Tag Archives: grant writer

Links: Occupational licensing, infantilization, L.A.’s self-inflicted housing crisis, Colorado and birth control, better condoms, energy, and more!

* Bess Stillman’s med school, nursing school, and medical residency admission essay writing firm now has a website. She is to application essays what we are to grant writing: the best.

* “The President’s economics team is taking on occupational licensing.” Anyone who cares about low-income workers’s real income and about moving from the gray market to the conventional labor market should cheer this.

* Laura Kipnis On How Campus Feminism Infantilizes Women.

* We have many readers and clients in L.A., who will doubtlessly be interested in “The incredible shrinking megacity: How Los Angeles engineered a housing crisis: Los Angeles used to be the promised land for America’s homeowners. Now it’s tearing at the seams.” Twenty years ago Isaac left L.A. (for the first time) for precisely these reasons.

* “New design could finally help to bring fusion power closer to reality.” Commercial-scale fusion would ameliorate numerous political and environmental problems.

* Colorado’s Effort Against Teenage Pregnancies Is a Startling Success. See also our 2008 post, “What to do When Research Indicates Your Approach is Unlikely to Succeed: Part I of a Case Study on the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program RFP.”

* “The rush from judgment,” or, how being superficially non-judgmental can be barbaric and foolish. In your proposals, though, always say that staff will be non-judgmental.

* Sea levels will rise much more rapidly than anticipated.

* Energy, by Sam Altman, a hard problem and one related to the fusion link above.

* “The Pecking Disorder: Social Justice Warriors Gone Wild: Culture wars over ‘social justice’ have been wreaking havoc in many communities, including universities and science fiction fandom.” Social Justice Warriors don’t matter outside of academia and government, but inside they can wreck a lot of havoc. Always be wary of zealots.

* The Electric Car: “The electric car is going to take over the world. Soon. Let me explain.” Linear versus discontinuous effects are under appreciated. Everyone who has driven a Tesla says it’s the best car ever. The mass-market version is supposed to arrive in 2017. See also “How Tesla Will Change The World,” which is long but clever.

* “The old suburban office park is the new American ghost town.” Too many parking lots and too few interconnections to rail.

* “It’s worse than Jerry Seinfeld says: PC is undermining free speech, expression, liberties.” I’ve felt these currents throughout my time as a professor.

* Rooftop solar is booming. But it may be more vulnerable than you think. See also “The Miracle of SolarCity: Elon Musk’s Tesla and SpaceX are impressive. But the solar company he founded with his cousins could be transformational.”

* Doing Good Better, on effective altruism and how to get better margins on giving. The sort of thing every potential donor should read. Despite decades in the grant writing business, we’ve never gotten a call from a donor looking for advice.

* “We’ve been cheated out of condoms that actually feel good during sex.” Another of these very important yet totally underrated issues. Issues around reproduction touch almost every aspect of income inequality, real earning power, and education—topics vital to many grant programs.

* “Rising Rents Outpace Wages in Wide Swaths of the U.S.;” national policy focuses on ownership while facts-on-the-ground demand more focus on renting. This is a key and neglected affordability issue.

* “Warren Buffett’s Family Secretly Funded a Birth Control Revolution: In the past decade, the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation has become the most influential supporter of research on IUDs and expanding access to the contraceptive.”

* “Success Academy Posted Its Latest Test Scores. The Results Are Astounding: New York’s largest charter network outperformed traditional public schools in wealthy zip codes.”

* “How RED Cameras Changed The [Movie] Game.” If you like movies and TV shows you need to read this.

A shortage of jobs for qualified grant writers? Not that we’ve seen!

Mark Peters and David Wessel’s “More Men in Prime Working Ages Don’t Have Jobs: Technology and Globalization Transform Employment Amid Slow Economic Recovery” is an article you’ve already read 10,000 times, and the intro, as usual, is a dubious vignette:

Mark Riley was 53 years old when he lost a job as a grant writer for an Arkansas community college. “I was stunned,” he said. “It happened on my daughter’s 11th birthday.” His boss blamed state budget cuts.

(Emphasis added.)

If there’s a growing industry in America, it’s software development. If there’s an industry growing very fast but slower than software development, it’s grant writing. If Riley really can’t find a job as a grant writer—or become a consultant—there’s something amiss with him, not the industry. At Seliger + Associates we hear all the time about how nonprofit and public agencies can’t find good grant writers.

Axiomatically, however, those nonprofit and public agencies aren’t paying enough to attract qualified candidates—anytime you read about an alleged “shortage” of employees mentally ask yourself, “at what price?”—but nonetheless we are skeptical that qualified grant writers can’t find work. The key word in the preceding sentence is of course “qualified.”

Usually the laid-off-and-can’t-find-work stories are about workers in manufacturing or middle-level office jobs, and that convention exists for a reason: many of those jobs are genuinely disappearing, and the workers in them are either moving up to higher skill jobs, or down. That Peters and Wessel would choose a grant writer as an example is bizarre. That such a convention exists at all is also one small datum that explains why Ezra Klein is trying to build a new kind of news organization, one that perhaps would eliminate the convention altogether or at least deploy it more intelligently.

The Nonprofit’s Grant Writing Life Cycle: No Matter Where You’re Going, There You Are*

Seliger + Associates works with the full spectrum of nonprofits, from newly minted ones to some that have been providing services for 150 years (this is not an exaggeration, as we have one client in Chicago that was formed in the 1860s). We’ve seen how nonprofits morph with respect to their grant writing opinions and practices as they careen through their life cycles. As I pointed out in One, Two, Three* Easy Steps to Start-Up a Nonprofit Upstart, most nonprofits don’t begin life through grant funding; instead, they rely on a loan/gift from the founder and/or an angel “investor.” As the nonprofit gathers steam, however, and begins to expand the services it delivers, the need for grant writing grows, because few nonprofits can offer a wide array of services to a large number of people while operating on a shoestring.

