Tag Archives: Grant Advice

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.

The Danger Zone: Common RFP Traps

When first looking at a RFP, it is a good idea to remember Robbie the Robot from Lost in Space (the 60’s TV show, not the terrible movie remake) shouting “Danger Will Robinson,”* because when you open a RFP, you’re entering THE DANGER ZONE.

Those innocent looking RFPs are filled with traps. For example, if you are responding to a RFP that was previously issued and you have a proposal from a past submission, you will typically find that the funder has changed the RFP slightly, often in a subtle way. This might be by changing the order of questions, using different headers or outline patterns, requiring a specific font, and the like. Since such changes usually are not substantive, I assume that this is done to trap novice or lazy applicants who just copy the previous proposal and change the date. It may be that program officers are basically bored and have nothing better to do, so they find cheap thrills in this, like rabbits racing across the road in front of a car. So, even if you submitted the same project concept for the same program last year, make sure that you carefully go through the RFP to find these public sector equivalents of “easter eggs”. It’s also a good idea, of course, to update the data, polish your text, and find all those typos that slipped through the last editing process.

Another RFP trap is repetitive questions. It is not unusual to find the same question, more or less, asked several times. Whether this is an intentional trick or an artifact of committee members writing different RFP sections, they can be a real challenge for the grant writer, particularly if there are page limits. So, what to do? If there is room, simply rewrite the first answer over and over again. I know this results in a pretty boring read, but occasionally, such as with some HUD programs, reviewers may only read particular sections. The alternative, which we use when there are space limitations, is to refer back to the original answer (e.g., As noted above in Criterion 1, Section 6.a and Criterion 2, Section 2.c, Citizens for a Better Dubuque has extensive existing referral relationships with the full range of youth providers, which will be utilized to provide project participants with service beyond the project scope. Wow, what a great proposal sentence! Feel free to steal it.). However you handle the problem, never ignore questions, as this practice runs the risk of missing points or having the proposal declared technically deficient and not scored at all.

Sometimes, the RFP asks lots of obtuse questions, but never specifically explicitly asks what you plan to do or how you plan to do it. I know this seems incredible, but the Department of Education, for example, often has RFPs like this. In this case, pick any spot you like and insert the project description (e.g., Within the above context of how the Dubuque After School Enrichment Initiative is articulated with Iowa learning standards, the following describes how academic enrichment services will be delivered:). No, this is not a smiley face, just a colon followed by a closed parenthesis. If I was going to use an emoticon, it would have a frowney face to evoke reading RFPs.

One of my favorite RFP traps is to find different instructions for ordering responses in different parts of the RFP. For example, there may be a series of outlined questions, followed by a series of criteria that ask the same questions, more or less, but in a different order. Since, unlike Schrodinger’s cat, the proposal can only have one “state,” the grant writer has to pick one to follow. Before plunging into the writing, it’s not a bad idea to contact the program officer to raise this conundrum. Unfortunately, even if you are able to find the program officer, your question will usually be met with either giggles or a cold, “read the RFP, it’s all there.” In either case, you’re back to having to pick one of the two orders.

Finally be afraid, be very afraid of RFPs for newly minted programs. This is because the writers of RFPs for new programs usually have no idea what they want from applicants. We’ve been working, for example, on a $8 million proposal being submitted to a California state agency on behalf of a public sector client. The program is new and the RFP is a mess in terms of conflicting guidance, hidden requirements and so on. Since there were some aspects of the RFP that were beyond even our amazing deductive abilities, after leaving several messages over a week, we finally got the program officer on the phone. He sheepishly admitted that they had “forgotten” to include some of the instructions but planned to see what they got in responses and fix the RFP next year. It was good to find an honest man in Sacramento, and we put the submission package together in the most logical manner we could. Hopefully the state agency will straighten out the RFP next year.

We have seen our approach used in subsequent RFPs before, so this is not impossible. We wrote the first HUD YouthBuild proposal funded in Southern California in response to the first funding round in 1993. Not surprisingly, the Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA: HUD-speak for RFP), was a complete nightmare and we had to develop a response format more or less on our own, after a number of unproductive calls to HUD. Fortunately, when the next Youthbuild NOFA was issued, it bore a remarkable resemblance to our submission in terms of how the proposals were to be organized. It is always fun to drag the bureaucracy toward enlightenment, so matter how hard the slog. YouthBuild moved to the Department of Labor in FY 2007, and, yes we successfully made the transition by writing yet another funded YouthBuild proposal last year, bringing our total of funded YouthBuild proposals to a baker’s dozen or so, proving that the funding agency is largely irrelevant to the grant writing process.


* Robbie actually made his screen debut in the wonderful 1956 film Forbidden Planet.