Tag Archives: Writing

“How Jeff Bezos Turned Narrative into Amazon’s Competitive Advantage”

How Jeff Bezos Turned Narrative into Amazon’s Competitive Advantage” should be mandatory reading for anyone in nonprofit and public agencies, because narrative is probably more important for nonprofits than conventional businesses; conventional businesses can succeed by pointing to product-market fit, but nonprofits typically don’t have that metric. Nonprofits have to get their stories out in other ways than profit-loss statements or sales.

Bezos is Amazon’s chief writing evangelist, and his advocacy for the art of long-form writing as a motivational tool and idea-generation technique has been ordering how people think and work at Amazon for the last two decades—most importantly, in how the company creates new ideas, how it shares them, and how it gets support for them from the wider world.

New ideas often emerge from writing—virtually everyone who has ever written anything substantive understands this, yet it remains misunderstood among non-writers. Want to generate new ideas? Require writing. And no, “Powerpoint” does not count:

“The reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than ‘writing’ a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related,” he writes, “Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.”

I’m not totally anti-Powerpoint—I have seen books about how to do it well—but Powerpoint does not substitute for narrative (in most cases). Most people doing Powerpoint have not read Edward Tufte or adequately thought through their rationale for choosing Powerpoint over some other communications genre, like the memo. The other day I did an online grant-writing training session for the state of California for 400 people, and the guy organizing it expected me to do a Powerpoint. I said that using a Powerpoint presentation to teach writing is largely useless (he seemed surprised). Instead, I did a screencast, using a text editor as my main window, in which I solicited project ideas and RFPs germane to the viewers. I picked a couple and began working through the major parts of a typical proposal, showing how I would construct an abstract using the 5Ws and H, and then how I would use those answers to begin fleshing out typical narrative sections in the proposal. Because it was screencast, participants can re-watch sections they find useful. I think having a text document and working with actual sentences is much closer to the real writing process than babbling on about a prepared set of slides with bullet points. The talk was less polished than it would have been if I’d prepared it in advance, but writing is inherently messy and I wanted to deliberately show its messiness. There is no way to avoid this messiness; it’s part of the writing process on a perceptual level. It seems linked to speech and to consciousness itself.

To return to the written narrative point, written narrative also allows the correct tension between individual creativity and group feedback, in a way that brainstorming sessions don’t, as the article explains. Most human endeavors involving group activity require some tension between the individual acting and thinking alone versus being part of a pair or larger group acting in concert. If you are always alone, you lose the advantage of another mind at work. If you are always in a group, you lack the solitude necessary for thinking and never get other people out of your head. Ideal environments typically include some “closed door” space and some “open door” serendipitous interaction. Written narrative usually allows for both.

Nonprofit and public agencies that can’t or won’t produce coherent written documents are not going to be as successful as those that do. They aren’t going to ensure key stakeholders understand their purpose and they’re not going to be able to execute as effectively. That’s not just true in grant writing terms; it’s true in organizational terms. Reading remains at present, the fastest way to transmit information. If you’re not hiring people who can produce good stuff for reading, you’re not effectively generating and using information within your organization.

When you hire consultants, you’re hiring them for all the mistakes they’ve ever seen (and made)

When you hire a lawyer, part of who you’re hiring is someone who has made thousands of mistakes in law school and as a young lawyer. Lawyers, like doctors and other professionals, learn in an apprentice-style system that incorporates the mistakes made by their mentors. Proto-lawyers also make some mistakes of their own—and, ideally, have those mistakes corrected by senior lawyers, and learn to not make those mistakes in the future. Most people don’t think about hiring a person or team specifically for their mistakes, yet this is a useful way to think about most professional services, including our personal favorite: grant writing consultants.

When you’re hiring a grant writer, you’re really hiring the experience that grant writer has. It isn’t impossible to hire a college intern or recent journalism grad and get funded; we’ve seen it happen and heard stories from clients. But the intern and inexperienced writers will make mistakes more experienced people won’t. We’ve written numerous posts about subtle mistakes that are easy to make in all aspects of the grant pipeline, from the needs assessment to the program design to the submission process. It’s also possible to get a competent junior person to write a couple of proposals, but grant writing is very hard and over time they tend to demand more money—or leave. That’s why you have trouble hiring grant writers. Many interns will write a proposal or two, but when they learn how hard and under-appreciated the job is, they often want money commensurate with difficulty. The inexperienced tend to make mistakes; the experienced grant writers tend to charge accordingly.