Since new nonprofits usually have extremely limited resources, most cannot afford to hire a grant writer, either as a staff person or consultant. This leaves a conundrum, as the nonprofit has increasing grant writing needs that are tempered by lack of resources. Or, as in the hoary aphorism, “it takes money to make money.” At a basic level, young nonprofits must function like emerging small businesses to meet capital needs to expand service delivery while supporting ongoing operations. Essentially, they have three options if they want to supplement donations and capitated revenue streams with grants:

1. The founder needs to quickly learn how to be a grant writer. Unless the founder is already a skilled writer—and few people are, though many more believe they are—this option is unlikely to produce immediate results because she would have to first learn to write and then learn to grant write. As we pointed out in aCredentials for Grant Writers from the Grant Professionals Certification Institute—If I Only Had A Brain, one can’t will oneself to become a grant writer by going to a three-day training seminar.

Some founders,** however, have the writing skills and the passion to churn out good enough proposals. But they may not want to be stuck with grant writing tasks; few people decide to save the world, or at least their corner of it, by spending a lot of time alone with their computer and an RFP, just as many science professors are dismayed by the sheer amount of grant writing they have to do to keep a lab funded.

2. The organization finds a person who loves it and/or its mission and already happens to be a grant writer and will volunteer her time. This is even less likely than option one, since there are so few grant writers you’ll be looking for the proverbial hen’s teeth.

3. Scrape together enough resources to hire a grant writer, most likely as a consultant, since this is usually a more effective option than trying to find an employee who also has or can quickly develop grant writing skills. The hen’s teeth problem again.

As the organization moves into adolescence, usually through a combination of donations and some success with grants, it will naturally gravitate toward option three. Many nonprofits try to build an internal grant writing capability by hiring at least one employee with grant writing skills (or grant-writing potential) and also providing in-service grant writing training to existing staff.

Sometimes this even works.

But when grant writers are grown in-house, they often move to other nonprofits or universities that offer more money, or the grant writer achieves sufficient status within the organization that he or she doesn’t want to write proposals any more—which isn’t surprising, given how difficult writing proposals is. Nonetheless, in-house grant writers are quite common.

When the nonprofit achieves adulthood, this internal capacity is generally supplemented with the external resource on a consultant like Seliger + Associates. We are frequently hired by organizations with internal grant writing capacity. An entity that already has a grant writer on staff usually hires a hired gun for three reasons:

1. The internal grant writer is terrified of a particular RFP—and what’s anybody else to write it.

2. The internal grant writer is swarmed over by RFPs and and can’t keep up.

3. Finally, there is the ever popular “shoot the consultant” motivation used by Executive Directors who want somebody to blame if the grant is not funded, or if the organization is experiencing some other kind of turmoil and needs a common enemy to create unity within it.


* Buckaroo Bonzai in one of my favorite movies from the 1980s, the curious The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

** Including myself, as I described in my first GWC post, “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal.”

Teaching the Teacher: What I Learned From Technical Writing

We’re skeptics on the subject of grant writing training as such, but this summer I taught a “Technical Writing” course for juniors and seniors at the University of Arizona. The original course design wasn’t very challenging, so I decided to make it more nutritious by building a unit around grant writing; in a fit of cruelty, I gave the class the “Plan of Operations” section for the last round of Educational Opportunity Centers (EOC) funding (you can read the assignment sheet here if you’re curious). The RFP was on my mind because I’d just finished one and thought a single section of the narrative should be stretch the students’ abilities while still being doable.

Teaching a writing class shows the instructor how things that’ve become easy for him might be very hard for everyone else. Working with students and grading their assignments also made me realize how much tacit knowledge I’ve accumulated about grant writing—mostly through listening to Isaac tell war stories and berate me over missing sections when I was much younger. That was definitely a “trial-by-fire” experience. In a classroom, students should get a gentler but still rigorous introduction to grant writing, and that’s what I tried to do, even though teaching effectively is hard, just like grant writing; the skills necessary for one don’t necessarily overlap very much or very often. As a result, it’s worth describing some of what I learned, since teachers often learn as much if not more than students.

Breaking down the component parts of the process requires thought. As I said above, relatively little of my knowledge about grant writing was explicit and ready to be communicated. This is probably true of all fields, but I haven’t noticed how hard it is to articulate what to do and how to do it. In response to student questions, I often had to slow down and ask myself how I knew what I knew before I could answer their questions.

For example, because I knew a lot about TRIO programs, I knew that EOC aims to provide a very large number of people with a very small amount of help, direction, and information. Think of the amount of money per student and the amount of time invested in that student as correlated: less money means less time. Which approach is “better?” Probably neither. But I needed to find a way to make sure students could figure out what the RFP is really saying without too much prompting.

You can’t teach technical writing outside of the context of regular writing. Most students didn’t have well-developed general writing skills, so we had to collectively work on those at the same time they were trying to learn about grant writing as a specific domain. You can’t write an effective proposal without knowing basic English grammar and being able to write sentences using standard syntax. Most high schools simply don’t teach those writing skills, or, if they do, students don’t retain them. I’ve learned over time to incorporate basic rules in my freshman-level classes, and I definitely had to do the same in this class—especially because most students weren’t humanities majors and hadn’t been required to write since they were freshmen.

