After nearly 20 years of writing, editing, reviewing, and evaluating grant proposals, I’ve seen my share – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Some grant proposals leap off the page, painting a vivid picture of the problem at hand and the proposed solution, while also providing an elegant, accurate (and not overwhelming) description of how, when, and why the solution will be carried out.
Some grant proposals get the job done, but don’t do much more than that. They answer the who, what, where, when, and why, but they never draw the reader in. They are the workhorses of the grant writing world: efficient, but forgettable.
Some grant proposals are real clunkers. There’s just no better way to say it. Not only do they not give the required information, explain the problem or the solution, or draw you in, but they are just... limp.
If you don’t activate the reader’s interest with your grant proposal, someone else will. Most individuals who are reviewing grant proposals and deciding what to fund, or deciding what to pass along to their boards or grant review committees, are reviewing myriad grant proposals. You must be memorable in order to not be forgotten.
In the preceding paragraph, I’ve broken one of my own rules about how to write a better, more effective, more engaging proposal. Read on:
1. Tell a Story About One Person, One Program, One River, One Bird...
Storytelling is having a moment. Most grant writing books, blogs, and articles advise telling a story in your proposals, in order to help the reader envision your program. Research has shown that people remember stories more than statistics. Fundraising letters and appeals that tell the story of one person are more effective in raising funds than letters that assault the reader with a barrage of statistics, even when those statistics are compelling. Storytelling humanizes a proposal.
To make your proposal more interesting, creative, and lively, tell the story of ONE. One child who will be fed by your soup kitchen. One immigrant whose job training helped her transform her family’s life. One block in one neighborhood. One bird species. One river in a watershed. Drill down; get small in order to have the big impact.
2. Throw Away Your Thesaurus.
Enough with the S.A.T. words, OK? Please stop saying “myriad,” as I did, above (and while you’re at it, if you MUST use that word, please learn how to use it properly). Proposal writing is like poetry; every word counts. But big words are not necessarily good words. In fact, throwing a big word into a sentence in order to sound smart can be like a tranquilizer dart to the head. Isn’t the preceding sentence more interesting than: “Use of advanced vocabulary to create the impression of intellectual prowess can have deleterious effects.”
Choose good words, not big words.
See more of my tips on what never to write in a grant proposal HERE.
3. Make It Shorter. Yes, Even Shorter Than That.
Writing long is easy. Writing short is hard.
Every grant writer knows that staying within an RFP’s page limit can be difficult, even maddening. When you do not have a formal page limit, it can be like driving on the highway with a full tank of gas. Freedom! You can keep going and going and going!
Except you can’t.
In my experience, at least quarter of most grant proposals can be cut out. Often, the longer your proposal gets, the more you are repeating yourself. Keep it short, focused, and powerful. Long can be boring. Short can be intense and vivid.
This rule of thumb also applies to your paragraphs and sentences. Watch out for run-on sentences, which seem to be the plague of the grant writing world. Mix it up. Throw in a short, impactful sentence every once in a while, just like I’m doing in this essay. When your reader has to read compound sentence after compound sentence, with no breaks, their mind tends to drift. If you mix it up with shorter sentences now and again, it’s a little burst of energy that makes you take notice.
In the spirit of following my own advice, I’ll close here and encourage you to give some of these tips a shot, even if it seems scary to get out of your usual grant writing groove.