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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.

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Yet Another Note on Grant Writing Training, Seminars, and Workshops

Most of the people who send us angry e-mails regarding our posts on the uselessness of grant writing credentials, workshops, and the like do so because they teach those workshops and are unhappy when prospective students send links to our work. We got another such e-mail recently, which starts with a rhetorical question we’ve answered in a dozen places: “How does a potential grant writer learn to prepare a proposal?” It’s not that hard: one learns, most often, in English comp classes that teach you how to write and journalism classes that teach you how to answer who, what, where, when, why, and how. The rest is described in the post linked to above.

Our correspondent continued:

“I firmly believe conducting a grant writing seminar is a great marketing tool for consultants who are building their practice. After all, it is the novice grant writers who need the greatest help from the grant writing experts…such as myself or Seliger + Associates.”

We firmly believe that the best way to learn how to be a grant writer is by learning how to write, which grant writing seminars can’t teach you, and then writing proposals. But grant writing seminars are a great marketing tool for people like the woman who wrote to us, since she teaches grant writing seminars and would be out of business if she couldn’t do so any more. If I sold hot dogs, I’d be very opposed to people who point out that hot dogs aren’t very good for you. If I sold grant writing seminars, I’d be opposed to people who point out that such seminars are a waste of time.

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Grant Advice is Only as Good as the Knowledge Behind It

As faithful readers know, in my other life I’m a graduate student in English Literature at the University of Arizona. A few weeks ago, first years were required to attend a brief seminar on grant writing, which amused me given GWC’s low opinion of training sessions, courses, and the like. Isaac is fond of telling a story about his first encounter with one: he was younger than I am and began a two-day grant training session. It started with the instructor writing the 5Ws and the H on a board, at which point Isaac realized they were really teaching journalism and that grant writing similar to writing feature stories, which he already knew how to do. He got up and left.

I didn’t have the same reaction Isaac did, largely because I was required to attend.

The seminar’s major problem was its vagueness. We like to call this “hand waving” or “donut eating.” Grant writing advice of any sort is only as good as the details contained within it—saying there is “money available” is not nearly as helpful as saying the Department of Education issued an RFP on September 3rd with a deadline of October 15th and eligibility requirements x, y, and z. The more general you are in grant writing, the less useful the advice is. That’s why this blog works toward specificity: by citing real RFPs, real problems we’ve encountered, real issues with examples backing them, and the like, we aim to show what struggling with the grant beat truly entails. It’s also why our grant newsletter only contains only live RFPs with actual deadlines; we don’t want to say “the money is out there,” as if describing UFOs—we want to provide a concrete map to the money. Our advertising slogan for years has been, “We know where the money is,” and we strive to live up to it. Until you struggle with an actual RFP—or finding one—you’ll know little if anything about what grant writing is. For someone who had never heard the term “grants” or “grant writing” before might have found it useful, much like a person who’d never seen a large body of water might find it useful to stand it a pool before learning how to swim. But for almost anyone else, the seminar’s content wasn’t optimally useful because so much was conducted via hand-waving, and the leader—I’ll call her “Linda” because I can’t remember her name—said a variety of things that were vaguely correct, but lacked detail:

* Elections affect grants and grant making. Although elections have some effect on the distribution of money in terms of funding priorities, elections have made relatively little difference in the amount of money distributed, which seems to go perpetually up, and in the actual programs used as distribution vehicles. Some programs will become zombies and some phoenixes, as discussed in this post. But politics won’t change grant funds that much for public and nonprofit agencies, and politics will affect graduate students even less. (Politics and its tenuous connection to the grant world will be discussed in a future post.)

* Conflating grants, contracts, and fellowships. The first two are similar and have a fuzzy border but shouldn’t be used identically. Human service delivery grants are usually made to nonprofit and public agencies to solve some perceived social problem. RFPs for grant programs usually give general guidance, about what to do but don’t offer specific metrics, as the applicant should substantively design the program and state how they’d approach the problem and their own measurements. It’s usually not performance-based and will essentially say, “Tell us how you will decrease the rate of heart disease and diabetes in the target population,” for example.

In contrast, contracts are usually offered by public agencies on what is more or less a vendor/vendee relationship. You could have a contract for providing toilet seats or substance abuse treatment slots, and the metrics for a contract are usually specific, defined, and fixed. You’ll deliver X units of something per month, and you’ll be paid on a capitated (per head), per day or per service unit delivered. For example, a nonprofit agency might agree to provide job training and receive $1,000 per person in training per week. A childcare provider might have 50 slots and receive $50/day per slot filled.

Finally, fellowships are usually given to individuals or occasionally small groups to perform some kind of specific research or do some kind of specific thing. They’re a subset of grants, and we discuss an example of a fellowship program below.

