Tag Archives: Advice

“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.

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.)

HRSA makes it harder for NAP applicants to shoot themselves in the foot

Many of you are working on HRSA New Access Points (NAP) applications, and this year HRSA made a revealing change on page 3 of the FOA:

Form 2: Staffing Profile will no longer collect salary or federal funding data to reduce duplication with the Budget Justification Narrative. Fields have been added to collect information on use of contracted staff.

The phrase “to reduce duplication” implies that previous applicants would enter one set of positions in the Staffing Profile and another inconsistent set of positions in the Budget Justification Narrative. Those kinds of errors often lead to rejected proposals—even when the applicant does much else right. HRSA, to its credit, is trying to reduce the potential for such errors by putting salary information in one place, instead of two (or twelve: with the feds, trying to find all the places that must match is often challenging).

We’ve written before about the importance of internal consistency in grant proposals. Internal consistency is one of the most important aspects of a proposal. The other day I met with a client who is a grant-world novice and who provided a recently finished proposal she had written for a technical project concept. We were to use her previous proposal as a starting point for the new proposal we were writing. As we went over the budget, budget narrative, and program narrative of her old proposal, I pointed out several key inconsistencies, and those inconsistencies had likely caused the proposal to lose enough points to become non-fundable. I stressed that internal consistency is more important than perfect fidelity between proposal and project implementation.

Why? Most grant programs have some amount of slack in project implementation—that is, grant applications are proposals, and the actual activities may change (slightly). If you do slightly different project activities or have a slightly different staffing plan, you’ll be fine. With NAP, for example, it’s common for applicants to change sites after they’re funded. They might change a nurse practitioner to a family doc or vice-versa. As long as the funded applicant ultimately opens up a new primary health center and deliver primary health care, they’re going to be okay.

But to get that far, NAP applicants need internal proposal consistency as much as they need to demonstrate site control, even if they snag a different site later. Otherwise they’re unlikely to get funded, making the site issue moot.

Grant Writing Confidential Goes to the Movies 4: Titanic Edition and Sink-the-Ship mistakes

Titanic is not actually one of my favorite movies, but I’m going to use it to illustrate a critical aspect of grant writing: you’ve got to know when you’re about to commit a sink the ship mistake. We’ve written about aspects of this before (see here, here, or here), but the issue is worth emphasizing because it arises so often.

We all remember the hapless Titanic passengers, whether it be the swells in first class epitomized by the beautiful Kate Winslet or the proles in steerage personified by Leonardo DiCaprio. As least as depicted in the movie, they all bought into the White Star Line’s “unsinkable” PR BS. In Titanic, the movie, the only person who understands the minor problem of the iceberg is the ship’s designer. He responds to a passenger screaming incredulously “But the ship can’t sink” by saying, “She’s made of iron, sir! I assure you, she can… and she will. It is a mathematical certainty.”

Grant writers are the architects of a given proposal writing assignment. As one, it’s your job to steer clear of sink-the-ship problems, even if the captain (executive director) wants to sail blithely into a field of metaphorical icebergs. Here are some common sink the ship problems we see:

  • Propose a budget that exceeds the maximum grant amount or is below the minimum grant amount.
  • Propose a match that is below the minimum required match. Or fail to understand how the match should be calculated.
  • Fail to include letters of commitment or MOUs from required partners.
  • In hard copy submissions, fail to include required signature pages.
  • In online/upload submissions, fail to include required attachments, including the voluminous federal certifications required by grants.gov.
  • Exceed the page limit maximum and/or often-hidden formatting requirements (e.g. font type and size, double spacing, pagination, file naming and so on).
  • Fail to include required attachments specified in the RFP (e.g., service area map, data tables, site plans for construction projects, etc.).
  • Propose service delivery to an ineligible target area or target population.
  • Be an ineligible applicant.
  • Miss the deadline, which is the ultimate sink the ship problem.

Any of the above will most likely get your proposal tossed during the initial technical review and it will not be scored. You will have hit an iceberg, or, if you like this metaphor better, dealt yourself the Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200 card.

As professional grant writers, we make every effort (free proposal phrase here) to avoid the above by closely reading the RPP and preparing a “documents memo” for our clients. This is a checklist for required submission package items and guides our clients on what they should worry about during the drafting process. While many RFPs include “checklists,” these are often incomplete and/or inconsistent with the RFP. As President Reagan famously put it about negotiating with the Soviet Union, “trust, but verify.”

