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Shorter Deadlines Are Sometimes Better for Organizations and Grant Writers

It seems intuitive that having more time to complete a task would result in a better final product. But in grant writing—and other fields—that’s sometimes not the case.

The reason is simple: more time sometimes allows organizations to edit their proposals into oblivion or let everyone contribute their “ideas,” no matter poorly conceived or how poorly the ideas fit the proposal. We’ve been emphasizing these issues a lot recently, in posts like “On the Importance of Internal Consistency in Grant Proposals” and “The Curse of Knowledge in the Proposal World,” because consistency is incredibly important yet hard to describe concisely. Good proposals, like good novels, tend to emerge from a single mind that is weaving a single narrative thread.

The same person who writes the initial proposal should ideally then be in charge of wrangling all comments from all other parties. This isn’t always possible because the grant writer is often under-appreciated and has to accept conflicting orders from various stakeholders elsewhere in the organization. One advantage we have as consultants is that we can impose internal deadlines for returning a single set comments on a draft proposal on clients that otherwise might tend towards disorder. Sometimes that also makes clients unhappy, but the systems we’ve developed are in place to improve the final work product and increase the likelihood of the client being funded.

Short deadlines, by their nature, tend to reduce the ability of everyone to pour their ideas into a proposal, or for a proposal to be re-written once or repeatedly by committee. If the organization is sufficiently functional to stay focused on getting the proposal submitted, regardless of what else may be occurring, the proposal may turn out better because it’ll be more consistent and decision makers won’t have too much time to futz with it.

You’ve probably heard the cliché, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” It exists for a reason. You may also have seen baseball games in which delays let the coach have enough thinking time to think himself into a bad pitcher or hitter change. Although every writer needs at least one editor, a single person should be responsible for a proposal and should also have the authority and knowledge necessary to say “No” when needed.

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The Curse of Knowledge in the Proposal World

Being too knowledgeable can actually hurt your proposal.

At first glance that seems wrong: Isn’t knowing more better than knowing less? Does anyone want to hire a web developer who says he doesn’t know how databases work? In most situations these questions have obvious answers, but in writing knowing too much can be a hindrance rather than a help because you’ll assume that the reader has information the reader doesn’t actually have.

You’ll know so much that you’ll assume others know what you do. You’re a wizard. But non-wizards haven’t spent years studying your arcane subject, and they need extra mental scaffolding to understand it. This problem is even worse when you’re on a team of wizards, and you’re surrounded by other technical experts. You’ll begin to subconsciously think that everyone knows what you know (certain fields, like medicine, seem particularly subject to this problem).

We’ve read numerous proposals, provided by clients, that are riddled with internal acronyms, knowledge, and arcane systems. Readers don’t automatically know that your CBO will interface with the BSSG to commit to TCO improvements. Readers won’t automatically know that the HemiSystem is clearly better than the Vaso Company’s product. Readers need to build up to knowledge of the BSSG and HemiSystem.

The vast majority of proposals are read by non-wizards, and even peer-reviewed proposals are often also read by non-peers. “Peer” can be surprisingly vague (this is especially dangerous in writing National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), or Small Business Research and Investment (SBIR) proposals). A technical “peer: may still be far enough away from a particular problem area to not know the nuances of the specific proposal topic area. It’s often better to err on more clarifying explanation rather than less.

There is no easy cure for this problem. Awareness helps—hence this post; we’re trying to make you a better writer and improve your life—but isn’t perfect. Feedback helps but also isn’t perfect. Wizards also tend to ignore the value of non-wizard feedback—if you’re not part of the guild, you don’t know enough to contribute—and that can create an echo chamber.

One strategy: give a proposal written by a wizard to an intelligent non-wizard and ask them to read it and mark confusing places, or stop when they stop understanding. If the reader stops midway through the abstract, there’s likely a problem. Another strategy is to have a non-subject area expert write the proposal—that, in essence, is what we do, and what many journalists do. We’re not experts in orthopedic surgery, or construction skills, or medical device development (to name three subjects we’ve worked in) and we don’t pretend to be. But we are experts at organizing information and telling stories. We’re experts in acquiring specialized knowledge and organizing that knowledge. That is itself a distinct skill and it’s one we have.

