Category Archives: Writing

Writing (still) requires coherent paragraphs

Last month I was working on a California State Preschool Program Expansion proposal, and California is one of those states with elaborate, bizarre curriculum requirements for every single person ages birth through 18. You may think I’m joking about “birth,” but you can actually look up California’s “Preschool Learning Foundations,” which extend from “Birth Through Kindergarten.”

Leaving aside the absurdity of “learning foundations” for two year olds—when I was two, I suspect that “eating without smearing food on face” was a major “learning foundation”—much of the material produced by California and the flock of vendors around educational programs is written in bullets, tables, fragments, and images. Some of this material is in complete sentences, like “Children use mathematical thinking to solve problems that arise in their everyday environment,” but surprisingly little is in paragraphs.

Much of the material around California’s school requirements is so disjointed that it’s practically unusable for proposals. Grant writers should experience this as a problem and an opportunity, because the number of people who can write sustained, long-form documents is small and may even be shrinking. We’ve written before about how “Grant writing is long-form, not fragmentary.” Yet much of the modern written world consists of bullets, tables, fragments, and images; that’s true even in the education system, which is supposed to be teaching students how to concentrate and how to write clearly and at length. Real writing requires coherent paragraphs, and when states (and their vendors) don’t produce those paragraphs, someone else must step up and do so. Like grant writers.

Being able to write coherent paragraphs, even when the source material is sentence fragments, is (still) an important skill; it’s so important that I’ve actually begun assigning “The Writing Revolution” to students. Paragraphs require transitions and the effective use of “coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.” Effective writing requires effective quotation, as you can see in the previous sentence. Yet bullet, tables, fragments, and images don’t require those things. That’s part of the reason they’re less satisfying to read—though they can be easier to write. Hence the proliferation of tables instead of prose.

But until funders ask for fragments rather than stories, you, the grant writer, must produce coherent paragraphs. This can be hard. I’ve written sentences, paragraphs, blog posts, articles, grant proposals, and books. The length of a document does not scale linearly; it scales exponentially (which is one reason lists and tables are easier than narrative paragraphs: they rely on the reader to fill in blanks and transitions). The longer a given, coherent document is supposed to be, the more challenging it is. That’s why I assign first-semester freshmen five-page papers and second-semester freshmen ten-page research papers, and that’s why senior theses are longer and more detailed. Students have to work up to the conceptually more challenging projects.

I’m not totally opposed to lists and tables in the right circumstances. Our links posts, for example, are a series of bullets. I don’t want to fetishize the paragraph. But I do want to observe that, when everyone else is going short, it can be beneficial for you to go long—and to know how to go long.

Despite the need to write stories and the human need to consume stories, I’ll also note that it’s not always necessary to reinvent the wheel for proposals. For example, if you’re working on an after school program or job training program that already has a curriculum available, the curriculum itself can become a large part of the project description—as long as you make sure the language matches the RFP’s language and as long as you can adapt the curriculum descriptions to paragraphs. You don’t need to reinvent everything, and if you’re a real grant writer you probably have neither the time nor the mental energy to do so. But you do need to make sure that the the arguments you make occur in paragraph form and that those paragraphs are logically linked together. If you can do that, you’ve got a skill few people do.

Grant writing derangement syndrome (GWDS)

Grant Writing Derangement Syndrome (GWDS) occurs when the grant writer works on too many nonsensical, poorly organized, or simply maddening RFPs. The symptoms include an inability to think straight; the inability to continue forming semi-coherent sentences in the face of self-contradictory or incoherent RFPs; and cackling maniacally in the absence of appropriate humor stimulus (the cackling often disturbs anyone sharing the grant writer’s space).

Problems leading to GWDS often begin with repetitive, inane RFP questions that seem designed to frustrate the transmission of information rather than enable it. GWDS becomes more severe as the grant writer persists, knowing that the deadline looms like the ever present clock in High Noon.

I don’t know what the cure for GWDS might be, but I know the ailment well. To some extent, GWDS can be alleviated by going for a walk, taking deep breaths, staring off into the distance, and, best of all, putting aside the proposal for a while. The challenge, however, is that RFP deadlines are rigid and often prevent the grant writer from executing that last step. This means that the symptoms usually persist for at least as long as the assignment does, and sometimes longer. Then, I look at my work schedule and see yet another RFP train bearing down on me. It’s time to power down the iMac and stroll to my favorite hipster coffee shop, La Colombe.

