherent, usable materials can dramatically shorten our work time, while the opposite will obviously lengthen it.

We’re also very good at storytelling. A compelling proposal, even a highly technical one, needs to make an argument about why funding the proposal will lead to improvement innovations, breakthroughs, or improvements. Most scientific and technical experts have not spent much time honing their general writing or storytelling skills. We have, and we’re aware that, to most people, data without stories is not compelling. We often find that our clients know a huge amount of useful, vital information and have great ideas, but that those same clients can’t structure that information in a way that makes it viable as a proposal. We can do that for them.*

Occasionally, potential clients tell us that they somehow want a domain expert who is also a grant writer. We wish them luck, and often they call back after a day or two, unable to find what they’re looking for; we’ve written about related topics in “National Institute of Health (NIH) Grant Writers: An Endangered Species or Hidden Like Hobbits?” There are no hybrid grant writers and physicists (or whatever) because the market for that niche is too small to have any specialists in it. Being an expert grant writer is extremely hard and being an expert physicist is also extremely hard. The overlap between those two is so tiny that most organizations are better off hiring an expert grant writer and helping the grant writer learn just enough to write the proposal.


* Not everyone is good at everything, and we all reap gains from trade and specialization. We’re very good grant writers but we can’t explain what’s happening at the Large Hadron Collider or write useful open source software.

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