While it pays to be very careful to avoid a sink-the-ship problem, many grant writers and executive directors instead focus on non-sink-the-ship problems at late stages of the application process. Here are some examples we run into frequently:

  • Excessively worrying about word choices. Although it always best to use good grammar, using “that” instead of “which” or “client” instead of “participant” are not important after the first draft.
  • Spending inordinate time preparing fancy color charts and graphs. While the formatting should look pleasing, putting ribbons on your proposal pig may backfire, as your your agency may look “too good” to readers, or create a huge file that may result in upload problems at grants.gov and other upload sites.
  • Including endless descriptions of how wonderful the agency and executive director are. One paragraph is usually enough for the entire management team and a couple of pages of agency background is all that is needed. When writing about the agency, use specifics regarding programs, number of clients served and outcomes, instead of PR babble. Save this stuff for your annual holiday appeal letter.
  • Adding attachments that are not requested in the RFP. A screen shot of the executive director on “Oprah” or “Dr. Oz” won’t help you get funded, but they will generate amusement on the part of readers. Remember, you never what to submit a proposal that will be passed around by reviewers saying, “get a load of this one!”
  • Wasting time and space with letters of support from elected officials. Most grant reviewers know that virtually any applicant can get a letter from their congressperson/senator just by asking. This is not how influence is peddled in Washington.

Like most of our advice on the technical aspects of grant writing, avoiding a sink the ship problem is pretty simple. Read the RFP carefully, prepare a checklist with responsibilities and timeframes, write a compelling proposal, and submit a technically correct proposal a couple days ahead of the deadline. The challenge is all in the execution.

Don’t Overmatch: You Need to Look Like You Need the Money

As you no doubt know, many grant programs require matching funds, and we’ve exposed the secrets of matching funds. But in that post we didn’t mention one other key aspect of matching funds: don’t overmatch.

If there’s a 10% match, get a 10% match—and no more. There’s a signaling hazard: If you come up with a 90% match when only 10% is required, you’re demonstrating that you don’t need the money because you already (theoretically) have the money necessary to run the program. This in turn implies the dreaded supplantation problem, which is about as welcome in grant proposals as Sauron is in Gondor.

Beyond that top level reason, there are others. Let’s say you have a $250,000 project cost and in your proposal you say that a huge match will bring the project cost to $450,000. Somehow get funded anyway: now you’ll have to spend $450,000 on the project as part of the contract with the funder. Whatever you say the project cost is, that must be the project cost in the eyes of the Federal government. If you happen to get a project audit, you’re going to have to account for every dollar of $450,000. In the real world, people who happen to have an extra $200,000 sitting around can just add it to the program anyway, without promising to the Federal government that they’ll spend the extra $200,000.

There’s also the fact that funders calculate matches in two different ways: as a percentage of the grant or as a percentage of the total project cost. The first is easy to calculate: 10% of a $1,000,000 grant = $100,000. In the second method, however, its not quite as simple: Assume a $1,000,000 grant and a required match of 10% of the total project cost.

If you propose a $100,000 match in this scenario, you’re actually proposing a 9% match ($100,000/$1,100,000 = 9%). To get to a 10% match, the match must be $110,000 ($1,000,000 grant + $110,000 match = $1,110,000 total project cost and .10% of $1,110,000 =$110,000). Always make sure you know which method is being used by the funder before you start gathering match letters. In scenario two, if you document a $100,000 match, the proposal will likely be rejected as technically deficient and not scored. In Monopoly terms, you do not pass go and do not collect $200.

The only exception to the rule that says you should avoid overmatching happens when a program offers extra points for extra leveraging. YouthBuild is a prime example. In this case, if the required match is 10% but there are bonus points for a 25% match, applicants should find a larger match—but only to the point that gets the extra points.

In general, though we counsel clients not to overmatch. But, as we’ve said before, we’re like lawyers: we offer our clients advice, based on our 20 plus years of business experience, and they’re free to accept or reject it. Our advice is good and if we say that a thing should without doubt be done one way and not another its prudent to follow of advice (there are many other occasions in which there is no right answer, only sets of tradeoffs, and when that’s true we describe the tradeoffs). We were once working for a rural school district on a Department of Education proposal. The superintendent wanted to claim the value of all of their school buildings as a match, and therefore wanted to offer something like a $20 million match. We counseled him not to, and he didn’t.