But that often isn’t enough, because the RFPs never stop.

Acceptable Grant Proposal Language Evolves: No More Living on the Down Low

In today’s world of hyper micro-aggression Thought Police on social media and college campuses,* grant writers must be constantly vigilant regarding “acceptable” grant proposal language while simultaneously being culturally sensitive. We’ve written about the challenge of balancing the two in “Cultural Sensitivity, Cultural Insensitivity, and the ‘Big Bootie’ Problem in Grant Writing.” We recently encountered a challenge along those lines in the form of client pushback to a phrase we’ve used for years when writing HIV/AIDs proposals targeting African Americans: “Living on the down low.”

“Living on the down low” is shorthand for the fairly common practice of some men (and it’s particularly common among African American) to sometimes have unacknowledged (and usually unprotected) sex with other men. This class of high-risk persons are commonly referred to as “MSMs” (men who have sex with other men) in the grant writing trade, but they don’t consider themselves bisexual. Leaving aside the closeted aspect of this behavior, it can help explain why the CDC reports that “African Americans are the racial/ethnic group most affected by HIV in the United States.” The New York Times published the seminal (pun intended) story on this phenomenon way back in 2003.

For years, we’ve been including sentences like this in most HIV/AIDS proposals: “The target population is African American men living on the down low.” We recently wrote a HRSA HIV/AIDS proposal that offered variations on “living on the down low” in the first draft. But our client considered that phrase pejorative. Internally, we were surprised, but we rewrote the second draft with alternative, convoluted language to describe the same behavior. We’re just ghost writers after all and never have a dog in proposal language fights.

We don’t know when “living on the down low” became anathema to our contact person in this agency, but we won’t use it in their proposals anymore. There are other formerly used terms have a similar history. For example, “Afro-American” and “black” were popular usages until the Reverend Jesse Jackson led a 1988 news conference of 75 “black” (black was used in the media) organizations, stating that their preferred usage was now African American and certainly not “Negro,” which had last seen favor in the Johnson administration. Consequently, we’ve predominantly used the term “African American” since going into business in 1993, unless our client tells us they prefer “black.” We’re always careful to capitalize Black when we do use it, to keep language hawks at bay. Some clients serve African or Caribbean immigrants, however, and dislike the term “African American” because they see it as inaccurate. There is no single right answer for everyone.

“People of color” is another currently fashionable usage and handy catch-all. Be careful, however. ABC’s Good Morning America anchor Amy Robach recently fell afoul when she inexplicably tossed out the phrase “colored people” on live TV, presumably having meant to say “people of color.” This led to a rather wonderful essay by African American and decidedly non-PC Columbia University linguist John McWorter, in which he asked: “Is ‘colored people’ a slur?”

In grant writing it’s important not to offend clients and grant reviewers. But it’s even more important to find pathways through the language and identity minefields to write in clear, easy to understand, language that succinctly tells the story.

* See, though, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s essay “The Coddling of the American Mind: In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. This essay explains why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health,” which takes on related issues.

John Seabrook’s “The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory” Also Illustrates How We Write Grant Proposals

Long-time New Yorker writer John Seabrook’s wonderfully witty and sometimes gossipy book, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, explains how the pop songs of artists like Rhianna and Britney Spears have, over the last couple decades, come to be produced by teams—sometimes very large teams.* Those of us of a certain age imagine pop song melodies and lyrics being worked out on a piano or guitar by the Gershwin brothers or Irving Berlin in the Tin Pan Alley era, Phil Spector and Carole King in the Brill Building heyday, or John and Paul during the British Invasion.

The_Song_MachineIn other words, we imagine something close to romantic loners coming up with brilliant ideas on their own and turning those ideas into art. Seabrook explodes that mythology: today’s pop stars rarely have much to do with creating their hits, other than laying down vocal tracks, which are almost always enhanced with pitch perfecting software like Auto-Tune. Songs are actually constructed or “manufactured” by producers, who reap gains from specialization and economies of scale—like any other industrial organization.

