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A Short Post on Writing Short

Writing short is on my mind today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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