The grant was funded.

In addition, take care about where the match is coming from. In most cases, federal dollars cannot be directly matched with other federal dollars, usually with the exception of CDBG funds. If you do, and anyone notices, your application will again likely be thrown out.

Anyway, there’s a pernicious line of thinking that goes like this: if some is good, more must be better, right? Wrong: if you take more Tylenol than you’re supposed to you could end up dead or on the waiting list for a liver transplant. Working out or running is great, until you lift so heavy or run so far that you hurt yourself.*

Maybe the overmatching rule seems unreasonable. Much of the grant world is a set of imagined behaviors and situations that don’t correspond well to reality. The matching fund process is one of those fictions that applicants have to go through, like a marriage of convenience to get a visa, to get to the end goal of the money—or, in the case of the marriage of convenience, to get to America.**


* Having done this recently, it’s a salient example that’s on my mind.

** I’m reading a wonderful book called A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters from the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward, which is a collection of pithy advice columns for Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland in the early 20th Century, so the idea of making it to the promised land of America is on my mind.

But many of the immigrants discovered that, although America was a much better place than Czarist Russia (it’s also a better place than contemporary Russia for that matter), the streets were not and are not paved with gold, and all of God’s children have problems. In my own family, lore has it that one set of my grandparents used a marriage of convenience to escape Nazi Germany.

Lessons from the ObamaCare Rollout Fiasco for Grant Writers

Regardless of one’s politics or policy preferences, it’s painful to watch the ongoing Affordable Care Act rollout fiasco.* Developing healthcare.gov is obviously a complex undertaking. One thing lost in the cacophony over the botched rollout is that many large scale IT projects fail to launch successfully, with www.heathcare.gov being the most widely publicized example this year.

We recently wrote some proposals for an electronic health record (EHR) development project on behalf of a California hospital. When scoping the project, our client told a story about a very large Los Angeles hospital that spent several years and $34 million rolling out an EHR system that its doctors refused to use. This well-known hospital failed to involve the docs—the users, in other words—in system development and the whole system had to be trashed.

Since President Obama and his team—or the L.A. hospital—presumably didn’t set out to create a debacle, there are lessons to be learned for anyone involved in complex project development, including grant writers. Perhaps the most of obvious is to make sure that one person is in charge. This echos Steve Jobs’s insistence on a Directly Responsible Individual (DRI) (to use the Apple-speak) for all projects. That ensures that one person has their head cut off in the event of failure, and beheading tends to focus the mind. If your agency is going to be serious and successful in grant seeking, either hire a competent staff grant writer or consultant and hold them responsible for getting job done.

For nonprofits, which often have fairly chaotic, or, to be less pejorative, “egalitarian” management structures, this simple strategy is frequently overlooked in proposal writing. Without a DRI, proposal planning meetings are likely to drift, with the management team espousing great, but vague, thoughts and the worker bees afraid to say they don’t understand what is wanted. Frequently their fears are well-founded, since nothing concrete has been specified by management.

The result is typically conflict and confusion, which results in a poorly written, incoherent and/or technically incorrect proposal, if the proposal gets finished at all. Most of our clients are astounded when we scope a project in an hour-long phone call and produce a more or less on-target first draft without any angst or finger pointing. Some details may be wrong, in which case they’re fixed in the next draft. It’s really not hard, because we assume the role of a DRI, get the job done, and don’t make excuses. We ask direct questions to elicit specific answers to the five Ws and the H that are central to proposal development or any information gathering effort. When in doubt we let the RFP dictate the proposal, instead of trying, probably futilely, to dictate the program to the funder.


* Otherwise known as “Obamacare.”

What to do when you become a spontaneous grant writer

Susan wants to know:

I am being told that I must become a “grant writer” for my law enforcement agency within a month or so. There is not enough time to apprentice so they want me to learn everything I need to know in a 2 day workshop!!! Any suggestions?

