Tag Archives: Writing

No Calls, No Bother: “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule” and the Grant Writer’s Work

In “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule” Paul Graham writes

There are two types of schedule, which I’ll call the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule. The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour. [. . .]

But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.

People who make things are often experiencing flow, which is sometimes called “being in the zone.” It’s a state of singular concentration familiar to writers and other makers. Managers may experience it too, but in different ways, and their flow emerges from talking to another person, or from productive meetings—but a tangible work product rarely emerges from those meetings.

In part because of the maker’s schedule and the manager’s schedule, we try not to bother our clients. When we write proposals, we schedule a single scoping call, which is a little bit like being interviewed by a reporter. During that call we attempt to answer the 5Ws and H—who, what, where, when, why, and how—and hash out anything unique to a particular RFP or client. We ask our clients to send any background information they might have, like old proposals or reports. And then our clients usually don’t hear from us until the first draft of the proposal is finished.

Just because we’re not noisy doesn’t mean we’re not busy, however. We’re writing during that quiet period. Writing works best when it’s relatively uninterrupted. If you’re a part-time grant writer in an organization, you may be used to phone calls and emails and crises and all manner of other distractions that hit you at least once an hour. In those conditions you’ll rarely if ever reach a consistent state of flow. These problems have scuppered more than one proposal, as we know from candid conversations with clients’s on-staff grant writers.*

We only have a single scoping call or scoping meeting because we know we’re better off writing the best proposal we can given what we know than we are attempting to call our clients every hour when we don’t know something. Our methods have been developed over decades of practice. They work.

Writing isn’t the only field with flow issues. Software famously has this problem too, because in a way every software project is a novel endeavor. Software is closer to research than to manufacturing. Once you have a manufacturing process, you can figure out the critical path, the flow of materials, and about how many widgets you can make in a given period time. That’s not true of software—or, in many cases writing. This list of famous, failed software projects should humble anyone attempting such a project.

Ensuring that a project, like a proposal, gets done on time is simply quite hard (which is part of the reason we’re in business: we solve that problem). But it can be done, and we work to do it, and one way is by ensuring that we don’t waste our clients’s time.

We don’t call ourselves artists, at least in this domain, but, as Joe Fassler says, “Great Artists Need Solitude.” Writers need solitude. The best work gets done in chunks of undisturbed time—for Neal Stephenson, those chunks need to be about four hours, which sounds pretty close to the way we write.


* People are often surprised that we get hired by organizations that have full-time grant writers already on staff. But this is actually quite common.

Links: Classrooms, Sex Economics, Hackers, Bill Gates, Drugs, and Keep It Short

* Good news if true (and long overdue, whether this report turns out to be a true trend or a false growth): “Shaking Up the Classroom: Under an increasingly popular system called competency-based learning, students are promoted after they master material—not just because they have spent a year in a class.”

* “In-Depth Report Details Economics of the Sex Trade;” the funniest thing is the way pimps fill a niche created by prohibition. Take away the laws and the pimps likely go too.

* Have liberal arts degree, will code.

* The Bill Gates Rolling Stone interview; pay special attention to the sections about anti-poverty programs.

* Ham Sandwich Nation: Due Process When Everything Is a Crime. In other words, virtually anyone can be arrested for something in the contemporary United States.

* Keep it short.

* “Made in the U.S.A. (Again): The new industrial revolution won’t be in India or China. It will be right here in America.” But it likely won’t include a lot of jobs.

* Someone found Grant Writing Confidential by searching for “best grant writing certification.” There is no such thing because they’re all bad and pointless.

* “The Value Of An Engineering Degree,” which complements “Have liberal arts degree, will code.”

* Crowd funding is market research.

* “It’s Time to End ‘Rape Culture’ Hysteria.”

* “One big reason we lack Internet competition: Starting an ISP is really hard.” If I had Zuckerbergian money I’d fund ISPs.

* “Judge says prosecutors should follow the law. Prosecutors revolt.”