In these literal hit factories, producers create the underlying track with repetitive hooks from electronic snips of older songs and digital instrumental elements, while topliners add the vocal tune and lyrics. Virtually no musicians playing real instruments are involved. Seabrook lets us know that the once ubiquitous “session musicians” and complex mixing boards are gone, replaced with laptops and software. As Marc Andreessen famously observed, software is eating the world—including the pop music world.

Although I have eclectic music tastes and usually listen to music on my Bose Quiet25 Headphones while writing proposals, I didn’t know about the profound music business transformation. Even more startling is that this new music world order began in Sweden, of all places, a couple decades ago in Cheiron Studios. Founded by producers Denniz Pop and Max Martin, Cheiron created mega hits for an endless stream of pop acts from the Backstreet Boys to Katy Perry to Taylor Swift.

Music fashion may change, but the underlying players have been relatively stable for a surprisingly long time. While I’m well read in pop culture, I’d never heard of Denniz, Max, and a constellation of descending producers and topliners grinding out songs from Stockholm to Brooklyn to West Hollywood, like the amazingly successful and prolific Dr. Luke.

As I was reading The Song Machine, I realized the parallel between writing songs and writing proposals. Like the traditional melody and lyrics approach of pre-Cheiron song writing, grant writing is usually done in a standard way: The internal or external grant writer facilitates visioning meetings with stakeholders to develop the project concept, drawing circles and arrows on a white board, and the proposal is then written iteratively, just like Carole King and Gerry Goffin writing “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” in 1961.

In contrast, Seliger + Associates uses the Cheiron approach, and we developed our system almost 25 years ago—around the time Denniz and Max were using computer hardware and software
advances to change the music world. In our grant hit factory, we’ve adopted a track/hook and topliner method for grant writing: The track is formed by the RFP structure that usually dictates the basic project elements (e.g., outreach, case-managed services, follow-up, etc.), research citations in the needs assessment, and agency background.

The track is also larded with short repetitive phrases (e.g., “vulnerable youth,” “African American-centric organization embedded in the target neighborhood,” etc.), forming the hooks. Rhetorical flourishes, which may be relatively nonsensical like top topliner Ester Dean’s lyrics for the Katy Perry hit “Firework” (“‘Cause baby, you’re a firework / Come on show them what you’re worth”), are our toplines. Like Dr. Luke, we add and polish our toplines in the second and final proposal drafts, over the track/hooks laid down in the first draft.

When Seliger + Associates began in 1993, we initially used the hoary and cumbersome traditional melody and lyric grant writing approach. I’d fly to meet clients from Alaska to LA to NYC, then go through the visioning exercise. As the Internet emerged, we realized that this was not only too time consuming and expensive, but also no longer necessary. Over the next few years, we perfected the virtual scoping call and track/hook and topline approach that is illustrated in two Process Diagrams on our site.

Most of our potential clients are amazed that we can write any grant proposal based solely on an hour-long scoping call, whatever background info the client provides, our reading the RFP, and our imagination. But we can, using an analogue of The Song Machine revealed by Seabrook. When I look at the websites of putative competitors and related organizations like the American Grant Writers’ Association (AGWA) or The Grantsmanship Center (TGCI), it’s obvious that they’re stuck in the Brill Building of grant writing.

* Seabrook echoes the lyrics of Joni Mitchell’s 1974 hit “Free Man in Paris:” “But for the work I’ve taken on, Stoking the star-maker machinery, Behind the popular song.”

Is Violent Crime Going Up or Down in America? Nobody Actually Knows, But the Debate Illustrates How Grant Proposal Needs Assessments are Written

One of our past posts described how to write proposal needs assessments. A spate of recent articles on the so-called Ferguson Effect provides a good example of how proficient grant writers can use selected data and modifying words to shape a needs assessment to support whatever the project concept is.

Last week Heather Mac Donald’s Wall Street Journal editorial “Trying to Hide the Rise of Violent Crime” claimed that violent crime is rising, due to “the Ferguson Effect,” but that “progressives and media allies” have launched a campaign to deny this reality. Right on cue, the New York Times ran a front page “news” story telling grumpy New Yorkers that “Anxiety Aside, New York Sees Drop in Crime.” Both articles cite the same Brennan Center for Justice study, Crime in 2015: A Preliminary Analysis, to support their arguments.