* We were advised to “value the process” of finding a grant. While I’m not entirely sure what that means, I’ll go ahead and disagree with it anyway because the process is a means to the end. You need to value the outcome. The process of applying for a grant can’t be neglected, but it’s less important to do the process well than it is to, say, turn in the application on time.

* Paying close attention to reviewer feedback. This issue should be very familiar to faithful readers. To quote one of Isaac’s recent posts:

The primary reason for not taking reviewer comments seriously is the nature of the people reviewing it. Any proposal is read at a point in time by a set of reviewers, who are likely reading other proposals submitted for the same competition and may or may not be interested in the task at hand. For example, if the proposal is read by five peer reviewers brought to D.C. by DHHS, one may be hung over from bar hopping the night before in Georgetown, one may be anxious to meet their Aunt Martha for dinner, a third may be itching to get to the Air and Space Museum before it closes, and two might be vaguely interested in the review process. And, of the last two, one may have gotten a speeding ticket in your jurisdiction 20 years ago and hates the city.

The same applies to graduate students or anyone else engaging in grant writing.

* Make the grant be whatever you want. Although you shouldn’t apply for grants of any sort you have no intention of running, you should still stretch your program concept to fit guidelines to the extent you can, as we discuss in Surfing the Grant Waves: How to Deal with Social and Funding Wind Shifts:

If you were a suburban school district trying to fund, say, an art programs, and you read the Federal Register, you might’ve noticed new funding or shifts in emphasis. You could’ve combined your art program with nominal academic support, thus widening your program focus enough to make a plausible applicant for the 21st CCLC program and thus getting the money to carry out your central purpose: art.

* Failure to customize applications. Linda emphasized several points that were completely correct: one must pay attention to rules, guidelines, and requirements for a particular program, whether government or foundation. With the latter, a blanket pitch to foundations is most likely to result in total rejection; each foundation has its own persnickety needs and requirements, and anything sent to a particular foundation should be customized to those requirements. As a result, you’re better off sending a small number of applications to a limited number of foundations and making sure those applications follow the foundation’s guidelines precisely. This is a corollary of another thing Linda said, which is that one should seek good matches in funding. Come to think of it, this is also a pretty good rule for dating.

* The difference between the grant and real worlds. Just as you should stretch ideas to fit program guidelines, you should also realize that the grant world and real world aren’t necessarily the same things. We discuss the issue in Studying Programs is Hard to Do: Why It’s Difficult to Write a Compelling Evaluation and Know Your Charettes!. As Linda said, programs like the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship Program are supposed to help you finish school faster because you have money and thus should be able to focus on your work. But the reality is that many recipients finish their Ph.Ds. slower because they don’t have a financial ax looming over their neck. This is the kind of reality you shouldn’t mention in your application, because you’re building an argument that needs to agree with the premise of the program, even if everyone knows what really tends to happen.

* Persistence. As Isaac often tells prospective clients, he’s a grant writer and not a fortune teller and thus doesn’t know whether any particular agency will be funded for a particular grant because too many factors outside the applicant’s control can change whether a grant is funded or not. The best one can do is turn in a complete and technically accurate proposal and hope for the best. That’s true of any individual proposal. Nonetheless, over the long term, the organizations that get funded are the persistent ones that never give up and continually refine their approach and work to improve their grant writing skills. The same is true of graduate students and individuals. As Randy Pausch says in The Last Lecture, barriers and walls are there to show how badly you want something. It’s true of grant writing, job searching, novel publishing, date finding, and a variety of other complex undertakings with multiple interlocking parts based on imperfect knowledge and equally imperfect judgment.

Now, it’s true that the seminar might have been helpful for someone who’d never heard the term “grant” or “fellowship” and had never even thought about the issue. But even so, it wasn’t maximally helpful. Had Linda been more knowledgeable about particular grant programs graduate students in English are eligible to apply for, it could have been better. If she’d had a potential program most of us were eligible for, she could have assigned all of us to prepare application packages. Now that would be useful. Part of the problem is that very few programs exist for graduate students who aren’t writing their dissertation: as a result, graduate students might spend too much time searching for opportunities that don’t exist. One program that does, for example, is the aforementioned Jacob K. Javits Fellowship Program. It’s only available for first-year students, however, and the deadline for it has already passed, which is a good metaphor for the seminar’s overall utility.