I’m not talking about abstruse topics like the gerunds versus present participles or a finely grained definition of the pluperfect tense. I’m talking about simple stuff like comma usage and avoiding passive voice (this is actually a good test for you: do you know a couple major comma rules? Hint: “When you take a breath / pause” isn’t one. If you’ve begun sweating at this self-test, try Write Right!).

Your proposal isn’t going to be rejected outright because you misuse one or two commas. Typos happen. But if grammar and syntax errors make it difficult to read, there’s a good chance that reviewers simply won’t try to read it. The same applies to your layout, which is why Isaac wrote “What Does a Grant Proposal Look Like Exactly? 13 Easy Steps to Formatting a Winning Proposal.” In addition, a proposal filled with typos and other errors signals to reviewers that you don’t even care enough to find or hire someone to edit your work. And if you don’t care before you get the money, what’s it going to be like after you get the money?

On the subject of what students know, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses demonstrates that an astonishingly large number of college graduates effectively learn nothing, academically speaking, over their four to six years of college life. It should be mandatory reading for anyone involved in postsecondary education.

You can’t be an effective grant writer without basic writing skills. People who can’t write complete sentences or coherent paragraphs simply need to develop those skills prior to trying to write complex documents. If you, the reader, are starting to write proposals and your own writing skills are shaky, consider finding a basic composition class at a local community college and taking that.

Reading RFPs is hard. Which is why I wrote “Deconstructing the Question: How to Parse a Confused RFP” and “Adventures in Bureaucracy and the Long Tale of Deciphering Eligibility: A Farce.” The EOC RFP is more than 100 pages, so I gave students the dozen or so pages necessary to write the “Plan of Operations.” Relatively few understood the inherent trade-off among the number of participants served, the cost per participant, and the maximum grant amount. Fine-grained details like this are part of what makes grant writing a challenge and, sometimes, a pleasure when the puzzle pieces slip into place.

There’s nothing to stop RFP writers from improving the organizational structure of their RFPs, but they simply don’t and have no incentive to. So I don’t think the inherent challenge of reading RFPs will go away over time.

A lot of students haven’t learned to write in the plain style: they use malapropisms, or pretentious diction that doesn’t feel right because they don’t trust themselves to use simple words correctly and in an appropriate order to convey meaning.

The best proposals balance imaginativeness and fidelity to the RFP. There is not a limitless number of possible activities to entice people into universities; if you’re proposing that leprechaun jockeys ride unicorns through the streets, shouting about the program through bullhorns, you’re probably erring on the side of being too, er, imaginative. If the only way you can conceive of getting students to college is by creating a website, you probably need more imagination.

Grant Writing Confidential is, in fact, useful. This isn’t just an effort to toot our own horn, but I gave students reading assignments in the form of blog posts, with about three posts required per day. The students who read the posts thoroughly and took the advice within wrote significantly better proposals than those who didn’t. When would-be grant writers ask us for advice these days, we tell give them much of the advice we’ve been giving for close to 19 years—along with a point to read all of GWC. It shouldn’t take more than an afternoon to read the archives, and someone who comes out on the other end should be better equipped to write proposals.

At some point, I’ll organize a bunch of the posts into a coherent framework for would-be grant writers and for others who simply want to sharpen their skills.

Nonprofit organization itself isn’t easy to understand. Nonprofits, despite the name and the associations with the word “corporation,” are still “corporations”—which means they have the organizational structure and challenges of any group of humans who band together to accomplish some task. People who work in nonprofit and public agencies already know this, but a lot of college students don’t realize that nonprofits require management, have hierarchies of some kind (the executive director probably isn’t doing the same thing as a “peer outreach worker,” at least most of the time, however important both roles may be), and that specialization occurs within the nonprofit itself.

People understand things better in story form. We sometimes tell “war stories” on this blog because they’re usually more evocative than dry, abstract, and technical posts. People hunger for narrative, and you need to tell a story in your proposal.

People who’re being taught usually want stories too, and when possible I tried to illustrate points about grant writing through story. But I didn’t realize the importance of this when I started. I should’ve, especially since I’m a PhD student in English Lit and spend a lot of my time studying and analyzing story.

Students prefer honest work over dishonest make-work, like most people. Too much of school consists of assignments that either aren’t hard or aren’t hard in the right way. We often call those assignments “busy-work” or “make-work.” Most group projects fall into this category. Students resent them to some extent, and I can’t blame them.

The cliche has it that success has many fathers and failure is an orphan. The same is true in proposals: if an application is funded, everyone wants to maximize their perceived role in executing it. If it isn’t, then Pat down the hall wrote most of it anyway, and we should blame Pat. Having a small group talk over the proposal but a single person writing it will result in both a better, more coherent proposal and in more satisfied writers, who are doing real work instead of watching someone else type—which usually means “checking Facebook” or chatting, or whatever.

In our own workflow, as soon as we’re hired we set a time to scope the proposal with the client shortly after we received a signed agreement and the first half of our fee. We usually talk with the client for half an hour to an hour and a half, and once we’ve done that we usually write a first draft of the narrative section of the proposal and draft a “documents memo” that describes all the pieces of paper (or, these days, digital files) that make up a complete proposal. This is real work. We don’t waste any time sitting in meetings, eating doughnuts, articulating a vision statement, or any of the other things nominal “grant writers” say they do.

Time pressure is a great motivator. The class I taught lasted just three weeks, and students had three to four days of class time to write their proposals. At the end of the class, many remarked that they didn’t think they could write 15 to 20 pages in a week. They could, and so can you. The trick, however, is choosing your week: you don’t want to write 20 pages two days before the deadline. You want to write them two weeks or two months before the deadline.