* Deeply chilling sentences.

* “Is HUD threatened by a Christian group’s plans to expand?” Unlikely; although Todd Starnes, the reporter, has probably never heard of this, it’s more probable that the group doesn’t want to join the local Continuum of Care.

* “Why RFPs Waste Time – Choose a Better Approach to Finding a Great Consultant;” almost all the other nonprofit-world blogs we’ve found are bogus, but this one isn’t. See also our post Why Seliger + Associates Never Responds to RFPs/RFQs for Grant Writing Services.

* Phages versus drug-resistant bacteria—really?

* It’s been at least 800,000 years since carbon-dioxide levels were this high.

* Addict. Informant. Mother. If rural towns in Eastern Pennsylvania have a heroin epidemic what hope do the rest of us have? So much for 40 years of the War on Drugs. Clearly, drugs have won this war.

David L. Kirp argues that Head Start should work like Section 8. He should consider how successful school bussing was.

Speech Codes, Microagression and Grant Writing: Words that Shouldn’t (and Should) be Used in Proposals

One of the most unfortunate changes in the academic world since I left the warm bosom of the University of Minnesota in the Great Frozen North over 40 years ago is the rise of so-called “hate speech codes.” These Orwellean codes purport to regulate speech to prevent “hate speech,” as defined by the local campus Thought Police, and thus avoid dreaded microagressions. This is pretty rich for someone who started at the U of M in 1968 during the height of campus free speech demonstrations regarding an essay, the title of which—”The Student as ________“— I can no longer put in print because of changing speech mores.*

George Orwell presaged the decline of real meaning in his 1948 essay “Politics and the English Language,” which is a must read for any grant writer.

In grant writing, there’s a strict, albeit unwritten, speech code that budding grant writers would be wise to learn. Here are some words and concepts to avoid—or use—in grant writing and why:

  • Bureaucracy: The bureaucrats who read typically read and score proposals might be offended if they’re reminded that they actually are bureaucrats and not saintly givers of OPM (other people’s money). Jake likes the word “bureaucrat,” which I find very annoying when I have to edit it out. By the way: don’t use the term “OPM,” either!
  • Victim: Never characterize the recipient of whatever human service you’re writing about as a “victim,” which is now seen as pejorative. For example, a homeless person is “experiencing” homelessness and a drug addled teen is “living with the scourge of addiction.” They are not victims of their situation.
  • Ex-offenders: Never refer to a formerly incarcerated person as an ex-offender. The term now in use is “returning citizen.” To me it sounds like they got back from a cruise, but who am I to blow against the wind?
  • Win: If someone is characterized as “winning,” this implies a loser—and we can’t have losers in grant writing. Like grade school soccer in some precincts, all players are winners and get a trophy (dodge ball is out). You can, however, use the hoary, but acceptable “win-win”, or even better “win-win-win” phraseology to summarize the wonderful world that will exist in the afterglow of project funding and implementation.
  • Guardian: “Guardian” is a legal term and should be avoided. Instead, when writing about at-risk children and youth, it’s best to always refer to “parents/caregivers” rather than just “parents,” since many of them live in the ever popular termed “single-parent household.” Parents/caregivers implies an extended “family constellation” (another great grant phrase that should be used) that is somehow looking after the interests of the young person, even though dad’s disappeared, mom’s incarcerated, but will soon be a returning citizen, and grandma’s “living with a disability.”
  • Disabled, and So On: No one is disabled. Instead, as above, they’re “living with a disability” or even better, “living with a condition of disability”. Why use four words when six will do? They can also be “differently abled.” Similarly, no one is blind, they “live with a visual impairment,” no one is deaf, they “live with a hearing impairment.”
  • Infected: People are not infected with HIV, but are rather “HIV positive,” or in shorthand, “HIV+”. This puts a positive spin on things, don’t you think? Or, I suppose you could try, “person of HIVness.” Phrases like “living on the down low” are acceptable, however. So is MSM (“men who have sex with men.”)
  • Of Color: Shorthand for minority residents is “residents of color.” Obviously, don’t say it the other way around!
  • Ethnic Capitalization: In a laundry list of ethnic groups living in a target area, do this: African American, Hispanic or Latino (Latino generally preferred in CA and the southwest), Asian and white.
  • Partnership/Collaboration: Every project is going to be implemented by a partnership or collaborative, even if it isn’t. Usually it isn’t.
  • She/he: It’s always “she/he” and “her/his,” not the other way around. Draw your own conclusion.
  • LBGTQ: The is for “Q” for “questioning” or “queer,” depending on your point of view, and has recently been added to the catchall, LBGT, for sexual orientation/gender identity. The whole gender identity issue may throw my “she/he” convention into a cocked hat. Maybe, I should start using “she/he/not sure” instead.
  • Poor: No one is never poor; a person or family might “economically disadvantaged” or “low income.” Describing the world in terms of “advantage” and “disadvantage” is a good; contrasting “economically disadvantaged residents” with their “affluent, privileged” neighbors is particularly good.
  • Career Ladder: Any job training or education effort should lead to a “career-ladder job” with “living-wage potential.”