We are still not perfect (no one is; if anyone think they are, refer to “the perils of perfectionism“). But we have learned, through trial and error, how to make many fewer mistakes than novice or somewhat experienced grant writers. It’s not conceptually possible to eliminate all errors, but it is possible to avoid many errors that scupper most would-be grant writers.

If your organization can get a recent English major to write successful proposals for little or nothing, you should do that. But we’ve also heard from a lot of organizations that have “whoever is around” write, or attempt to write, their proposals, only to fail. Experience matters. You can get the magic intern, but more often you get someone who is overwhelmed by the complexity of a given writing assignment, who doesn’t understand human services or technical projects, is simply terrified by absolute deadlines, etc.

Let’s take as an example a common error that we’ve seen in a spate of recent old proposals provided by clients. Most include some variation, made by inexperienced writers, who want to write that “we are wonderful,” “we really care,” and the like in their proposals. This is a violation of the writing principle “Show, don’t tell.” Most of the time, you don’t want to tell people you’re wonderful—you want to show them that you are. “We are wonderful” statements are empty. “We served 500 youth with ten hours of service per week, and those services include x, y, and z” statements have objective content. It’s also harder to accurately describe what specific services an organization is providing than it is to say subjectively, “We are wonderful and we care.” Whatever is rare is more valuable than that which is common.

The above paragraph is just one example of the kind of errors novices make that experts tend not to. Attempting to enumerate all errors would be book-length if not longer. Experienced grant writers will avoid errors and offer quality almost instinctively, without always being able to articulate every aspect of error vs. optimality.

Grant writing and cooking: Too many details or ingredients is never a good idea

As a grant writer who also likes to cook, I understand the importance of simplicity and clarity in both my vocation and avocation: too much detail can ruin the proposal, just as too many ingredients can produce a dull dish. Ten years ago, I wrote a post on the importance of using the KISS method (keep it simple, stupid—or Sally, if you don’t like the word “stupid”) in grant writing. We recently wrote an exceedingly complex state health care proposal for a large nonprofit in a Southern state, but even complex proposals should be as simple as possible—but no simpler.

As is often the case with state programs, the RFP was convoluted and required a complex needs assessment. Still, the project concept and target area were fairly straightforward. We wrote the first draft of the needs assessment in narrative form, rather than using a bunch of tables. There’s nothing intrinsically better or worse about narrative vs. tables; when the RFP is complex, we tend toward narrative form, and when the project concept and/or target area are complex, we often use more tables. For example, if the target population includes both African American and Latino substance abusers in an otherwise largely white community, we might use tables, labeling columns by ethnicity, then compare to the state. That’s hard to do in narrative form. Similarly, if the target area includes lots of counties, some of which are much more affluent than others, we might use tables to contrast the socioeconomic characteristics of the counties to the state.

Many grant reviewers also have trouble reading tables, because they don’t really understand statistics. Tables should also be followed by a narrative paragraph explaining the table anyway.

So: our client didn’t like the first draft and berated me for not using tables in the needs assessment. The customer is not always right, but, as ghostwriters, we accommodate our clients’s feedback, and I added some tables in the second draft. Our client requested more tables and lots of relatively unimportant details about their current programming, much of which wasn’t germane to the RFP questions. Including exhaustive details about current programming takes the proposal focus away from the project you’re trying to get funded, which is seldom a good idea. It’s best to provide sufficient detail to answer the 5 Ws and the H), while telling a compelling story that is responsive to the RFP.

Then, stop.

The client’s second draft edit requested yet more tables and a blizzard of additional, disconnected details. Our client disliked it the third draft. We ended up writing five drafts, instead of the usual three, and the proposal got steadily worse, not better. As chef-to-the-stars Wolfgang Puck* is said to have said, “Cooking is like painting or writing a song. Just as there are only so many notes or colors, there are only so many flavors – it’s how you combine them that sets you apart.” Attempting to use all the flavors at once usually results in a kitchen disaster.

A given section of a proposal should be as short as possible without being underdeveloped. Changes from draft to draft should also be as minimal and specific as possible.