If you can’t, hire us, and we will. Assuming we have enough time, of course; we also take a fair number of last minute assignments, which often happens when other grant writing consultants quit or when a staff person realizes that this grant writing thing is harder than it looks. We’re happy to take those last-minute assignments if we have the capacity for them, but it’s not a bad idea to hire us in advance if you know you want to apply for a program.

Starting early gives you time to revise, edit, and polish. This advice is obvious and applies to many fields, but a lot of people don’t think they can do as much as they can until they’re forced to act because of circumstances. But little stops you from applying the same force to yourself earlier.

Conversely, Facebook is a great scourge to concentration. I taught in a computerized classroom that had an Orwellian feature: from the master computer, I could see the screens of anyone else in the classroom. Students who spent more time dawdling on Facebook produced worse proposals than those who didn’t. This might be a correlation-is-not-causation issue—worse writers might spend more time on Facebook, instead of Facebook causing worse writing—but I wouldn’t be surprised if Facebook and other Internet distractions are hurting people’s ability to focus for long periods of time. I think consciously about how to disconnect distraction, and, if it’s an issue for me, I can virtually guarantee it’s an issue for many others too.

People who have never written a proposal before aren’t really ready to write a full proposal. This might seem obvious too, but it’s worth reiterating that few people who’ve never tried to write a complex proposal can do it right the first time. Grant writing, like many activities, benefits from a master/apprentice or editor/writer relationship.

This, in fact, is how I learned to write proposals: Isaac taught me. Granted, he’s a tough master, but the result of difficult training is mastery when done. Viewers like watching Gordon Ramsay on TV because he’s tough and that toughness may accelerate the learning process for those on the other end of his skewer. I can’t do the same in class, which is probably a good thing. Nonetheless, whether you’re making an egg souffle or a Department of Education proposal, don’t expect perfection the first time through. Actually, don’t expect perfection at all, but over time your skills will improve.

Fake Requests for Proposals (RFP) Notices Gain Popularity

When I was a kid, Isaac liked to quote the famous line from Ian Fleming’s James Bond book, Goldfinger: “The first time is happenstance. The second time is coincidence. The third time is enemy action” (that’s how I remember it, anyway, and I don’t have a copy of Goldfinger handy to check the quote). Actually, Isaac still says that not infrequently, and I’m going to appropriate it for this post, since I’m noticing a pernicious trend in the form of fake grant announcements, or announcements of announcements, in the Federal Register.

We discussed this particular irritating brand of federal idiocy in “A Primer on False Notes, Close Reading, and The Economic Development Administration’s (EDA) American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) Program, or, How to Seize the Money in 42 Easy Steps:”

There’s also another other curious thing about th[e] March 5 announcement: it was an announcement of an announcement: “Under a forthcoming federal funding opportunity (FFO) announcement, EDA will solicit applications for the EDA American Recovery Program under the auspices of PWEDA.” This is like sending an announcement of a forthcoming invitation to a party—why not simply make the announcement, especially since the two followed each other within days? The situation could be fundamentally irrational, or there could be some unknown statutory requirement hidden in the legislative language, or someone at the EDA could have simply been tipsy while entering Grants.gov information.

Non-RFP RFPs, or non-announcement announcements, seem to be becoming more popular, like the outbreak of swine flu. Reading Grant Writing Confidential will help immunize you from this malady, but not from the itching, sweating, and swearing it might cause. For another example of it, check out the Solicitation for Proposals for the Provision of Civil Legal Services, which says: “The Request for Proposals (RFP) will be available April 10, 2009.” But April 10 has come and gone, and as far as I can tell a genuine RFP still hasn’t arrived. Now we’ve passed happenstance and entered the land of circumstance.

But the latest iteration of my favorite program to pick on, the Assistance to Firefighters Grants Program (AFG), includes this in its first full paragraph on page two:

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided $210 million in funding to DHS to construct new fire stations or modify existing fire stations. That funding opportunity will be announced in the near future and will NOT be part of this offering. Under the funding opportunity presented in this guidance, the AFG will only fund projects that do not alter the footprint or the profile of an existing structure. Projects for modifications that involve altering the footprint or the profile of an existing structure or projects that involve construction of new facilities will fall under a different funding opportunity.

(See some earlier posts on the AFG here and here.)

As Goldfinger would say, this is now enemy action. I wouldn’t be surprised if phantom announcements become more common as the kinds of deadlines buried somewhere in the Stimulus Bill American Recovery and Relief Act approach federal agencies like a swarm of swine flu virus particles from a gigantic congressional sneeze.

One of the open secrets of grant writing and grant writers: reading

Good writing is inextricably linked to reading, and this is true not only of grant writing, but of virtually any genre. Most of what you pick up through reading is subliminal: you’re not consciously studying ideas, or rhythms, or structure, or vocabulary,* but you absorb them through osmosis regardless of your intention. You learn words via context, how to understand sophisticated sentences, and the techniques writers use to impart meaning. When it’s time to write, you recombine elements of virtually every writer you’ve ever read; Francine Prose says in her excellent book, Reading Like a Writer, “Like most, maybe all, writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, from books.” After you’ve been writing for a long time, this comes to be so axiomatic that you forget that not everyone knows it.

You not only learn how to write, but what to write. With grant writing, if you’ve read The Corner by David Simon and Edward Burns, you’ve read what is probably the best description of urban poverty that exists. If you’ve read Sudhir Venkatesh’s Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, you’ll have still more ballast to add. If you’ve read Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, you know how to describe rural towns so desolate that tumbleweeds count as company and hope for many people means fleeing. Elmore Leonard’s caper novels, like Get Shorty and Out of Sight, are justifiably acclaimed for their impeccable dialog and for their depiction of wise-guys trying to get ahead. The value of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well should be evident from its title.