I could go on, as there are lots more examples, but, I of course, have to finish the proposal draft I’m working on. This list may be updated as we think of more examples.


* Camille Paglia and I are the last people alive who remember the real ’60s left, which bears only a passing resemblance to and shared name with the current left:

My essays often address the impasse in contemporary politics between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative,’ a polarity I contend lost its meaning after the Sixties. There should be an examination of the way Sixties innovators were openly hostile to the establishment liberals of the time. In today’s impoverished dialogue, critiques of liberalism are often naively labeled ‘conservative,’ as if twenty-five hundred years of Western intellectual history presented no other alternatives.

The unsolvable standardized data problem and the needs assessment monster

Needs assessments tend to come in two flavors: one basically instructs the applicant to “Describe the target area and its needs,” and the applicant chooses whatever data it can come up with. For most applicants that’ll be some combination of Census data, local Consolidated Plan, data gathered by the applicant in the course of providing services, news stories and articles, and whatever else they can scavenge. Some areas have well-known local data sources; Los Angles County, for example, is divided into eight Service Planning Areas (SPAs), and the County and United Way provide most data relevant to grant writers by SPA.

The upside to this system is that applicants can use whatever data makes the service area look worse (looking worse is better because it indicates greater need). The downside is that funders will get a heterogeneous mix of data that frequently can’t be compared from proposal to proposal. And since no one has the time or energy to audit or check the data, applicants can easily fudge the numbers.

High school dropout rates are a great example of the vagaries in data work: definitions of what constitutes a high school dropout vary from district to district, and many districts have strong financial incentives to avoid calling any particular student a “dropout.” The GED situation in the U.S. makes dropout statistics even harder to understand and compare; if a student drops out at age 16 and gets a GED at 18 is he a dropout or a high school graduate? The mobility of many high-school age students makes it harder still, as does the advent of charter schools, on-line instruction and the decline of the neighborhood school in favor of open enrollment policies. There is no universal way to measure this seemingly simple number.*

The alternative to the “do whatever” system is for the funder to say: You must use System X in manner Y. The funder gives the applicant a specific source and says, “Use this source to calculate the relevant information.” For example, the last round of YouthBuild funding required the precise Census topic and table name for employment statistics. Every applicant had to use “S2301 EMPLOYMENT STATUS” and “S1701 POVERTY STATUS IN THE PAST 12 MONTHS,” per page 38 of the SGA.

The SGA writers forgot, however, that not every piece of Census data is available (or accurate) for every jurisdiction. Since I’ve done too much data work for too many places, I’ve become very familiar with the “(X)” in American Factfinder2 tables—which indicates that the requested data is not available.

