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Writing (still) requires coherent paragraphs

Last month I was working on a California State Preschool Program Expansion proposal, and California is one of those states with elaborate, bizarre curriculum requirements for every single person ages birth through 18. You may think I’m joking about “birth,” but you can actually look up California’s “Preschool Learning Foundations,” which extend from “Birth Through Kindergarten.”

Leaving aside the absurdity of “learning foundations” for two year olds—when I was two, I suspect that “eating without smearing food on face” was a major “learning foundation”—much of the material produced by California and the flock of vendors around educational programs is written in bullets, tables, fragments, and images. Some of this material is in complete sentences, like “Children use mathematical thinking to solve problems that arise in their everyday environment,” but surprisingly little is in paragraphs.

Much of the material around California’s school requirements is so disjointed that it’s practically unusable for proposals. Grant writers should experience this as a problem and an opportunity, because the number of people who can write sustained, long-form documents is small and may even be shrinking. We’ve written before about how “Grant writing is long-form, not fragmentary.” Yet much of the modern written world consists of bullets, tables, fragments, and images; that’s true even in the education system, which is supposed to be teaching students how to concentrate and how to write clearly and at length. Real writing requires coherent paragraphs, and when states (and their vendors) don’t produce those paragraphs, someone else must step up and do so. Like grant writers.

Being able to write coherent paragraphs, even when the source material is sentence fragments, is (still) an important skill; it’s so important that I’ve actually begun assigning “The Writing Revolution” to students. Paragraphs require transitions and the effective use of “coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.” Effective writing requires effective quotation, as you can see in the previous sentence. Yet bullet, tables, fragments, and images don’t require those things. That’s part of the reason they’re less satisfying to read—though they can be easier to write. Hence the proliferation of tables instead of prose.

But until funders ask for fragments rather than stories, you, the grant writer, must produce coherent paragraphs. This can be hard. I’ve written sentences, paragraphs, blog posts, articles, grant proposals, and books. The length of a document does not scale linearly; it scales exponentially (which is one reason lists and tables are easier than narrative paragraphs: they rely on the reader to fill in blanks and transitions). The longer a given, coherent document is supposed to be, the more challenging it is. That’s why I assign first-semester freshmen five-page papers and second-semester freshmen ten-page research papers, and that’s why senior theses are longer and more detailed. Students have to work up to the conceptually more challenging projects.

I’m not totally opposed to lists and tables in the right circumstances. Our links posts, for example, are a series of bullets. I don’t want to fetishize the paragraph. But I do want to observe that, when everyone else is going short, it can be beneficial for you to go long—and to know how to go long.

Despite the need to write stories and the human need to consume stories, I’ll also note that it’s not always necessary to reinvent the wheel for proposals. For example, if you’re working on an after school program or job training program that already has a curriculum available, the curriculum itself can become a large part of the project description—as long as you make sure the language matches the RFP’s language and as long as you can adapt the curriculum descriptions to paragraphs. You don’t need to reinvent everything, and if you’re a real grant writer you probably have neither the time nor the mental energy to do so. But you do need to make sure that the the arguments you make occur in paragraph form and that those paragraphs are logically linked together. If you can do that, you’ve got a skill few people do.