Reading is more than just books. If you’ve seen our link posts, you know more about a vast array of social issues likely to be the basis of grant programs. I have hundreds of articles and reports on my hard drive, which I regularly rummage using Spotlight and plain old memory for data and ideas when proposals. If you don’t read, you won’t acquire the stuff from which proposals are often made. In reading, you also learn something of how the world works. If you’re a grant writer and deal with federal, state, and local agencies and you haven’t read Bureaucratic Language in Government and Business, you’re making a mistake, because the book will teach you about why many frustrating things are the way they are.

Beyond content, you’ll also see that grammar, spelling, syntax, and style count. You can find virtually everything on those subjects that you need for grant writing in Write Right!, a book we’ve linked to and praised before and will again because it’s so extraordinarily useful and terse (perhaps those two adjectives are redundant when combined: were Wright Right! 1,000 pages, would it still be useful?). The book is $10 from Amazon. There is no reason not to have and have read a copy if you produce any amount of prose on even an irregular basis.

It’s important that you know what Write Right! contains, even if you don’t own that book. Steven King says—yes, that Steven King, the one who can’t get no respect—analogizes writing to carpentry in his excellent book On Writing that grammar, spelling, syntax and the like are towards the top of your writers’ toolbox and that you can learn them relatively easily if you want to—and excuses won’t fly:

[T]his isn’t high school. Now that you’re not worried that (a) your skirt is too short or too long and the other kids will laugh at you, (b) you’re not going to make the varsity swimming team, (c) you’re still going to be a pimple-studded virgin when you graduate (probably when you die, for that matter), (d) the physics teacher won’t grade the final on a curve, or (e) nobody really likes you anyway AND THEY NEVER DID . . . now that all that extraneous shit is out of the way, you can study certain academic matters with a degree of concentration you could never manage while attending the local textbook loonybin.

Isn’t that a clever way of putting it? Sure, the passage has a flaw or two—the double “that” in the last sentence is a bit weak and the tone maybe slightly more colloquial than I usually write, but it’s effective. When King writes “local textbook loonybin,” we know exactly how he feels about schools, and he speaks with authority on them, since he’s been both prisoner and warden in them, and it sounds like he wasn’t impressed with his cohort in either role. You don’t develop the skills to show these kinds of subtle cues unless you read a lot and get used to close reading.

I’m guessing King didn’t stop and think to himself, “what word or phrase should I use to show what I think of secondary schools in the United States that will convince the reader I’m on their side?” I bet it just hit him, he liked it, and he rolled with it, much as I picked up his theme and wrote “prisoner” and “warden” in lieu of “student” and “teacher” because so many people do feel like school has many penitentiary aspects (I’m hardly the first to notice this: Paul Graham wrote in “Why Nerds are Unpopular:” “What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren’t told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates.” Herman Hesse wrote about the same issues regarding Germany in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.)

Anyway, King’s point is that you have no business being a writer if you’re not going to learn something of grammar, syntax, and style, and I’ll reiterate it. Furthermore, as King also observes, you already know the vast majority of English grammar merely by being a native speaker. Anything additional will mostly be names (what’s a gerund again? “a form regularly derived from a verb and functioning as a noun,” or, more simply, an -ing word, like working. See? You already use gerunds all the time) or fillips like “omit unnecessary words,” which is by the far best writing advice I’ve ever read or heard. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also the shortest.

Oh, and books speak to each other. If I’d never read On Writing, I wouldn’t be able to cite it here. If I hadn’t read a lot, and read deeply, I wouldn’t have been able to construct this post with the numerous examples that help prove my point and give it the force and authority of a bunch of references and links and allusions to other writers, not all of which are explicit. Speaking of allusion, it’s worth shooting down one other amateur’s canard, namely that reading a lot will somehow “pollute” you. Mavis Gallant’s The Paris Notebooks is worth quoting, by way of Kate’s Book Blog:

There is no such thing as a writer who has escaped being influenced. I have never heard a professional writer of any quality or standing talk about “pure” style, or say he would not read this or that for fear of corrupting or affecting his own; but I have heard it from would-be writers and amateurs. Corruption–if that is the word–sets in from the moment a child learns to speak and hear language used and misused. A young person who does not read, and read widely, will never write anything–at least, nothing of interest.

All this isn’t to say that you have to become a monkishly devoted reader, slaving over Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to be a writer (although the latter is more a joy than pain, which Alain de Botton makes a strong argument for in How Proust Can Change Your Life). Even if you don’t let Proust change your life, you should let someone try to via text if you want to be a good writer. One of the best essay I’ve read about reading comes from Caleb Crain’s “Twilight of the Books: What will life be like if people stop reading?“, which says:

[…] the Census Bureau and the National Endowment for the Arts [have,] since 1982, asked thousands of Americans questions about reading that are not only detailed but consistent. The results, first reported by the N.E.A. in 2004, are dispiriting. In 1982, 56.9 per cent of Americans had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. The proportion fell to fifty-four per cent in 1992, and to 46.7 per cent in 2002. Last month, the N.E.A. released a follow-up report, “To Read or Not to Read,” which showed correlations between the decline of reading and social phenomena as diverse as income disparity, exercise, and voting. In his introduction, the N.E.A. chairman, Dana Gioia, wrote, “Poor reading skills correlate heavily with lack of employment, lower wages, and fewer opportunities for advancement.”