Suggestions! I’m filled with ’em. Especially for someone who has transformed, like one of the X-Men, into a grant-writing superhero. Again like the X-Men, I replied via e-mail:

The self-serving but accurate answer to your quandary is “hire us.” Note that we also edit proposals, although about 60 – 70% of the organizations that hire us to edit their proposal would have been better off simply hiring us for the full monty. If that’s not going to happen, I’d say this:

1) Read all of Grant Writing Confidential; I should turn it into an ebook, but I haven’t had time, and making this blog into a cohesive book will probably never be worth it from a pure cost/benefit analysis. Still, I want to anyway—especially after reading “Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 23 Brilliant Authors.” What I wrote in “Why You’re Unlikely to see ‘Seliger and Associates Presents Grant Writing Confidential: The Book and Musical’ Anytime Soon” is still accurate, but the possibilities opened up by self-publishing have exploded in the last year.

2) Does your agency have a particular program to which it wants to apply? If so, which one? Assuming the agency does have a specific program in mind, write as much as you can of the proposal draft before you go to the workshop. Take the draft with you and try to discuss it with whoever is teaching it. Then you’ll basically be turning that person into an editor / professor; it’s much easier to discuss writing, or almost any other “making thing” discipline, in the concrete than in the abstract.

Taking an infinite number of workshops is not going to make the blank page any easier. Having something, anything, on the blank page is better than having nothing. Isaac likes to say, “Something can be edited. Write something.”

3) If you have anyone you know who’s a decent writer and can be pressed into service as an editor, warn and beg them in advance that you need their help. Every writer needs an editor.

4) Start writing as soon as you can. Leave blanks. Get to the end. I’m repeating what I said in number four, but something cannot be edited if it hasn’t been written. I suspect this fundamental fact scuppers as many would-be grant writers as any other.

5) Good luck.

6) GWC readers: you have any other advice for Susan?

A Short Post on Writing Short

Writing short is on my mind today.

I’ve been working a Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood proposal this week (see this recent post for more on the program). The FOA states the “application limit is 40 pages total,” including the abstract, narrative, logic model, mandatory letters of support/MOUs, budget, budget narrative and table of contents. Basically, everything except standard forms is counted in the page limit. Oh, did I mention the narrative has to be double spaced? After leaving room for the assorted attachments, maybe 25 double-spaced pages are left for the narrative.

For all of you aspiring grant writers out there in blogland, here is today’s assignment: download the FOA and try to respond to the 43 page, single-spaced FOA with 25 double-spaced pages, including the needs assessment, research citations, program design, work plan, management structure, agency background, evaluation section and a short discussion of rapid climate change (the last one is not in the FOA, but is included by me to see if you are still awake). To say this is not an easy task is something of an understatement—it’s like building a ship in a bottle or tracing the Sistine Chapel ceiling on a cocktail napkin.

Here’s how we do this bit of legerdemain . . .

We write short in the same way that a 10 MB mp3 version of This Magic Moment* more or less conveys the same sound as the 100 MB original .wav file. There are lots of bits missing, which annoys audiophiles, but most listeners enjoy the song anyway, along with the 10,000 other songs on their iPhone. Without mp3 or an equivalent compression technology, you wouldn’t be able to store those 10,000 songs in your shirt pocket.

In writing a narrative with a severe page restriction, the grant writer has to write in a very organized manner with repetitive themes but leave out most detail. The reader, particularly a grant reviewer who is reading essentially the same narrative over and over again, will fill in the detail from her experience, just like a mp3 listener will not notice the lack of highs and lows while boogying down the strand in Huntington Beach on a skateboard.

In this kind of writing exercise, we also use as few section headers and bullets as possible but maximize the use of tables. Tables can usually, but not always (warning: always check the RFP/FOA/NOFA for this fine point), be single spaced. It pays to re-read Hemingway and write in short Hemingway-like sentences. Always keep your story foremost. Reduce the amount of space you allocate to telling the funder how wonderful your agency is. Write the first draft longer, say, 35 pages in this example, as it is easier to remove words than add them in subsequent drafts.

Less experienced grant writers will try to cram by removing spacing lines, kerning the text, having tables extend into the usually required 1″ margins, and so on. Resist this urge, as such tricks will not only make the document unreadable, but may make reviewers think you are cheating.

When polishing the final draft, be ruthless in removing excess words. Make sure the proposal is responsive in terms of page length and formatting requirements while still being readable and selling the need, the project design, and a thorough understanding of the program guidelines. If you are in love with your words, it is hard to cut them, but cut them you must to have a technically correct and fundable proposal. Novel writers use the term “kill your darlings,” because they know how important it is to cut anything extraneous.