* Jake sort-of-met Wolfgang, albeit before he was born. His mom was eight months pregnant with him when we went to Spago for dinner. Wolfgang was there in his Pillsbury Doughboy getup, and, despite not being celebrities, he couldn’t have been nicer and made a big deal out of a very pregnant woman dining at his place. I think he wanted his food to induce labor, but that didn’t happen for a couple of weeks; instead, Nate ‘n’ Al’s Deli (another celebrity hangout in Beverly Hills), was the culprit. A story for another day.

Write proposals for grant reviewers, not your colleagues or bureaucratic peers

We’ve written many times in many ways that the golden rule of grant writing is “he who has the gold makes the rules“—and that means organizations that want to be funded should follow the funding guidelines as closely as possible. While “follow the funding guidelines” seems like an obvious point, a temptation frequently arises to write not to the funder, and the reviewers, but to one’s peers in an organization, real or imagined. Don’t fall into this trap—your audience is always the reviewers.

That temptation arises when the writer or editor fears what their peers may think, or how their peers, supervisors, board members, city council people, etc, conceptualize the organization or project. Giving in and targeting that audience causes the writer to shift the focus from the proposal and funder at hand—often fatally. The writer may lose the ability to put the most important thing in the first sentence. The writer will forget that, even with grant reviewers, attention is a valuable, rare resource:

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.

We can, and will, tell you what the point is—which we do whenever we write a proposal. We try to use the reader’s attention as best we can. But when the audience shifts from the reviewer to some other audience, the coherence and quality of the proposal often drops. Don’t do this.

(As you may imagine, we’ve seen many examples in which clients forgot to write for the reviewer, but we can’t cite specifics here. Nonetheless, if you find yourself thinking, “What is the Board going to think about this description?” instead of “What is the funder going to think about this?”, you are entering the danger zone.)

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.

Cal Newport’s “Deep Work” and grant writing

Jake recently gave me Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.* Newport describes “deep work” as:

The ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task . . . And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep-spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.

While I’ve not yet finished the book, I’m not sure Newport’s thesis is all that applicable or practical in today’s connected work places. Still, as a grant writer, the concept resonates with me. As I’ve written above before, grant writing is mostly a solitary activity—one RFP, one writer, one iMac, one project concept, and, eventually, a finished proposal. I’ve known this since dinosaurs walked the earth and I wrote my first grant proposal on a cave wall (not quite—a legal pad**—but it was so long ago that it might’ve been a cave wall). The challenge of any writer is to stay focused, which phone calls, texts, emails, random Internet browsing, Facebook (or in my case, LinkedIn) all conspire to dissipate, more or less meeting the general definition of entropy: “a trend to disorder.”***

In the nascent days of Seliger + Associates, I was much better at staying focused while writing. That was due in part to my relative youth, terror at the prospect of missing a deadline (since I had no backup), and no Internet, email or texts—just plain old phone calls, the occasional fax, and howls from Jake and his siblings when they got home from school. As the decades have unfolded, it’s become harder and harder for me to remain in a state of deep work for more than hour or two, compared to as long as ten hours in the good old days (to be fair, they weren’t actually all that good—just different).

I have strategies for deep work—especially when we face intense deadlines. These include listening to music while I write (I’ve never been distracted by music, unlike most writers), starting to write as early as 6 AM when I’m fresh, setting goals for the day’s output, taking walks every couple of hours (my dog insists on this anyway), a 20 minute nap at midday, a very comfortable Herman Miller Embody desk chair, and so on. Jake hews to Newport’s recommendations more faithfully than me by using a program called Freedom to suspend Internet access for designated periods of time, turning off the ringers on his cell and office phones, and turning off his email client.

I can’t turn off phone ringers or my email client during the work week, as I always have to be alert for incoming emails and calls from current and prospective clients. I probably wouldn’t anyway, because I’ve just have lost some of my ability to stay on point, perhaps due to age or the amazing allure of Internet access to all manner of distraction. Like many people, I don’t want to disconnect distraction.

Deep Work is worth reading, not only for grant writers, but anyone involved in knowledge work. Interestingly, Jake’s younger sister, who is a manager with a tech company, saw the book when she came over one day and told me she’d already read it and found it useful. I’m not sure how tech workers can concentrate in the open offices of most tech work spaces. I can’t even write in a coffee shop, let alone in a 5,000-square foot open office space with dozens of coders and other workers within earshot and vision.