This reminds me of the old joke about how different newspapers would report that the end of the world will happen tomorrow: the New York Times, “World Ends Tomorrow, Women and Minorities Hurt Most;” the Wall Street Journal, “World Ends Tomorrow, Markets Close Early;” and Sports Illustrated, “Series Cancelled, No World.” One can frame a set of “facts” differently, depending on one’s point of view and the argument being made.

Neither the NYT or WSJ writers actually know if violent crime is going up or down in the short term. Over the past few decades, it is clear that crime has decline enormously, but it isn’t clear what causal mechanisms might be behind that decline.

Perhaps, like Schrödinger’s cat being alive and dead at the same time to explain quantum mechanics, crime is up and down at the same, depending on who’s doing the observing and how they’re observing.

One of the challenges is that national crime data, as aggregated in the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) system, is inherently questionable. First, police departments report these data voluntarily and many crimes are subject to intentional or unintentional miss-categorization (was it an assault or aggravated assault?) or under/over reporting, depending on how local political winds are blowing (to see one public example of this in action, consider “NYPD wants to fix stats on stolen Citi Bikes,” which describes how stealing a Citi Bike counts as a felony because each one costs more than $1,000). A less-than-honorable police chief, usually in cahoots with local pols, can make “crime rates” go up or down. Then there is the problem of using averages for data, which leads to another old joke about the guy with his head in the oven and his feet in the freezer. On average, he felt fine.

But from your perspective as a grant writer, the important question isn’t whether crime rates decline or whether “the Ferguson Effect” makes them fall. If residents of a given city/neighborhood feel vulnerable to perceived crime increases, the increases are “real to them” and can form the basis for a project concept for grants seeking. Plus, when data to prove the need is hard to come by, we sometimes ask our clients for anecdotes about the problem and add a little vignette to the needs assessment. A call to the local police department’s gang unit will always produce a great “end of the world” gang issue quote from the Sergeant in charge, while a call to the local hospital will usually yield a quote about an uptick in gun shoot victims being treated, and so on. Sometimes in proposals anecdotes can substitute for data, although this is not optimal.

Within reason and the rather vague ethical boundaries of grant seeking and writing, a good grant writer can and should pick and choose among available data to construct the needs assessment argument for funding anything the agency/community sees a need for.

For example, if we were writing a proposal for an urban police department to get more funds for community policing, we would use up or down crime rate data to demonstrate the need for a new grant. If the crime is trending down, we’d use the data to argue that the police department is doing a good job with community policing but needs some more money to do an even better job, while being able to provide technical assistance to other departments. If the crime data is trending upward, we’d argue that there’s a crisis and the grant must be made to save life and limb. If we were working for a nonprofit in the same city that wants grants for after school enrichment for at-risk youth, we’d cherry-pick the crime data to argue that a nurturing after-school setting is necessary, to keep them protected from the false allures of gangs, early risky sexual experimentation, and/or drugs.

Most grant needs assessments are written backwards. One starts with the premise for the project concept and structures the data and analysis to support the stated need. It may be hard for true believers and novice grant writers to accept, but grant writing is rarely a blue sky/visioning exercise. The funder really sets the parameters of the program. The client knows what they want the grant for. It’s the job of the grant writer to build the needs assessment by including, excluding, and/or obfuscating data. This approach works well, because most funders only know what the applicant tells them in the proposal. Some grant programs, like our old pals DOL’s YouthBuild and ED’s Talent Search, try to routinize needs assessments and confound rascally grant writers by mandating certain data sets. We’re too crafty, however, and can usually overcome such data requirements through the kind of word and data selections that Mac Donald cites in her article.

In grant writing, make sure you get to the finish line

Five years ago I wrote a post explaining why applying for grants is not like winning an Olympic Gold Medal. A couple of recent conversations with clients made me re-think this analogy, because these clients seemed to want to give up before we completed the proposal submission package but after most of the work had been done.