In the case of YouthBuild, the SGA also specifies that dropout data must be gathered using a site called Edweek. But dropout data can’t really be standardized for the reasons that I only began to describe in the third paragraph of this post (I stopped to make sure that you don’t kill yourself from boredom, which would leave a gory mess for someone else to clean up). As local jurisdictions experiment with charter schools and online education, the data in sources like Edweek is only going to become more confusing—and less accurate.

If a YouthBuild proposal loses a few need points because of unavailable or unreliable data sources, or data sources that miss particular jurisdictions (as Edweek does) it probably won’t be funded, since an applicant needs almost a perfect score to get a YouthBuild grant. We should know, as we’ve written at least two dozen funded YouthBuild proposals over the years.

Standardized metrics from funders aren’t always good, and some people will get screwed if their projects don’t fit into a simple jurisdiction or if their jurisdiction doesn’t collect data in the same way as another jurisdiction.

As often happens at the juncture between the grant world and the real world, there isn’t an ideal way around this problem. From the perspective of funders, uniform data requirements give an illusion of fairness and equality. From the perspective of applicants trapped by particular reporting requirements, there may not be a good way to resolve the problem.

Applicants can try contacting the program officer, but that’s usually a waste of time: the program officer will just repeat the language of the RFP back to the applicant and tell the applicant to use its best judgment.

The optimal way to deal with the problem is probably to explain the situation in the proposal and offer alternative data. That might not work. Sometimes applicants just get screwed, and not in the way most people like to get screwed, and there’s little to be done about it.


* About 15 years ago, Isaac actually talked to the demographer who worked at the Department of Education on dropout data. This was in the pre-Internet days, and he just happened to get the guy who works on this stuff after multiple phone transfers. He explained why true, comprehensive dropout data is impossible to gather nationally, and some of his explanations have made it to this blog post.

No one ever talks to people who do stuff like this, and when they find an interested party they’re often eager to chat about the details of their work.

Links: Cash Transfers, Bike Life, Car Costs, FQHCs, Save the Movie!, Homelessness, and More!

* Dear governments: Want to help the poor and transform your economy? Give people cash. This reminds me of the people I knew in high school and college who wanted to “volunteer” or “build houses” in some developing country over spring break; I would usually say something like, “I bet poor people would much rather have the thousands of dollars it takes to fly you there, house you, feed you, and secure you than they want you.” This did not make me popular but is still nonetheless a sentiment I stand by.

* The Netherlands is swamped by bikes, which is pretty cool.

* AAA says that the TCO of a car is $9,000 a year. This and the above link demonstrate that one way to increase the real wealth of many low-income people might be to change the fabric of U.S. cities from one that favors cars to one that favors bikes.

* The secret to Danish happiness; not all lessons transfer but I take Citi Bike (for which I’ve signed up) and similar efforts as a small step in a positive direction.

* “The Humanist Vocation;” I would add that the humanities are extremely important, but the humanities as currently practiced in most universities are not, and the distinction is a key one for understanding why many people may be turning away from them.

* Divorce, Custody, Child Support, and Alimony in Denmark, which arguably has better outcomes than the U.S.

* “A Louisville Clinic Races to Adapt to the Health Care Overhaul,” yet the article fails to even mention FQHCs / Section 330 Providers. Another reporter who is clueless about how human services are actually delivered and the world of grants.

* A Cruel and Unusual Record: The United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights.

* The End of Car Culture; I view this as a positive development.

* The Best Hope for France’s Young? Get Out.

* Thoughts about rice and men.

* How government co-opted charities. Isaac has more or less been telling me this since I was knee-high to a HUD NOFA.

* “Has peak oil been vindicated or debunked?” A little of both, but mostly vindicated.

* Save the Movie! The 2005 screenwriting book that’s taken over Hollywood—and made every movie feel the same.

* Wealth taxes: A future battleground.

* Science is Not Your Enemy: An Impassioned Plea To Neglected Novelists, Embattled Professors, And Tenure-Less Historians.