The topic of short writing was also on my mind because I received first draft comments on a foundation proposal draft we wrote a few weeks ago. The draft was 16 pages, double spaced, even though most foundations will not accept an initial proposal longer than five single spaced pages. I wrote the draft long because I know the client is passionate about his program and and wants to explain every nuance of the project concept. Here is a extract from his response email to me on the first draft: “It was extremely challenging to reduce the number of pages while also adding information that I believe is very important. I was not successful in getting the proposal down to 10 pages.” I will shorten the next draft to five single spaced pages, because I know that excessive details are not important important to most foundations. Whatever the project concept, foundation reviewers will have most likely already read many versions of it, since there are few new problems and even fewer new ways of solving problems. The funder will, however, react positively to compelling need and clear expository writing—not 10,000 more words and exclamation points.

For two great examples of exquisite short writing, read Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. If President Lincoln could encapsulate the tragedy of the Civil War in 272 words and Dr. King could explain the Civil Rights Movement in a few short pages, surely you can write a Fatherhood proposal in 25 double-spaced pages, or a youth after school enrichment project in ten.


* This overwrought tune by Jay & the Americans—a favorite group of mine when I was in junior high school—happened to pop up on Pandora while I was writing this post. “This Magic Moment” could refer to the exact moment when one finishes the first draft of a complex proposal, as happened to me earlier today, so that I could hit the surf for an hour on a on a boogie board.

Writing Conversationally and the Plain Style in Grant Proposals and My Master’s Exam

The kinds of skills you learn by grant writing don’t only apply to grant writing.

Loyal Grant Writing Confidential readers know that in my other life I’m a grad student in English Literature at the University of Arizona. Last week I took my MA written exam, which consisted of three questions that I had to answer over a four-hour period—a bit like Isaac’s recommended test for would-be grant writers:

If we ever decide to offer a grant writing credential, we would structure the exam like this: The supplicant will be locked in a windowless room with a computer, a glass of water, one meal and a complex federal RFP. The person will have four hours to complete the needs assessment. If it passes muster, they will get a bathroom break, more water and food and another four hours for the goals/objectives section and so on. At the end of the week, the person will either be dead or a grant writer, at which point we either make them a Department of Education Program Officer (if they’re dead) or give them a pat on the head and a Grant Writing Credential to impress their mothers (if they’ve passed).

Except the University of Arizona lets you eat and drink tea if you want. Given the extreme deadline pressure, the exam demands that people who take it write quickly and succinctly. I e-mailed my answers to one of my academic friends, who replied, “You write so, well, conversationally, that I wonder how academics will view this. I find it refreshing.” Although this is an underhanded compliment if I’ve ever heard one, I take it as a real complement given how many academics succeed by writing impenetrable jargon. And “conversationally” means, “other people can actually understand what you wrote and follow the thread of your argument.”

This is exactly what I do whether completing a written Master’s exam or writing proposals. If you’re a grant writer, you should too. Proposals should be more or less understandable to readers, who probably won’t give you a very good score if they can’t even figure out what you’re trying to say. It might be tempting to follow the old advice, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit,” but although that might be a good strategy in arguments about politics in bars where your audience is drunk, it’s not such a good idea in proposals. I’ve spent most of my life trying to communicate clearly, in what Robertson Davies and others call the “plain style,” which means a style that is as short as it can be but no shorter, using words as simple as possible but no simpler.* The goal, above all else, is clarity and comprehensibility. If you’ve spent any time reviewing proposals, you know that an unfortunate number come up short on this metric.

Over the last decade and change, I’ve been trained to write proposals in such a way that any reasonably educated person can understand the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the proposal. This applies even to highly technical research topics, in which we write most of the proposal and include technical content and specifications that our clients provide. You should write proposals like this too. Sure, the academics of the world might raise their noses instead of their glasses to you, but they often don’t make good grant writers anyway. A good proposal should be somewhat conversational. People on average appear to like conversation much more than they like reading sentences skewed my misplaced pretension. If you manage to write in the plain style, people might be so surprised that they even find your work “refreshing.” And “refreshing” in the grant world means “fundable,” which is the final goal of all grant writing.

And, as for the exam—I passed.


* For more on this subject, read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (which I assign to my students every semester) and John Trimble’s Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing , which I’m going to start assigning next semester.