Interestingly, I was talking about Deep Work and the solitary aspect of grant writing with a friend who’s been a successful TV writer/producer for years. She said that TV writers typically work in groups in “writer rooms,” without any real ability to focus. I’m not sure how this gets done, but this seems to be the practice. I know that, even if I could write dialogue, which I can’t, I could never do so in a group setting, headphones or not.


* This is unusual, as Jake typically gives me a WW II book for birthdays, father’s day, etc., which we collectively refer to as “Hitler Books.” It’s always surprising that, 70 years on, someone finds an unrevealed aspect of WW II to write about.

** About 35 years ago, I had to finish a proposal while on a ski trip to Mammoth in the Sierras. Since there were about eight of us in a condo, and everyone else was drunk and disorderly, I actually wrote the draft longhand on a legal pad in the bathtub well past midnight! As the Beatles wrote in Norwegian Wood “and crawled off to sleep in the bath.”

*** Or “kipple”, as Phillip K. Dick refers to the entropy of stuff in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, the inspiration for one of my fave science fiction movies, Blade Runner. And yes, I think Decker was a replicant, despite the implications of the sequel coming out soon.

Getting in the mood for grant writing: Illustrations from DOL YouthBuild and SAMHSA TCE-HIV

Maybe its because I’m somehow no longer 35* and might be as old as dirt, but TV ads seem entirely focused on buying/hoarding gold, reverse mortgages, probiotics, the odd Cialis couple holding hands in a bathtub and lots of others for “getting in the mood.” That got me thinking about getting in the mood for grant writing.

While getting in the mood for grant writing does not involve a little blue pill or turning on a red light bulb like Woody Allen in Annie Hall, here are some of the ways we use at the Seliger Industrial Grant Foundry and Word Works:

  • Decide if you’re an early morning or night owl writer. I like to start writing early, as my muse seems to depart around cocktail hour. Jake, however, only has one eye open until noon most days and is more of a midnight rambler writer.
  • Develop a writing pattern—say, write four hours, then go to Go Get Em Tiger for an iced macadamia milk latte, then another four hours shackled to your iMac.
  • Jake and I generally don’t use outlines, being stream of consciousness writers, and we just start writing (we use the RRP as a surrogate outline). Others may want to outline each RFP section, starting by putting the headers and sub-headers into a Word doc and then outlining the responses thematically. They may also want to find/organize the data and citations for the needs assessment (e.g. census data, labor market information, etc.). No matter how the RFP is organized or what your writing style is, you must always find a way include the 5 Ws and the H in your first draft. RFP writers often forget to ask all six.
  • As you write, keep in mind that you’re in the proposal world, not the real world. When writing the “what” section, for example, distinguish the applicant’s current efforts and future activities. The current efforts are whatever the agency is doing now that relate to the project concept, while future efforts are what the grant will fund. One way to keep this straight is to be careful with the present versus future tense. This will also help you avoid inadvertently implying the dreaded supplantation issue.
  • With respect to the “what” section, different RFPs/project concepts require different emphases. For example, in a workforce development proposal like our old DOL pals YouthBuild and Reentry Projects (RP), training sites and employer commitments are very important. In contrast, when writing a SAMHSA TCE-HIV proposal, if the agency lacks full capacity to deliver all required services, it is critical to detail the partner(s) providing HIV and substance abuse treatment.

As in all writing projects, the key to writing grant proposals is to actually complete the first draft in time to meet your deadline, no matter what your writing style and habits are. There is no substitute for doing this.


* In most fiction involving a male hero (or anti-hero) protagonist—like James Bond or most of Elmore Leonards books—the lead character is almost always described as being about 35 years old—old enough to be knowledgable, and irascible, but young enough to still be dashing and handsome.

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.

Grant writing derangement syndrome (GWDS)

Grant Writing Derangement Syndrome (GWDS) occurs when the grant writer works on too many nonsensical, poorly organized, or simply maddening RFPs. The symptoms include an inability to think straight; the inability to continue forming semi-coherent sentences in the face of self-contradictory or incoherent RFPs; and cackling maniacally in the absence of appropriate humor stimulus (the cackling often disturbs anyone sharing the grant writer’s space).