* “In Vancouver, Traffic Decreases as Population Rises.”

* “Hawaii buys homeless people one-way tickets out of town,” which reminds me of a favorite argument about affordable housing: there’s actually a lot of affordable housing in the U.S., it’s just unevenly distributed because most people who nominally care about affordable housing don’t really care about the underlying price structure or those who are priced out. One way to solve the affordable housing problem in places like New York and San Francisco is to buy houses in, say, Detroit, and move people there.

* How the Mars Spirit Rover died, an unexpected moving piece.

Teams don’t write grants: individual writers do, one word at a time

Teams don’t write proposals. If you hear about a team that is writing a proposal, that translates roughly to “lots meetings are being held, but no one is actually working on the proposal.”

We sometimes hear people at nonprofit and public agencies talk about how they’ve assembled a “team” to write a proposal. For some reason, proposals written by “teams” have a habit of a) not getting done, b) if they are done, being done unevenly at best, and/or c) creating permanent acrimony among team members.

Do you remember “group work” when you were in middle and high school, which meant that one responsible person did the entire project while the other members goofed off and then took as much credit as they could? That’s what you’ll get with proposal writing assignments, only the stakes are higher.

Every time we hear about proposal writing teams, we know that the person talking doesn’t know how proposals actually get written and is probably working on a proposal that won’t be submitted anyway.

For example, we were recently working on a large federal grant proposal for a school district in the midwest. Throughout the engagement, our contact person keep talking about “the team” that was working on the proposal from their end. When the proposal was nearly done—on the Sunday before the deadline—I heard from out contact person, who finally admitted that “the team” had abandoned her and she had to more or less pull an all-nighter by herself to ensure that we were able to finish the submission package.

Saying that you’re “assembling a team” sounds good: one imagines the innumerable scenes in movies and TV shows in which the ultimate crime or cop group gets wrangled together for one big or one last job.* The members look suitably grizzled. They all have nifty specialties. These days there’s inevitably a hacker who can magically “bypass building security.” The leading men are dapper and debonair, the leading women beautiful and feisty. Unfortunately, in the real world, writing is still best done by a single person who can keep the narrative complexity of a difficulty response in their head.

We’ve written about how to write a proposal before, most notably in “One Person, One Proposal: Don’t Split Grant Writing Tasks.” We’re writing about it again because we see the same set of mistakes again and again.

If you’re drafted into a “grant writing team,” be aware that you’ll probably have one of two roles: You’ll end up writing the vast majority of the proposal, or trying to make yourself look good while someone else writes the vast majority of the proposal. No amount of dividing up tasks will solve the essential problem of facing a blank screen, a full RFP, and starting to type.


Isaac’s favorite example of this comes from The Magnificent Seven, which is actually a good movie. The first thirty or so minutes of the movie consists of Yul Brynner collecting his expert gunmen. Fortunately or unfortunately, however, most nonprofit and public agencies don’t have the same needs as a Mexican village beset by bandits. Usually. Those that do, however, might be the subject of another post.

December Links: Dubious Education Policies, FEMA, Writing, School Reform, Manufacturers, Quiet, Dan Savage, the Security Ratchet, and More!

* This is not an Onion story: “Florida’s plan to measure students by race riles education experts.”

* From an interview with Michael Bloomberg:

If every time you want to do something, they demand the final results, when you’re just sort of feeling your way and trying to evolve, it’s hard to govern. When we live in a world — in medicine, or in science, you go down a path and it turns out to be a dead end, you really made a contribution, because we know we don’t have to go down that path again. In the press, they call it failure. And so people are unwilling to innovate, unwilling to take risks in government.

Your nonprofit or public agency is subject to the same forces. Don’t be seduced by a program or RFP’s stated desire for innovation: in the vast majority of federal and state grant programs, the funding agency expects you to do exactly what everyone else is doing (remember: grant writing is about “thinking inside the box“). We’re not endorsing these perverse incentives, but we are noticing them. Our post “What to do When Research Indicates Your Approach is Unlikely to Succeed: Part I of a Case Study on the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program RFP” also discusses these issues.