Even we can be susceptible to the curse of knowledge, however, and we watch for it in our proposals. You should watch for it in yours, and you should read experts at translating specialized knowledge into the public term’s. Physicist Brian Greene is famously good at this, and books like The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory are excellent.

We’re also not the first to notice the curse-of-knowledge problem: Steven Pinker discusses it in The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Should you meet anyone cursed with knowledge, give them Pinker’s book. But although you can give a book, you can’t force someone to learn. That has to come from within. People who don’t read aren’t committed to knowledge. That’s just the way it is.

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Links: The Charity-Industrial Complex, Anthony Weiner Exposed (so to speak), Conventional Wisdom Debunked, Vaccines, Work, the Workforce, and More!

* The charitable industrial complex; I find it revealing that so many people who view how charities work from the inside start to see why so much is amiss with them.

* “‘It’s a circle of hell there’s just no way out of,’ Schochet said. ‘I paid it as long as I could.’

* Why It’s Never Mattered That America’s Schools ‘Lag’ Behind Other Countries.

* We should be suing and charging parents who don’t vaccinate their kids.

* “Open All Night: America’s Car Factories,” with the most interesting quote from a grant writer’s perspective being this, about a plant in Toledo: “Of those who applied for the work, 70% were rejected, mostly because they couldn’t pass initial assessment tests, Mr. Pino said.” “Initial assessment tests” means basic reading and writing skills. Any nonprofit in Toledo that wants to run adult education or after school programs should use this quote.

* “Affordable Excellence. . . This book is a clear first choice on the Singapore health system and everyone interested in health care economics, or Singapore, should read it. It is short, clear, and to the point.” I am struck by how many people have strong opinions about healthcare without really understanding the system. Sloganeering is rampant and understanding scant. This is useful in conjunction with “The two most important numbers in American health care,” which points out that five percent of patients accounts for fifty percent of costs.

* “The U.S. patent system inhibits cancer vaccine development.”

* “Spy Kids,” and the fate of spy apparatuses that depend on cultural concepts long dead in most of American and Western life.

* “The Gender Wage Gap Lie: You know that “women make 77 cents to every man’s dollar” line you’ve heard a hundred times? It’s not true.” More conventional wisdom debunked. Is anyone surprised?

* “If it were cheaper to build apartments the rent would be lower.” This is obvious but bears repeating.

* “Guesses and Hype Give Way to Data in Study of Education.”

* The Turpentine Effect, a brilliant post with an unfortunate title that makes it less likely you’ll read.

* “An Aspiring Scientist’s Frustration with Modern-Day Academia: A Resignation.”

* “The Patriarchy Is Dead Feminists, accept it.”

* “How Anthony Weiner Exposed the Insecurities of the 1960s Generation: A half-century after the sexual revolution, the make-your-own-rules folks are no longer quite so sold on free love.” This has Camille Paglia-esque overtones.

* We are in denial about catastrophic risks.

* NASA’s Plutonium Problem Could End Deep-Space Exploration.

* A geek’s tour of Sigma’s Aizu lens factory: Precision production from the inside out.

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Computers and education: An example of conventional wisdom being wrong

We’ve written innumerable proposals for programs to give students computers or access to computers. Some, like “Goals 2000,” have already been forgotten by anyone not named Seliger. Others, like the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, continue to exist, although the original federal version got broken into state pass-through funds. All of them work on the presumption that giving students computers will improve education.

The problem is that, as we’ve written before, most research demonstrates that this isn’t true, even if it seems like it should be true. Another study, “Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers,” just came out against computers improving educational outcomes. Some news report have covered it too, including “Using Laptops In Classrooms Lowers Grades: Study” and one from the Times of India. But the important takeaway is simple: computer access in and of itself doesn’t appear to improve educational attainment.

That doesn’t really matter for the proposal world, in which the conventional wisdom is always right and where these studies can be used to make minor changes in program design to overcome the problem of distraction. But they’re interesting on a real world level, especially because they confirm what many of us know intuitively: that computers are great for wasting time.

I’d define “wasting time” as any time spent nominally doing a task that doesn’t result in some tangible product or change at the end of that task. Reading Slate instead of writing a novel, to use an example from close to home, is time wasted; reading Slate to relax isn’t. The danger with the Internet (and, for others, computer games) is that it can feel work-like without actually accomplishing any work in the process.