Correlation is not causation, as I’ve repeatedly observed, and merely because you don’t read copious amounts of creative literature doesn’t mean you’re not reading lots of other meritorious—as opposed to meretricious—material. Nonetheless, Crain goes into some of the neuroscience behind reading as well as studies regarding readers’ ability to reason, compare arguments, make logical inferences, and the like. Hint: non-readers don’t come out well. By the way, if you didn’t follow my earlier link to “Twilight of the Books,” you should do so now because it’s a brilliant piece, and even were it not, you should read simply for further grant writing knowledge. I regularly quote it in proposals because the article distills so much about what’s known about literacy and the dangers of its reduction in the general population. It often dovetails with Neal Stephenson’s extended argument about the widening gap between the reading/nerd class in his new novel, Anathem, which posits a world in which the reading/nerd class lives in monasteries, shuns video, and studies abstract logic and math, while the outside world takes the equivalent of happy pills and eats junk food. An early form of these ideas are evident in his much more readable op-ed piece, “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out.”

Reading the New Yorker regularly allowed me to find “Twilight of the Books,” and many of the proposals I’ve written would’ve been worse without it. Now, I’m not trying to be this guy or say that TV rots your brain or whatever else lit snobs say. TV offers some material and allusions that’ll be more widely recognized than many literary allusions, but it’s difficult to quote TV or movies directly and seldom at the depth you’ll need for writing.**

In addition, I’m not arguing that you need reading boot camp. I don’t think you can force yourself to read, boot camp style, and only the actual enjoyment of reading will work. Virtually all professional writers do. If you want to read more, the question arises concerning what you should read. My answer is that it probably doesn’t matter much, as long as you’re reading something that’s been professionally written and edited. In periodical terms, the Wall Street Journal and New York Times are excellent, as is the Atlantic magazine. I also like the New Yorker, as mentioned earlier, although I don’t think I’ve ever read every article word-for-word. But great articles like “Twilight of the Books” make up for ones that grow tedious after a page. The Economist has an impressive grasp on foreign affairs and it’s not unusual for people to swear by Harper’s.

The other major source of good stuff is books. If you read some of the newspapers and magazines listed above, you’ll notice their book review sections, which will often point you toward things to read. In addition, the ten books I most often recommend are:

Fiction Nonfiction
Richard Russo, Straight Man Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence:
500 Years of Western Cultural Life
Alain de Botton, On Love Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd,
The Time Paradox
Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise:
Listening to the 20th Century
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, & Steel
Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

None of these books are directly related to grant writing, but they’re all enormously fun while also being reasonably cerebral. All the King’s Men describes politics and, in a broader sense, human nature; Cryptonomicon is hilarious and insightful, and it’s not coincidental that I cited another Stephenson novel above; From Dawn to Decadence imparts more knowledge about history than four years of high school did; and Reading like a Writer will help anyone read and think better.

Chances are that I shouldn’t have to explain all this, but I read tons of proposals and blog posts and reports that indicate their authors don’t read much, which is virtually synonymous with saying they don’t like to read, because if you like to do something, you’ll do it, particularly given that reading is, these days, considered a virtue, which is pretty funny if you know about the history of the novel. Isaac said that I’m perhaps being overly strident or emphatic in this post. He might be correct, but it’s obvious that many would-be writers aren’t taking the advice given above. Don’t be one of them.

In short, if you’re trying to be a grant writer—or any kind of writer—and you don’t like to read, you’re going to be like a person trying to swim with iron weights tied around their ankles. You might make it a little ways, but it’ll be neither pretty nor easy nor pleasant. Plenty of people in such circumstances flail around publicly on blogs or embarrass themselves privately in e-mail. But if you’re going to write professionally, or even as a competent volunteer, you’re not going to get anywhere without reading, and you’re not going to understand why you’re not getting anywhere or why you’re not getting funded.

Did you find it easy to follow my metaphor of the swimmer? If so, you’re probably used to comparative imagery, as virtually all forms of human speech are, on some level, comparative, which Steven Pinker argues in The Stuff of Thought. If you didn’t find that metaphor easy to follow, scroll up to the table that’s a few paragraphs above this one.

That’s a good place to start.

EDIT: Isaac wrote “Reading ‘Arugulance’ and then Writing It” as a follow-up.


* Vocabulary is such a good proxy for reading sophistication that lots of standardized tests, including the GRE and SAT, use it. Sure, you can memorize word lists to the game the test, but that’s tremendously cumbersome, boring and probably ineffective. Even then, you still can’t fake a lifetime of not reading by two months of cramming, as I discovered when I taught the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) for about a year and found people who were terrible at the reading comprehension and wanted to know how to improve within weeks. I never had a good answer for them, because there is no way over the short term.

** Notice that the top 100 TV catchphrases of all time as measured by, well, whoever measures such things, contains mostly interjections (“a part of speech that usually has no grammatical connection with the rest of the sentence and simply expresses emotion on the part of the speaker”) and short, simple phrases more noted for their delivery than their word content. On the page, you don’t get delivery: you only get content.

If you want free samples, go to Costco; for proposal writing, go to a grant writer

People regularly discover Grant Writing Confidential by searching for template proposals. For example, two recent searches that turned up in our query logs include “carol m. white pep sample proposal” and “free grant writing samples.” At least the former person is more likely to find something useful than the latter, since a generic proposal is going to be about as useful as a random pair of shoes: you might be a woman and get a man’s shoes, or need sneakers and find boots. Still, in both cases, the searcher is engaging in a futile effort similar to that described in “Tilting at Windmills: Why There is no Free Grant Writing Lunch and You Won’t Find Writers for Nothing.” Free grant writing lunches and useful free sample proposals don’t really exist.