The clients had an array of not-mutually-exclusive reasons. They’d been traumatized or paralyzed into inaction by the proposal completion process. They’d experienced difficulty getting support letters. Other members of the management team had lost enthusiasm. Christmas is coming in three months. A sudden opportunity to travel to the Galapagos Islands appeared. And so on. This puts us in the position of a baseball third-base coach waving a runner home, even though Yogi Berra is blocking home, waiting for the bullet outfield throw from Mickey Mantle. In baseball you can’t score if you don’t cross home plate. You can’t win an Olympic Gold Medal in the 100 yard dash unless you break the tape. You also can’t get a grant without submitting the proposal in time to meet the deadline. The closer you get to that deadline, the better off you are completing the proposal so that you can at least have a chance of winning.

In these cases, we do everything we can to get our suddenly reluctant clients to cooperate and meet the deadline, even if the proposal is missing a piece or two or is otherwise less than perfect. While we make every effort to help our clients submit technically correct proposals, we’ve also seen proposals funded that were technically deficient. Grant reviewers sometimes miss the deficiency, either from simple oversight or from the fact that RFPs are often astoundingly complex, contradictory and/or opaque—to reviewers and writers.

We’ve even seen federal grant proposal review comments in which the reviewer clearly confused the proposal we wrote for a proposal submitted by a different applicant in a different part of country. In other words, the proposal we wrote was actually scored entirely incorrectly because someone else’s was mistaken for it. This means the other proposal was also incorrectly scored!

Error is the normal state of human affairs, and decades in the grant business have revealed many errors to us. Keep in mind too that as the deadline looms other would-be applicants are probably feeling as demoralized as you. Force yourself to be disciplined enough to get the proposal in as good shape as you can and hit the submit button, even one minute in advance of the deadline. You might be one of a handful of applicants who submits a more or less complete proposal. As we’re written about before, since it’s simply not possible to handicap the chances of any proposal being funded, you might as well submit what you have and hope.

Which brings me back around to Yogi, who left us a few weeks ago to play ball once again, this time on his own Field of Dreams. Yogi was the source of many quotes that apply to the grant preparation process—”It ain’t over till it’s over” and “this is like deja vu all over again” seem apropos.

Be “Experienced” and “Innovative” at the Same Time

Certain buzzwords and buzz-ideas take over the grant world (and the larger world) at various times. “Innovation” is one concept everyone loves. According to Google’s Ngram viewer, “innovation” has appeared to triple in popularity over the last two centuries. Way back in 2010 we wrote “Change for Change’s Sake in Grant Proposals: When in Doubt, Claim Your Program is Innovative.” That’s still true today and will likely be true for many years to come. But being “innovative” often feels contrary from being “experienced.”

Innovators are often the brash upstarts, while experienced applicants are supposed to apply their knowledge of the past to the problems of the present.* As we wrote in “When It Comes To Applying for Grants, Size Doesn’t Matter (Usually)” and “So, How Much Grant Money Should I Ask For? And Who’s the Competition?“, the size and experience of an agency will often dictate the logic argument made for why a given proposal should be funded.

Arguing that you have experience providing similar services is at odds with claims about being radically innovative. Markets depend on creative destruction, and the grant system exists in part to facilitate the exit of sclerotic nonprofits and the creation of nimbler nonprofits. Consider, this from “How Tesla Will Change the World:”

Over time, big industries tend to get flabby and uncreative and risk-averse—and if the right outsider company has the means and creativity to come at the industry with a fresh perspective and rethink the whole thing, there’s often a huge opportunity there.

Fortunately for grant writers and applicants, very few funders are going to think that hard about the distinction between innovation and experience: we’ve never heard that any of our clients have had a funder point out this conundrum to them. Funders are managed by humans—mostly, anyway—and like most humans their motivations are not only obscure to observers, and also often to themselves. So a good grant writer can still argue that the applicant is somehow both innovative and experienced. The number of truly “innovative” programs we’ve seen is quite small, but that’s because social and human services attempt to get people to behave in ways that they don’t feel like behaving.**

* As, for example, Steven Berlin Johnson argues in Where Good Ideas Come From.

