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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.

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Office of Family Assistance Issues the “Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood Grants Program” FOA, Provides a Generous 30-Day Deadline, and Makes Mothers Eligible

The Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Family Assistance* just issued a Funding Opportunity Announcement (DHHS-speak for RFP) with tens of millions of dollars available and no matching requirement for the Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood Grants program. This new program was apparently hidden in plain sight in a somewhat obscure piece of federal legislation named the Claims Resolution Act of 2010. In addition to resolving the wonderfully named Pigford II settlement (I am not making this up, and no, I am not going to Google Pigford II or its presumable predecessor, Pigford I), this legislation also created and funded the Fatherhood program and at least two more new competitive grant programs: the Community-Centered Healthy Marriage and Relationship (CCHMR) Grants Program and the Community-Centered Responsible Fatherhood Ex-Prisoner Reentry Pilot Project.

There is $52,00,000 available for the Fatherhood program and $57,000,000 for the Marriage program, while the ex-prisoner dads get a comparatively paltry $6,000,000. Even better, none require matching funds, which is so unusual that the fact is worth mentioning twice. It’s open season if your agency is interested in new service delivery programs, and which agency isn’t?

The only bad news is the deadline: all three were published on June 29, with July 28 deadlines. OFA is giving applicants exactly 30 days (including the Fourth of July, which is a family holiday) to write complex responses to new programs. Last year, I blogged about stupid deadlines. The only good news about a deadline like this: there will likely be fewer than usual applications due to the combination of the long holiday weekend, summer vacations, and the struggles inherent in new FOAs and regulations.

Tireless OFA workers did not forget to include a bit of unintentional humor in the Fathers FOA, which, despite its name, says that “programs funded under this FOA must offer services on an equal basis to fathers and mothers.” I guess it could have been called the Responsible Parenting Program, but where’s the fun in that? Perhaps the Prisoners grants must be provided on an equal basis for non-prisoners. There is also the minor problem of whether all marriages—if you know what I mean, and I think you do—can be assisted through marriage grant activities. If we get hired to write this proposal, I will let readers know how I dance around this potential minefield.

Enough blogging.

Unlike you civilians and federal programs officers, who will be stuffing yourselves with tofu dogs and drinking beer, I will be slaving over a hot proposal or two this long holiday weekend. I’ll take a little time out to cruise PCH in my new bright red Mini Cooper S Ragtop. If I have time, I’ll get a dog harness so my golden retriever can ride in the back, adding to the clown aspect of driving it. If I wear a Fez,** I think the look will be complete. Suggestions for 7-character personalized plates will be appreciated.

* “DHHS ACF OFA,” if you want to see the whole string. Perhaps the subagency should have been named the “Office of Assistance to Families” to improve the acronym.

** I think Steely Dan is the only rock group that worked “Fez” into song lyrics, but I could be wrong. Personally, “I’m never going to do it without the fez on.”