* The Joy of Quiet, which I often seek and too little find.

* How manufacturers and community colleges are teaming up, German-style, to create high-paying factory jobs. Good! We’ve pretty clearly got a problem with the way we treat college education in the United States.

* SAMHSA finally discovers Grants.gov, about eight years late.

* Obama phones? That, at least, is what they’re called in the community.

* If “The Bipartisan Security Ratchet” doesn’t scare you, it should:

The United States government, under two opposed increasingly indistinguishable political parties, asserts the right to kill anyone on the face of the earth in the name of the War on Terror. It asserts the right to detain anyone on the face of the earth in the name of the War on Terror, and to do so based on undisclosed facts applied to undisclosed standards in undisclosed locations under undisclosed conditions for however long it wants, all without judicial review.

* Anti-poverty volunteer keeps profit from homeless New Jersey man’s house sale.

* A couple years ago, we almost worked for these guys, who are now, unfortunately, declaring bankruptcy. At the time we had too many other clients to accept their assignment.

* “Why school reform is impossible.” Maybe.

* “As we watch computing become a central part of the language of science, communication, and even the arts and humanities, we will realize that students need to learn to read and write code because — without that skill — they are left out of the future.

* “How American Health Care Killed My Father,” and what to do about it. Unfortunately, we haven’t done the things we should have done and should be doing, as discussed in the article.

* “Write My Essay, Please! These days, students can hire online companies to do all their coursework, from papers to final exams. Is this ethical, or even legal?” This supports Bryan Caplan’s theory that much of education is about signaling.

* It was only a matter of time: Tuition by Major.

* “You Should Repeatedly Read Cochrane’s ‘After the ACA.’

* “Dan Savage: The Gay Man Who Teaches Straight People How to Have Sex.”

* “Another ex-chairman rebuffs CalOptima’s demand for money” shows how corruption can work in nonprofits; the more interesting question is why and how the story ended up in The Orange County Register. That story can often be as interesting as the corruption story itself, but it isn’t told here.

* “Overall, I am for betting because I am against bullshit. Bullshit is polluting our discourse and drowning the facts. A bet costs the bullshitter more than the non-bullshitter so the willingness to bet signals honest belief.” That’s from Tyler Cowen, “A Bet is a Tax on Bullshit.”

* The FEMA office in Jersey City was closed because of the storm.

* Ian McEwan: “Some Notes on the Novella.” Wow. Sample: “How often one reads a contemporary full-length novel and thinks quietly, mutinously, that it would have worked out better at half or a third the length. I suspect that many novelists clock up sixty thousand words after a year’s work and believe (wearily, perhaps) that they are only half way there. They are slaves to the giant, instead of masters of the form.” Yes.

The Difference Between Being “Involved” in Grants and Being a Grant Writer

Most people who claim to be grant writers or “involved” in grants don’t actually write proposals. They’re more often engaged in things like grant management, the distribution of grant funds, or development (fund raising), which are important but very different things than grant writing.

Grant writing means you sit down and write a proposal. Grant management means you oversee funding; file reports; help with evaluations; hire staff; and the like. Notice that “write proposals” is not on the list. Also, some people who say they’re involved with grants are actually on the funder side of things, which means they might help write RFPs or evaluate proposals, but again: those skills are very different and of limited use when actually confronted by a proposal in the wild. Someone who writes proposals can of course be involved in grant management, but it seldom goes the other way around; if you’re going to be a grant writer, you have to be able to pass the test Isaac proposed in “Credentials for Grant Writers from the Grant Professionals Certification Institute—If I Only Had A Brain:”

If we ever decide to offer a grant writing credential, we would structure the exam like this: The supplicant will be locked in a windowless room with a computer, a glass of water, one meal and a complex federal RFP. The person will have four hours to complete the needs assessment. If it passes muster, they will get a bathroom break, more water and food and another four hours for the goals/objectives section and so on. At the end of the week, the person will either be dead or a grant writer, at which point we either make them a Department of Education Program Officer (if they’re dead) or give them a pat on the head and a Grant Writing Credential to impress their mothers (if they’ve passed).