Problems leading to GWDS often begin with repetitive, inane RFP questions that seem designed to frustrate the transmission of information rather than enable it. GWDS becomes more severe as the grant writer persists, knowing that the deadline looms like the ever present clock in High Noon.

I don’t know what the cure for GWDS might be, but I know the ailment well. To some extent, GWDS can be alleviated by going for a walk, taking deep breaths, staring off into the distance, and, best of all, putting aside the proposal for a while. The challenge, however, is that RFP deadlines are rigid and often prevent the grant writer from executing that last step. This means that the symptoms usually persist for at least as long as the assignment does, and sometimes longer. Then, I look at my work schedule and see yet another RFP train bearing down on me. It’s time to power down the iMac and stroll to my favorite hipster coffee shop, La Colombe.

But that often isn’t enough, because the RFPs never stop.

In grant writing, longer is not necessarily better

If you’re buying apples, more apples are (usually) better. A faster processor in your iMac is (usually) better. Same for a higher capacity hard drive. But longer is not necessarily better with, say, books. Few readers think, “Gee, this 1,200-page novel is intrinsically better than a 350-page novel.”* They also don’t think a 1,200-page novel is worth three times as much as a 350-page novel. Readers want a novel length appropriate to the story and material. Fiction writers often gravitate towards either short stories or novels. For example, Mary Gaitskill’s collection Bad Behavior: Stories is excellent, and I say this as someone who prefers novels. Gaitskill’s novels, however, are not the best. Some writers can go short or long but she doesn’t appear to be one.

You can see where I’m going with this point. Longer grant proposals are not necessarily better than shorter ones and in many circumstances are worse. This is clearest in foundation proposal writing, where five single-spaced pages are more than enough for an initial submission narrative. Many foundations actually require less than five pages.

When we conduct a foundation appeal, we write an final draft that’s about five single-spaced pages and ultimately use that version to customize proposals to the best five or ten foundation sources we identify. Clients often want us to write longer proposals, but we strongly suggest that foundation proposals be no longer than five pages, since most foundations will reject anything longer and even those that technically accept longer unsolicited proposals rarely read them.

To understand why, let’s look at the process from the funder’s perspective. A foundation may get hundreds of proposals every quarter. Each proposal probably gets read initially by an intern or junior staff person who does a reality check to see if the proposal meets the foundation’s basic guidelines. A foundation that only funds in Texas and gets a proposal from a nonprofit in California will chuck the latter. A foundation that only funds healthcare but gets a proposal for after school services will chuck the latter. Proposals that are simply incoherent or incomprehensible will get chucked.

Once the sanity check has been conducted, however, dozens or hundreds of viable proposals may remain. Each overlong proposal costs foundation officers time. Each proposal that isn’t clear and succinct increases its odds of getting rejected because the reader doesn’t have the time or inclination to figure out what the writer is babbling about. For this reason the first sentence is by far the most important sentence in any proposal.

The same thing is as true, and maybe even more true, of government proposals. There, reviewers may have to slog through dozens or hundreds of pages for each proposal. We’d like to imagine each reviewer considering each proposal like a work of art, but more likely than not they behave like you do in a bookstore. A good bookstore has tens of thousands of titles. How do you choose one? By browsing a couple of books based on covers or staff recommendations or things you’ve heard. Proposal reviewing is closer to bookstore browsing than we’d like to admit, and good proposals shouldn’t be any longer than they have to be. Shorter proposals are a gift to reviewers, and they’ll appreciate any gift you can give them. Anyone who has reviewed grants understands this. Over-long proposals are a failure of empathy on the part of the writer for the reader.

While you should never go over the specified page limit, in many circumstances being under the page limit is desirable. When you write a proposal you are no longer in school and will no longer get brownie points by baffling reviewers with bullshit.

Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever heard: “Omit unnecessary words.” Right up there with “Omit unnecessary words”, however, is: “When you’re done, stop.” Arguably the latter advice is a special case of the former. Many novice writers experience ending anxiety, which may occur in part as an artifact of “the way schools are organized: we get trained to talk even when we have nothing to say.” When you have nothing more to say, say nothing.


* Though physical books also have some cost limitations based on binding processes. Books that are longer than something like 418 printed pages are more expensive to print than books that are shorter (for most commercial publishers). Commercial publishers will use formatting tricks when possible to get a book under that number of pages, and, if they have to go over, they’ll go way over.