There are two major, obvious problems in “free proposals:” they aren’t likely to be useful for the specific project and funding source you’re looking to write / apply to, and, even if they magically are, you’ll be trying to adapt a proposal that other would-be grant writers have also hunted down. The first issue is arguably more pressing: if you’ve found a “general” sample proposal, it will tell you absolutely nothing about the specific proposal you have to write. The RFP might require a radically different structure, since no two RFPs are alike and even annual federal RFPs change from year to year, as we discussed in The Danger Zone: Common RFP Traps; the information about your specific agency and area obviously won’t be in the sample proposal; the program you’re supposed to run will bear as much resemblance to the sample as a newt does to a grizzly bear; and so on. It takes an experienced grant writer to artfully adapt an existing proposal, and, if the grant writer is good enough to re-conceptualize a sample proposal, she doesn’t need the sample anyway—talk about a Catch-22.

Furthermore, proposals that are sufficiently general to make them worth copying are also probably not specific enough to be fundable. And even if they are specific enough for your program, you’re still running up against the larger problem of others using the same template. If a reviewer reads one proposal from Dubuque Family Outreach and another from Davenport Afterschool Inc. with identical or nearly identical content, there’s a decent chance the reviewer will reject both on principle. You’re going to suffer the danger plagiarists everywhere do: that someone else will stumble across the same material and submit it. If four people find the same hypothetical example of a Carol M. White proposal searched for above, the reviewers might figure out that you’ve all cribbed from the same source and reject all four proposals wholesale. If your average high school English teacher can spot plagiarism, even a Department of Education reviewer, who probably was a high school English teacher at some point, will be easily be able to do so.

Sometimes prospective clients ask for sample proposals, but we never provide them for a number of reasons. A random proposal on an unrelated subject will tell you little about how a proposal for your project and your program will turn out. We also respect our clients’ privacy and thus don’t hand out their work. Clients hire grant writers to prepare proposals for them, not for tossing into the Google ocean. If we write a proposal for you, we’re not going to share it with anyone else—and neither should any grant writer. We never take credit for proposals we’ve been hired to write. In addition, any sample that lands on the net will simply be endlessly copied by the same people who don’t know any better or suffer from the l-a-z-y disease. This isn’t merely idle paranoia: once, we had a new client, and as always we requested that they send old proposals and other background material to us. They sent a proposal that had clearly been copied from an old one of ours, much to our amusement.

Proposals won’t help you evaluate grant writers. What might help you is a) track records and b) some evidence of an ability to write in general. Not to toot our own horn, but in we’ve been in business since 1993 and have had over 500 clients in 42 states. That more than 500 clients have hired us should indicate that we’re able to produce proposals. In addition, the dozens of posts on this blog demonstrate that we can write.

If you’re reading this after searching for sample proposals, you should be convinced that you’re wasting your time. But you should also know more about how to learn to write proposals of your own. A good proposal will answer six questions. If you can’t figure out how to write simple declarative sentences that answer “Who, what, where, when, why, and how” coherently, take a journalism class at your local community college, which will teach you more about grant writing than an infinite number of sample proposals. Furthermore, you’ll start to learn what good writing is and what it sounds like, which will help you evaluate your own writing and that produced by others.

We discussed this in greater detail in Credentials for Grant Writers—If I Only Had A Brain, and to the discussion in that post I would also recommend my favorite journalism book: Mitchell V. Charnley’s Reporting, which one of my high school teachers recommended and which I’ve been carrying around since. The book describes three important, interrelated skills for grant writers: how to tell stories, how to structure stories, and how to write clearly and concisely. The book is so old that you can imagine Mitch chewing a cigar while he reads the copy for the afternoon edition, striking a word here and there and maybe taking a second to tell you a story about that crook from the legislature who got busted thirty years ago for an unusual take on the usual vices.

My major motivations in writing this post are to a) explain how things work, b) help spread knowledge, and c) convince people to stop wasting time. I realize that “c)” is an unlikely outcome, but any improvement is welcome. For whatever reason, many people seem to think that they’ll learn something by reading sample proposals. They won’t—and neither will you.

The Goal of Writing Objectives is to Achieve Positive Outcomes (Say What?)

Writing the goals and objectives section of a grant proposal is usually a daunting task for the novice grant writer. Compounding the challenge is that almost every government or foundation Request for Proposal (RFP) requires some statement of goals and objectives, and if not required, should be included in most cases. So, here is a short course in how to get over this hurdle.

First, it is critical that one does not confuse goals, objectives, and methods. A goal is an overall statement of intent, such as, “The overarching goal of the LHEAP (Left Handed Enrichment Action Project) initiative is to improve educational outcomes for at-risk left-handed youth in southwest Dubuque.” Note: I don’t mean to keeping picking on Dubuque in my posts, it’s just that as a kid growing up in Minneapolis with a kosher butcher father who always seemed to be ordering meat from a packing plant in Dubuque, it remains an exotic locale in my mind. Sorry for the Proustian reverie (In Search of Lost Time) and back to the subject at hand.

In contrast to goals, objectives are specific, measurable and time-framed products or outcomes of activities proposed for funding through the grant. Objectives are often separated into “process objectives” (sometimes called “formative”) and “outcome objectives” (sometimes called “summative”). Process objectives could include such statements as, “LHEAP will serve a minimum of 100 targeted left-handed youth annually.” Outcome objectives could include such statements as, “A minimum 10% increase in scores on the standardized Iowa Test of Arcane Academic Knowledge will be achieved annually by left-handed students who participate in project activities for a minimum of 10 hours per week over the nine-month school year. Methods are ways of accomplishing objectives, such as conducting individual assessments, providing tutoring, mentoring youth with mentors, offering family literacy to parents/caregivers, etc. Keep methods out of the goals/objectives section and discuss them in the project description section.

