Tag Archives: Technical Writing

Put the most important thing in the first sentence

Did you know Dave Barry used to teach business writing? Neither did I. But he did and in this conversation with Tyler Cowen he points to the most consistent problem he sees with business writers, which is the same problem we see in the writing of so many of our clients (and their supposed grant writers); this is a long quote but it encapsulates so much of grant writing that I’m not going to cut it:

COWEN: What’s the main thing they get wrong from the business mentality?

BARRY: OK, the most consistent mistake . . . not mistake, but inefficiency of business writing — and it was very consistent — is the absolute refusal on the part of the writer to tell you right away what message he or she is trying to deliver. I used to say to them, “The most important thing you have to say should be in the first sentence.” And “Oh, no, you can’t. I’m an engineer. We did a 10-year study, this is way too complicated.”

And inevitably, they were wrong. Inevitably, if they really thought about it, they were able to, in one sentence, summarize why it was really important. But they refused to do that because the way they found out was by spending 10 years of study and all this data and everything, and that’s the way they wanted everyone to look at what they did. They wanted their supervisors to go plowing through all they had done to come to this brilliant conclusion that they had come to.

COWEN: Through their history, through their thought patterns.

BARRY: Drag everybody through it. And it was the one thing the newspaper people were taught to do that made more sense. You don’t have your reader’s attention very long, so get to the point. I found it was very difficult to get even really smart businesspeople to get to the point. Sometimes it was because they really couldn’t tell you what the point was.

What I wanted to say, but rarely felt comfortable saying, was, “If you don’t know what the point is, then you can’t really write this report.” But it was always too complicated for a layperson like me to understand. That was the way they did it. I was being hired by their bosses to tell them, “No, we want you to write clearly, and we want you to get to the point.”

Barry worked for newspapers for many years, which means he learned about the 5Ws and H (that linked post of ours, by the way, is one of the most-read we’ve ever produced). The most important sentences comes first, and every sentence after it should appear in declining importance. If you have to cut a proposal to make the page or character counts work, you should be able to cut each section from the bottom up.

It’s almost always possible to make even very technical subjects somewhat comprehensible to the generally educated and reasonably intelligent lay reader. That engineers or executive directors often haven’t learned to do so doesn’t meant they’re dumb (they’re not)—it just means they’ve never learned how to write. Which is fine: I’ve never learned how to write a compiler or build a bridge that doesn’t collapse. An intelligible description for regular readers will obviously lose important technical nuances, but in many cases that’s desirable rather than bad.

Part of the reason we can write scientific and technical grant proposals effectively is because we’re good at understanding technical concepts, picking out the most important parts, and then putting those important parts in the right order the RFP. We often get something technically incorrect in first drafts, in which case our client corrects us. Still, we are very good at telling compelling stories that will get scientific and engineering proposals funded. We have the business we do for many reasons, one being that we’re good at putting things in the right order in proposals. Proposals that aren’t structured properly because they don’t get to the point are often unreadable.

The first sentence of this post is the title. And it is the most important sentence: “Put the most important thing in the first sentence.” If you learn how to do this, you’ll be ahead of 80% of grant writers and would-be grant writers. Most proposals prepared by other “grant writers” fail the first-sentence test.

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.