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Tools of the Trade—What a Grant Writer Should Have

A budding grant writer who is enrolled in a Nonprofit Management Masters program recently e-mailed me to ask if she should spend $4,000 on grant writing classes. Regular readers know how little I think of grant writing training, so I advised her to take some undergrad courses in English composition/journalism and spend her $4k on a good computer and comfortable chair instead. In addition to being infinitely more useful than grant writing classes, she’ll also enjoy them for activities other than grant writing. This led me to think about the useful tools a grant writer should have, including:

1. A great computer. After years of frustration with Windows, Jake converted the rest of us to Macs about 18 months ago and they’ve mostly been a pleasure. Mac OS X has two particularly helpful features for grant writers: “Spotlight” and “Time Machine.” If I’m writing a proposal about gang violence in Dubuque, typing keywords in Spotlight lets me easily find an article on my hard drive from the Dubuque Picayune Press about gangs that I saved two years ago. If I manage to muck up a current proposal file, Time Machine lets me go back to yesterday’s version to recover it. Trying to do these tasks in Windows XP is so difficult that having a bottle of Scotch handy is a good idea if you try, although Windows Vista is supposed to have improved the search experience.

As to which model is best, I prefer the Mac Pro because it is easy to add multiple video cards—meaning you can also attach lots of monitors. I use three and might add a fourth if I can find a good rack system. You’re thinking that I must imagine myself as Tom Cruise flipping images across displays in Minority Report,, but it is actually very handy to have multiple monitors because I can arrange relevant data on all of them by having the proposal I’m writing on my 23″ primary screen, a file from the client on the 20″ screen to the right and a pertinent website on the 19″ screen to the left. The fourth monitor would show the RFP. Avoiding opening and closing windows saves time and, for a grant writer, time is literally money. Jake prefers his 24″ iMac, which only accepts one additional monitor, but looks oh so elegant on his desktop. He can also have two windows open simultaneously:

Others like the MacBook Pro, but I’ve never liked writing on a laptop, unless forced to on a plane.* Grant writers who travel should be aware that a MacBook or MacBook Pro is easier to use in coach class because both hinge at the bottom, as opposed to most laptops, which hinge at the top. You have a somewhat better chance of using it when the large person in front of you drops their seat back into your lap.

2. A comfortable chair. Grant writers spend much of their lives sitting, so don’t skimp on the chair. Jake and I like the Aeron Chair, Herman Miller’s gift to those of us trapped in offices but dreaming of working on the command deck of the Starship Enterprise. Others prefer the Steelcase Leap Chair, but whatever you get, make sure its adjustable and makes you want to sit in it for 12 hours a day when under deadline pressure. Slashdot recently had a long discussion of the relative merits of various chairs, and the differences might not seem important—but if you spend endless hours in your chair, the value of a good one quickly becomes apparent.

3. Sound system and headphones. I like to write wearing headphones, as listening to Nelly rap “Midwest Swing” at high volume gets me in the mood for writing a proposal about East St. Louis, which I have to do as soon as I finish this post. There is no substitute for Bose QuietComfort 3 Noise Canceling Headphones, which also come in handy on planes. When everyone has left the office, you can fling off the headphones and listen using Bose Companion 3 Computer Speakers.

4. A large desk with an ergonomic keyboard holder. Any desk will do, as long as it has lots of space for papers, books, pictures of kids, empty diet coke cans, etc. But don’t forget to attach a high quality adjustable keyboard tray. We love Humanscale trays, which can be attached to most any flat top desk. Spend $20 on the desk and $300 on the keyboard tray and your wrists will thank you.

5. Desk stuff. Jake likes annoying, noisy, clicky keyboards with great tactile feel, but the rest of us are happy with Apple wireless models. Although it is no long necessary to have a stack of reference books (e.g.,dictionary, thesaurus, etc.), a copy of Write Right! and On Writing Well isn’t a bad idea. A ruler, handheld calculator, lots of post-in notes, assorted desk jewelry to play with, a message pad, speaker phone, cell phone with Bluetooth earpiece lots of markers and pens are nice accessories.

6. A window. Writing grant proposals is too confining a task to do so without a view of something. Just make sure there’s a blind, so you can shut it when you find yourself daydreaming.

7. Companion. Personally, I like a dog nearby to pet when I pause to take a break (I know, there could be a bad pun here). Our faithful Golden Retriever, Matzo the Wonder Dog, was our constant office companion until she laid down her burden last winter, but she was often in a festive mood:

We now have Odette, a frisky seven month old Golden Retriever puppy, who keeps us laughing with her office antics:

About $4,000 should set up a first class grant writer’s office. It is not necessary to have one, but it is nice. When we started 15 years ago, we used hand-me-down desks, $5 chairs and PCs bartered for grant writing services. If you have a bit of money, however, the grant writing experience can be made vaguely enjoyable with good tools. After all, we are nothing more than wordsmiths and any craftsperson can make due with what they have, but a good set of tools helps speed the job and make it more pleasant.

*I’ve never understood why TV shows and movies always show writers using laptops, a lá Carrie in “Sex and the City.” If there are any writers out there who actually use laptops everyday, I’d like to hear from them.