The secret to writing effective goal/objective sections is to use the time-honored KISS method, which is to “keep it simple stupid.” At the risk of going Proustian again, I first heard this term in Air Force basic training and it fits perfectly to this aspect of grant writing (for a nice discussion of the KISS method and the virtues of simplicity in general see a post on Ed Sim’s Blog (BeyondVC). By keeping it simple, I mean try hard to state a minimum number of goals (one simply stated goal is ideal), because a separate set of process and outcome objectives is needed for each goal statement. If you have multiple goals, you end up with something like this:

Goal 1

Project Objective 1.1

Process Objective 1.2

Outcome Objective 1.1

Outcome Objective 1.2

Goal 2

Project Objective 2.1

Process Objective 2.2

Outcome Objective 2.1

Outcome Objective 2.2

And so on.

You can see that with four or five goal statements, the objectives will be repetitive and you will likely not only confuse yourself, but also the reader. Having multiple goals also unnecessarily complicates writing evaluation sections (I will soon write a post on how to draft evaluation sections, another novice proposal writer nightmare). So, unless the RFP requires multiple goals, keep it simple and try not to confuse goals, objectives and methods.

The Perils of Perfectionism

In The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross says:

Studio heads were confident that Stravinsky’s name would prove a box office draw; Louis B. Mayer reportedly agreed to give the composer a whooping $100,000, which would be well over a million dollars in today’s money. In a review of the composer’s Hollywood activities, Charles Joseph observes that in almost every case Stravinsky demanded too much time to finish the music and too much control over the finished product.

The same is true of journalism, where deadlines rule the day, and the same is true of grant writing, where perfect is the enemy of good—a necessary truism given the deadline-oriented nature of projects. Neither journalism nor grant writing are flawless arts, and as long as deadlines exist that isn’t going to change. Those who, like Stravinsky, want time to work should find another line of business, because additional time just isn’t going to be forthcoming.

We keep analogizing grant writing to movies because there’s a fair amount of similarity between the “get it done” attitude apparently necessary for movies, which are a kind of art, and grant writing, which is also a kind of art. In grant writing, working quickly is a large part of the art. Even if you do have more time than whatever the deadline imposes, the end result might not be any better. I’ll switch metaphors to Go, a board game in which two players take turns placing black and white stones.

The game scales in difficulty almost linearly and takes five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master—which isn’t where I actually want this metaphor to go, but it’s good to keep in mind nonetheless. The real point: Go is best learned by playing many games quickly, rather than agonizing over particular moves or situations. The game is faster, more fluid, and more fun, and you’ll acquire skill faster than you would otherwise. In the same way, grant writing is best learned by doing: you’re better off writing two proposals of reasonable quality a month rather than one proposal of slightly higher quality. If you continue the two-per month regimen, at the end of twelve months you’ll write two better proposals than the single one you would write if you only wrote one per month.

Later we’ll post more on the subject of how to write proposals under pressure if you’ve never written one before, but in the meantime you should remember that proposals are more like making movies than writing a novel or symphony. Don’t be Stravinsky by implicitly turning down $100,000 because you take too long to prepare: write fast, correct your mistakes, and move on—don’t linger, because you can’t win the race unless you enter. So if you are facing a proposal, the best way to start is with a sentence that attempts to answer whatever first question an RFP asks. Then write another sentence. When you pile enough sentences together, you have a proposal, but if you take too long, it’s not going to matter. Stravinsky was among the Twentieth Century’s most important composers, but he didn’t make much of a difference to Hollywood.

If you’re going to write proposals, you’re going to be in another version Hollywood, and you better meet those deadlines. Keep in mind that any proposal that is turned in late is automatically rejected, no matter how wonderfully crafted.


EDIT: I posted a follow-up article on Perfectionism Revisited.

Bad Government English

I realize that I could collect examples of bad English from the Federal Register all day long and that doing so is as challenging as picking a fight with six-year-olds, but this sentence from the Department of Education’s Charter School Program stands out:

The purpose of the CSP is to increase national understanding of the charter school model and to expand the number of high-quality charter schools available to students across the Nation by providing financial assistance for the planning, program design, and initial implementation of charter schools, and to evaluate the effects of charter schools, including their effects on students, student academic achievement, staff, and parents.

Whew! For an extra challenge, diagram the sentence, with all its subordinate and nested clauses. Stanley Fish finds similar problems in an education report and sees bureaucrat speak as the problem:

In this case the bad writing takes two forms. First, there are the sentences made up of empty abstractions linked together in an awkward and strained syntax: “The goal is to magnetize lost talent and ensure that students thrive and progress, in order to create new generations of innovators who will enable New York State to continue as one of the world’s idea capitals.” And there are the sentences that actually say something, but in a prose so clotted and bureaucratic that it takes several readings to figure out what it is […]

A good description of many Requests for Proposals (RFPs)!

Posts such as this might become an occasional series, like the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which is “a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” Sample loser/winner: “Detective Bart Lasiter was in his office studying the light from his one small window falling on his super burrito when the door swung open to reveal a woman whose body said you’ve had your last burrito for a while, whose face said angels did exist, and whose eyes said she could make you dig your own grave and lick the shovel clean.”

(And yes, the title of this post is intentional.)