Personally, when I need to do serious writing that doesn’t require data research, I use the program Mac Freedom to turn off Internet access. I paid $10 to not be able to access the Internet. I know the Internet, like the Force, has a light side and a dark side. The light side is research, connection, learning, and human possibility. The dark side is an endless carnival of noise, blinking lights, and effervescent distraction. As Paul Graham wrote in “Disconnecting Distraction:”

Some days I’d wake up, get a cup of tea and check the news, then check email, then check the news again, then answer a few emails, then suddenly notice it was almost lunchtime and I hadn’t gotten any real work done. And this started to happen more and more often.

Now, if people like Paul Graham (or me!) have trouble doing real work when the Internet black hole is available, what hope does the average 15-year-old have—especially given that Graham and I grew up in a world without iPhones and incessant text messages? This isn’t “Get these darn kids off my lawn” rant, but it is an important anecdotal point about the importance and danger of computers. Computers are essential to, say, computer programming, but they aren’t essential to reading, writing, or basic math.

I went to a law school for a year by accident (don’t ask), and everyone had a laptop. They were sometimes used for taking notes. More often they were used for messaging in class. Occasionally they were actually used for porn. These were 22 – 30-year-old proto lawyers. On one memorable occasion, a guy’s computer erupted with a sports ad that blanketed the room with the drums, trumpets, and deep-voiced announcer promising gladiatorial combat. Evidently he’d forgotten to turn sound off. The brightest students were highly disciplined in their computer usage, but many of us, like addicts, didn’t have that discipline. We were better off not sitting in the room with the coke.

To be sure, computers can be useful in class. My fiancée wrote her med school application essay in class, since she was forced, due to academic bureaucratic idiocy, to take basic cell bio after she’d taken advanced cell bio. The laptop helped her recover time that otherwise would’ve been wasted, but I suspect that she’s in the minority.

I get the impression that the average student has no problem learning to immerse themselves in buzzy online worlds, and the exceptional, Zuckerberg-like student has no problem using digital tools to build those online worlds. What we should really probably be doing is teaching students how to cultivate solitude and concentrate. That’s what we need to learn how to do, even if that isn’t a particular subject matter domain.

Finally, like a lot of ideas, computers in schools might be a bad idea right up to the point they’re not. Adaptive learning software may eventually make a tremendous difference in student learning. That just hasn’t happened yet, and the last 20 years demonstrate that it’s not going to happen by chucking computers at students and assuming that computers are magically going to provide education. They’re not. Computers are mirrors that reflect the desires already inside a person. For students, 1% will build the next Facebook, another 3% will write angsty blog posts and perhaps become writers more generally, and 100% will use it for porn and games.

EDIT 2015: I just wrote about Kentaro Toyama’s book Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology, which describes… wait for it… why technology is not a panacea for education and may make it worse.

A few astute readers have also asked an important question: What could make or help technology improve education? I don’t have a good answer (if I did, I’d be starting the company that will deploy the answer). But I think we will see experimentation and slow, incremental steps. Many massive online courses (MOOCs), for example, started off as filmed lectures. Then they morphed towards having multiple camera angles and some quizzes. More recently, those classes shifted towards small, interactive chunks with quizzes that test comprehension interspersed among them. Each step improved comprehension, completion, and student engagement.

But MOOCs don’t seem to improve the ability to sustain concentration, be conscientious, or read in-depth. Without that last skill in particular, I’m not sure how much education of any kind can happen. Technology can give us the text, but it can’t make us read or comprehend the text or deal with it imaginatively.

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Learn How Things Work, Including Grants and Grant Writing

We regularly get e-mails and phone calls from people who think they can get money for nothing. They don’t know anything about how grants or grant writing works and apparently don’t want to learn. This is mind-boggling to me because it means such people are wasting their time and wasting our time for no particular reason.

People call or write to ask about grants for their small businesses, for child care, to pay their bills, and all kinds of other stuff, even when we say—right on our website—that most businesses and individuals aren’t eligible for grants and that we work primarily for nonprofit and public agencies. Such people are asking to be taken by unscrupulous sharks because they don’t know any better. Almost every legitimate grant writer has statements like ours on their website. We write posts (like this one) on our blog. So why keep sending the emails and calling?