You don’t need to pass that kind of arduous test to manage grants, issue RFPs, or review applications.

Last weekend, for example, I met a couple who said they knew a lot about grant writing and were “in” grants. Compared to a random person on the street, they did know a lot: one of them works for a regional government transportation authority and has probably helped disseminate hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars in transportation funding. The other works as a development director for a university. Together, they have about 40 years of combined experience in “grants.” It turns out, however, that neither have ever even once done what I was doing about twenty minutes before I began this post: writing a proposal. Development directors often do everything in the universe to shake money out of donors except write proposals; that may be why we’ve worked for a fair number of development directors over the years. And program officers, who pass out grant funds, might write RFPs, but never the responses.

I wish more people who worked “in” or around grant writing had the experience of actually writing a proposal, because if they had, I suspect we’d get better RFPs. I’m also reminded of the theory / practice divide that arises in so many academic disciplines. Psychology, for example, has a large number of people who do a lot of research but don’t see patients, and a large number who see patients and don’t do research. Naturally, the researchers often think of the practitioners as mere carpenters and the practitioners often think of researchers as mandarins who don’t understand what life on the ground is like. Both are probably somewhat right some of the time.

Something similar happens in English: a lot of English departments these days are bifurcated between the people in “creative writing” and literature. The creative writers—novelists, poets, and so forth—produce the stuff that the literary critics and theorists ultimately discuss; I suspect there, too, the world would be a better place if critics and theorists actually took a serious stab at producing original work. If they did, many might not hold the sometimes implausible opinions they do. They’re like RFP writers who know everything the world about grant writing except what it’s like to stare down a nasty, confused, contradictory RFP. You probably wouldn’t want to eat at a restaurant run by a chef who never tastes his own food, but that’s the situation one often gets with grant writing.

There’s a moral to this story: be wary of people who say they know a lot about grant writing, since they often know a lot about everything but grant writing.

How to Write About Grant Writing and How to Learn About Grant Writing Via Blogging

In “Twentysomething: Making time for a blog and a full-time job,” Ryan Healy says that one should create deadlines, skip days when necessary, and remember why one blogs. It’s good advice, and we try to follow it.

Grant Writing Confidential has one big advantage over similar blogs: we’re extremely specific about programs, RFPs, problems, and solutions; notice our recent post about HRSA and Section 330 grantees. Grant writing is all about ignoring generalities (except for this generality) and attending to specifics.

But the bigger lesson is this: good blogging and good grant writing share a lot of characteristics, and this post explores this intersection. Get better at one and you’ll probably get better at the other.

Other Grant Writing Blogs

When grant writing blogs feature lots of hand waving, they’re signaling that their writers are not detail oriented or aren’t real grant writers. The latter problem is especially obvious in the age of the Internet, where your work is in front of the audience. If you’re not actually writing proposals (and writing about writing proposals), people will figure it out.

Most grant writing blogs aren’t interesting or informative, and I wish more were. But this also creates an opportunity for us: we’re more personable than others and slide into spaces left by less interesting bloggers. There aren’t many (good) grant writing blogs, since most of them don’t do the kinds of things we talk about in “How to Write a “Juicy” Nonprofit Blog — or a Blog of Any Kind.”

Uncertainty

One valuable thing I learned from Isaac is the ability to admit ignorance and say that I don’t know, which he does to clients regularly. I get the impression many other grant writers and consultants don’t. But you can’t find out how things work if you don’t tell people when you don’t understand something. When I called around getting quotes for Xeroxes and phone systems, broadcasting how little I knew about that particular domain helped me get a better sense of what I was looking for. Journalists use the same tactic. Chris Matthews calls it “hanging a lantern on your problems” in his wonderful book Hardball. I have a signed copy that’s falling apart because I’ve read it so many times and the book has so changed my thinking—less about politics the sport than about the politics inherent in life.

