Sunday, March 04, 2007

Be Succinct In Your Grantwriting

You and I remember learning the proper way to build a sentence in the English language. We took our spelling tests and did pretty well. Later, we wrote compositions, essays, reports, presentations, term papers, and more. Maybe you even dabbled in poetry, technical writing, or short hand!

Through all of these lessons we learned that writing is about being clear, following the rules, and creating a written piece that conveys meaning, is of interest, and is succinct.

William Strunk Jr., a noted Cornell University English Professor wrote The Elements of Style. His book is still considered THE English rules and style guide in the United States. His "rule 17." is "Omit needless words." as found on page 23. In his explanation he compares using unnecessary words to a machine that has unnecessary parts in it. This is an excellent analogy! I can't recommend his "little book" enough.

The fact is, as I've explained in this blog before, when you submit a grant proposal - the person responsible for reading it has at least tens if not hundreds of other grant proposals to read and consider. Your proposal will be weighed as the others are, but how are they weighed? Most grant donors do not have the time to read every single line and page of each proposal that they receive. It may seem unjust, it may seem misleading, but it is true. This does not mean that you can scrimp or cut corners on the content or quality of your grant proposal. It does mean that you need to be clear, succinct, and you need to format for quick and easy reading.

Typically, a good sized foundation, when accepting grant proposals will give each proposal about three minutes of their undivided attention. Let's say our example foundation received four hundred of them. That is fifty hours of reading. Let's assume that this particular foundation has three program managers responsible for reading all of the grant proposals received. That means that each program manager will have about seventeen hours of reading to complete. Remember, this is only giving each of the four hundred grant proposals three minutes' attention. Those three minutes will probably involve: making sure that the proposal meets all of the foundation's guidelines, that everything that is supposed to be submitted is there (on time), that nothing additional has been submitted without being requested, it will be well skimmed (saying that it will be read is pushing it), notes will be taken on the proposals' strength and weakness, and a final appraisal will be appointed to it. Then, for the program manager, it's 'on to the next one'!

Have pity on these people who will read your proposal and make yourself well known for writing excellent proposals. How do you do that? Once again, by being succinct, formatting well, following the guidelines, and being clear, honest, compelling, and thorough.

1. Be succinct. For example, let's say in your first draft of a proposal you write, "We, here at Red Ruby Relic Curators (RRRC), pride ourselves on working hard to clean, preserve, display, and educate about any historic piece with rubies in it; and we have since 1945." You know when you reread your draft that this sentence needs editing. On the second try you rewrite, "Red Ruby Relic Curators works hard to fulfill our mission statement and we have since 1945." Now you know that you've lessened the number of words in this sentence, but some meaning has also been dropped and that needs to be included. Finally, your third draft of this sentence reads, "Since 1945 Red Ruby Relic Curators (RRRC) has fulfilled its mission by cleaning, preserving, displaying, and educating the public about ruby artifacts." Now, you've gotten where you need to be! You may ask, 'Arlene, hasn't the "...pride ourselves on working hard..." sentiment been dropped from the final draft of this sentence? I would reply, 'Yes,' You may ask further, "Shouldn't it also be mentioned?" I would say 'No,' This is where experience in writing comes into play. It is your job as the writer to convey truths that are not required to be stated overtly, but rather by demonstrating that they are the case. In other words, do not tell them that you work hard - show them that your organization works hard. How? Through the accomplishments its made, the longevity of the organization, your strong reputation for excellent curator work, etc. How? By stating statistical facts, numbers of the public educated, explaining how the public benefits from your curatorial work, etc. Where? When it comes time to explain what it is that your non profit does. In doing this you do tell them that your non profit does excellent work without taking extra space and time by stating so in a sentence.

2. Format so that reading is easy. This is where you can set your proposal apart from others'. If you know that the person who is going to evaluate your proposal can't read the entire document because of their time constraint - make it easy for them to scan it. Scanning is reading for specific information (i.e. mission statement, need for the grant, successes, why your non profit's work is valuable, etc.). This means that when you can, for instance, list information by bullets. Everything does not have to be written out in paragraphs. If you are able to, cut and paste a graph or chart if it can replace describing information in a written paragraph. To be clear, something like your mission statement must be written out, as the nature of it is a written phrase or sentence. But, when you go to list something (i.e. the ethnic minorities served, the number served, and the percentage of each sex) you could choose to make a bullet list of the information. For example:

"As reported by attendees' surveys, RRRC proudly taught 3,762 people about ruby preservation during the 2006 fiscal year. Those attendees' demographics are:
- 1,542 Caucasians; 60% Male, 40% Female
- 900 African Americans; 37% Male, 63% Female
- 120 Native Americans: 20% Male, 80% Female
- 100 Pacific Islanders: 15% Male, 85% Female
- 100 Asian Americans: 45% Male, 55% Female"

This bullet list allows the reader to get the gist of all of your information without having to read sentences. The list still gives the same information it would in a sentence format, but it is clearer to read.

3. Drop unnecessary words. I attended a professional grant writers' talk, once, where the guest speaker was a contractor for many Seattle area grant donors. She manages the grant proposals that they receive. She provides the services of reviewing and evaluating each proposal. She suggested, 'Drop all adjectives or most of them,' I think that this is sage advice. Once again, if your description of your work (i.e. "our excellent work,") is true, then it will come across that your organization does excellent work through the hard facts that you share in your proposal. You can drop sentences and space taken up by too many words by getting rid of all of the unnecessary adjectives (i.e. when you describe your work quality, your staff or board's qualities, how valued you are in the community, etc.). You should already being conveying these 'truths' via your reputation, the board and staff's affiliations or names, your service record, and other hard information that you've provided. She said that she actually crosses out every unnecessary adjective that she sees in an overly wordy proposal because it makes for easier reading and truer reporting. It would've saved the non profit who wrote the proposal, and her, time and space, if they had dropped them, originally. This puts your organization in the grant proposal reader's good graces - which NEVER hurts when your organization could receive a $50,000 grant! Also, if there is a page limit to the proposal - cutting unneeded adjectives will give you more space to write in.

I can't give Professor Strunk enough credit. Even though the man was not a grant writer (to my knowledge) his tips on how to write in English confer a great opportunity to grant writers. Not only will your writing improve, your document will be easier to read - and that only improves your chances to receive that grant!


Anonymous said...

I read your blogs =)

Anonymous said...

I am taking a class in Business Communications and everything you said in this article reinforces what I have learned. Thank You.