Max Klein’s post “Drug dealers shouldn’t make iPhone apps” gives us a partial answer. He says:

I’ve been noticing that a great deal of successful people are very consistent in what they do and in their approach. For example, a weather man. You will see him having weather kits, weather shows, etc. It’s all about the weather. That’s what people know him for. And he leverages his knowledge to move horizontally in the weather space.

Then he tells a hilarious story about a guy in Bali who rents body boards, is a part-time gigolo, and wants to open a brothel. Klein says:

I spluttered: Why in heavens name don’t you start a motorcycle shop or something and make money legally?

He gave me an answer that is one of the most important sentences I have ever heard:

“What do I know about selling motorcycles? I know about selling bodies, that’s what I do, it’s what I’m good at, and I’m not going to throw away all I have learned over these years and do something where I have absolutely no experience.”

This is brilliant and lots of people don’t do it. They want to throw away whatever they’ve learned to chase grants, or they don’t want to learn anything in the first place. If you’re going to chase grants and you’re reading this, you should start by reading every single post in the archives of this blog. When you’re done, you will know have a reasonable understanding of grant writing and what is possible. If you don’t want to believe us, type “grant writing blog” into the search engine of your choice and read what others have to say.

In an alternate world, I am a famous and successful novelist exchanging bon mots with Jon Stewart and Christopher Hitchens. Obviously I’m not—at the moment, anyway—but in working toward that goal, I’ve read a lot about how writing and publishing works. Blogs have been great for this because they’re often written by people in the industry, and the writers have no reason to put a smiley face on things, unlike writers of how-to-get-published books that want to sell you books and make you believe in your dreams, however improbable, poorly conceived, or poorly executed.

Agent blogs like Nathan Bransford, Betsy Lerner, Janet Reid, and Dystel & Goderich have been incredibly useful. There are others as well. Taken together, they explain what it’s like to be on the other end of the slush pile (pretty ugly) and what catches their eye (voice and writers who’ve done their homework). They explain how publishing works. The novelist Charlie Stross has been explaining how the publishing industry is changing. And so on. Janet Reid also runs a blog named Query Shark, which is a snarky what-not-to-do guide for writing query letters.

If you read all this material, you’ll start to understand what you’re supposed to do if you want any shot whatsoever at getting published. If you don’t, the chances of you remaining in your current, unpublished state rise considerably because you’ll never get past the initial query letter hurdle because you don’t know anything about what you’re trying to do.

Callers to Seliger + Associates, however, routinely demonstrate that they know nothing about what they’re trying to do, and we see the unfortunate results. (Note that if you’re with a nonprofit or public agency, the preceding sentence doesn’t apply to you, and you shouldn’t hesitate to call.) Not long ago, we got an especially strange e-mail from someone who says she is a student in criminology, but has written a cookbook and also has a “business plan and letter of intent for the cookbook.” The e-mail is poorly written and says things like, “I am needing a grant to help pay for this,” which is the kind of mistake that, if my freshmen students make it often enough, means they’ll fail my class. She says, “So, What I am asking is for $10,000.00.” Asking for $10K from us? From someone else? I have no idea.

Maybe this is just the Dunning-Kruger Effect at work (“our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence.” Read that again). Or maybe it’s something more.

Our correspondent should learn about what she’s trying to do, because no one is going to give her money or help her based on the query she sent. If she’s looking for financial aid, her college has an office dedicated to that task. This is basic, basic stuff. I have no idea if the woman who wrote to us knows anything about any domain, but she definitely knows as little about grant writing as I know about forestry management. In her email, she also says “This is very important to me,” which is patently untrue, because when something is very important to a person, they research the subject and pay very close attention to what they’re doing. When something is important, a person takes a lot of time to do it well or learn how to do it well. If she doesn’t, then at best she’ll fail in her stated goal and at worse she’ll pay money to someone and get nothing in return.

The guy in Bali has spent years learning about the body trade, and he’s not going to throw that knowledge away by diving into some other field. The woman writing to us should take the same lesson to heart. I realize this is probably shouting into the void, since you, dear reader, are already reading Grant Writing Confidential and thus less likely to make these kinds of egregious, wasteful errors. But now at least I have somewhere to point people.