** When I wrote this post I was thinking about “In Grant Writing, Longer is Not Necessarily Better.”

Use Microsoft Word (Until Further Notice)

You should use Microsoft Word to write your proposals. There are many other fine word processors out there—I’m personally fond of Scrivener for some tasks—and online tools like Google Docs are becoming more popular. But in the grant world everyone—especially funders—have standardized on Word and remain using Word, because of path dependence.

The last couple of generations of Word interchange files easily and seamlessly. They retain formatting and special characters and so forth. As we’ve written about before, proposals should be written by a single person, but they may be read by dozens of people. Word has reasonably good facilities, in the form of Track Changes, for ensuring that it’s possible to collect and reconcile comments. File format converters often don’t work very well. Formatting is often lost or corrupted in the conversion process. Proposals are hard enough as it is without inducing technical problems.

Funders also want to receive either Word files or PDFs as uploaded files. You must send funders proposals in the required format or your proposal will be rejected out of hand.

We have loads of complaints about Word: its paragraph style system is difficult. For many years we used a program called Lotus WordPro, not above, but WordPro lost and Word won, so we gave up. If you’re working on proposals, you need a copy of Word for the foreseeable future. Sorry. It’s true. In some domains online systems may be better than Word. Grant writing isn’t one of those domains and won’t be for the foreseeable future. Like it or not, Word seems to be here to stay.

Word for OS X still crashes with distressing frequency, which is amazing given how long smart software engineers have been working on it. I’m writing this sentence on June 3, and Word just crashed as I tried to quit it. Data wasn’t lost—which is good, because I was also editing a YouthBuild proposal and had Auto Save enabled—but it’s notable that a program like Word is still not as good as it should be. I can be angry about Word, but because of the ecosystem around it I can’t get away from it. Neither can you. Don’t try. Not now. Not if you have to collaborate with more than one or two people.

You may have already intuited this, but in this post, as with so many posts, we speak from hard experience.

In grant writing, longer is not necessarily better

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.

Seliger + Associates enters grant writing oral history (or something like that)

Seliger + Associates has been toiling away in the grant writing salt mines for over two decades, and last week we got hired to review and edit a new client’s draft proposal for a federal program we’ve been writing for years.* They emailed their draft and we were delighted to see that it’s actually based on a proposal we wrote for some forgotten client ten to fifteen years ago. While the proposal has morphed over the years, we could easily find passages I likely wrote when Jake was in middle school.

We’ve encountered sections of our old proposals before, but this example is particularly obvious. The draft was also written to an archaic version of the RFP, so it included ideas that were important many years ago but that have since been removed or de-emphasized. We of course fixed those issues, along with others, but we also left some our our golden historic phrases intact for the ages. This version will undoubtedly also linger on into the future.

We’re part of what might best termed the “oral history” of grant writing. We’re the Homer of the grant world, which is a particularly apt comparison because “Homer” may have been more than one person. For the first ten years or so of being in business, our drafts were most sent by fax, but we sent final files on CDs. For the past decade we’ve been emailing Word versions of all narratives and Excel budgets. Our proposals have probably been traded by nonprofits all over the country like Magic: The Gathering Cards.** Still, unlike some other grant writers who will remain nameless, we never post or sell our proposals. But it seems that the digital age has caught up with us anyway.

In some ways, seeing shades of our old proposals makes me feel proud, as our impact will likely last as long as there are RFPs—which is another way of saying forever.

We don’t know what strange ways brought the proposal we wrote to our current client. We’ve had hundreds of clients and written many more proposals of all stripes, and even if we wanted to trace its lineage we couldn’t.

As we’ve written before, grant writing at its most basic level is story telling. Now our stories have assumed a digital afterlife of their own. While Titanic is not my favorite film or movie theme, I’ll paraphrase Celine Dion, as it does seem that . . .”our proposal words will go on and on.”

* Faithful readers will probably know which program I’m discussing, but we’ll keep it on the down low to protect the guilty and and punish the innocent.

** When Jake was about 11, and just before his unfortunate discovery of video games, he was a huge Magic player and was always after me to buy yet more cards. As I recall, he and his little pals endlessly traded Magic cards for “value” that completely eluded me, a classic clueless dad. Eventually Jake grew up and lost interest, at which point the value of the cards became zero for him.