In How to be more interesting to other people, Penelope Trunk says:

That’s the part we should talk about when we talk about ourselves. If you limit the conversation, discussing only what you are certain about, then there’s no chance to stand on equal footing with your conversation partner. You stand on equal footing when you both reveal your struggles with what you don’t know yet, and the conversation can contribute to the answer.

Trunk has all kinds of useful posts about blogging, but some are more useful than others. In How to write a blog post people love, she gives five pieces of advice, each of which is bolded, with my commentary after it:

1. Start strong.

Every newspaper person knows the lead sells the rest of the story. We try to start off with a pithy sentence that ideally encapsulates the post itself or draws readers in through stories. Sometimes this works better than others.

2. Be short.

Admonishing people to “be short” works better for some blogs than others. Blogs with a mass, relatively low skill audience are probably better off with this than other blogs, and some topics are genuinely complex—like many of the subjects we discuss. I would amend this to say, “be as short as possible and no shorter.” For her, the right length is usually shorter than it is for us. Grant Writing Confidential posts are often long because grant writing is a complex subject.

3. Have a genuine connection.

This is vacuous and could be rolled into the fourth category.

4. Be passionate.

I would argue that passion helps writers of any sort, but it should be tempered with expertise. Don’t be a True Believer, and make sure you internal critic is always on the job (we sometimes call this “self-consciousness” or “self-awareness”). Indeed, passion without expertise probably dooms many blogs: it’s easy to skate along the surface of something, like a dilettante with an idea, but difficult to bring something genuinely new and engaging to a world (ditto for grant proposals). This is another thing that sets GWC apart from most blogs that cover grant writing and nonprofits, which seem to thrive on vague generalities, “a delicious lunch was served,” formulations, and too few real-world examples. These problems blend into the next category.

5. Have one good piece of research.

You need a good piece of research, but blogs often misrepresent research or reference it in such a facile way that they barely need it. And remember that your grant story needs to get the money. Trunk’s last link in this post stinks of this problem:

I can virtually guarantee that the research behind “The smell of pizza makes men want to have sex” is not nearly as strong as Trunk’s uncritical acceptance of it implies. This goes back to the “expertise” issue.

Granted, maybe Trunk is right about some of these issues—I wonder how many people read to the end of this post. Those who don’t, miss the big point: this advice is also good for writing proposals and virtually all kinds of writing.

The Nonprofit Blog Carnival is Here: Tell Us About Your Tools

We’re hosting October’s Nonprofit Blog Carnival, which means that we’re inviting you (the reader and possibly writer) to contribute posts about the tools you use in your life working for a nonprofit. What hardware, software, items, or techniques have made your life substantially better, easier, or more interesting? We (and others) want to know; think of this prompt as being like Cool Tools, but for nonprofits.

Submit your links here, send an e-mail to me at seliger@editingandwriting.com, or send a note to the carnival address: nonprofitcarnival@gmail.com.

You can interpret the topic as broadly or as narrowly as you choose. We’ve written about this previously from a grant writer’s perspective—see, for example, Tools of the Trade—What a Grant Writer Should Have and Tools and Organizing Organizations: How to Wrangle Information and Databases for Grant Writers—but want to hear what others are doing and how they’re doing it. If you have a post that you think is valuable but doesn’t fit with the theme, let us know and we may include it anyway.

If you don’t have a blog but still want to contribute, leave a comment on this post.

You can see an example of a previous carnival on Katy’a Nonprofit Marketing Blog; I like her definition of what this is about: “I should explain the carnival is simply a monthly roundup of themed blog posts hosted by various bloggers in the nonprofit world.” Right. It’s supposed to be a fun, easy way for nonprofits and others to share thoughts and ideas. We hope to hear yours no later than October 25.