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Do You Know How to Write A Grant Proposal Clearly? (Part 1)

Unless he can hire someone to put it together, my husband almost totally refuses to order anything where the directions include the phrase, “some assembly required.” He simply doesn’t enjoy putting things together anymore. It may be because many times the directions consist of poorly produced pictures and unclear written instructions, like “Put Piece C into Piece J after you insert Pieces F and G into A.” So he doesn’t get frustrated, he makes the very conscience choice to pay someone else to get frustrated!

It’s not a quantum leap from his world to the grant writing world. You certainly don’t want to inflict this kind of frustration on a proposal reader by writing unclear statements or confusing sentences! Proposal readers receive stacks and stacks of proposals throughout the year. The truth is they simply can’t dedicate swaths of time to understand your project. If they find themselves struggling through your proposal, they’ll simply move on to the next proposal and place yours in the “No” pile. After all the time you put into writing your proposal, you don’t want this to happen!

This means it’s important to present your project in clear language that is easy to read. We’ve identified 10 basic writing tips that will help you write clearly so your grant proposal receives a higher score and has a greater chance of getting funded. Today’s blog will cover the first five writing tips.

  1. State your request at the beginning of the proposal. I have reviewed proposals that made me search all the way through the document before I understood what the organization was requesting. In the opening paragraph, take a lesson from journalism and answer “who, what, when, where, and why.” Then be sure to throw in the “how much.” Believe it or not, you can actually provide this summary in 3-4 sentences.
  2. Keep sentences short. You will not impress proposal readers if your sentences are long and complex. Don’t strive to imitate Henry James! While you should vary your sentence length, a good rule is to limit your sentences to 20 words or less. Try never to go over 25 words in any single sentence.
  3. Don’t use adverbs and reduce the use of adjectives. Stephen King wrote a wonderful, short work, On Writing, in which he expresses the opinion that writers who use adverbs are not sure of their ability to convey their meaning. Adverbs are unnecessary in proposal writing and do nothing to support your project or convince your reader of its importance. Also limit your use of adjectives and don’t use them instead of data, dates, or quotes. For example:
    1. Don’t write this: This school achieved amazing accomplishments this year.
    2. Do write this: This year, the school achieved a 100% graduation rate with 84% of graduating seniors receiving $17,000,000 in scholarship money from 4-year colleges.

Yes, the second sentence is longer, but it conveys exactly what the amazing accomplishments were and builds the argument the school is capable of carrying out the proposed project.

  1. Use the active voice (or active verb); stay away from the passive voice. The passive voice is when you begin your sentence with the object rather than the subject. This sentence construction can be confusing and dilutes your intention.
    1. Don’t write this (passive voice): For the class picnic, two dozen cupcakes were baked by Susie’s mom.
    2. Do write this (active voice): Susie’s mom baked two dozen cupcakes for the class picnic.
    3. Don’t write this (passive voice): The book, Where the Wild Things Are, is being read by most of the class.
    4. Do write this (active voice): Most of the class is reading the book, Where the Wild Things Are.
  1. Start each sentence with the subject. The subject is the noun in the sentence that is doing the action. Starting the sentence with the subject makes your writing clear, since it’s obvious who or what the sentence is about. (This tip also helps you avoid writing in passive voice.)
    1. Don’t write this: It was not until the new principal arrived that the students’ grades improved.
    2. Do write this: Students’ grades improved after the new principal arrived.

These first five tips will give you a “leg up” on producing a proposal that readers will actually enjoy reviewing! Stay tuned for tips 6 – 10, which we’ll cover in next week’s blog post.

If you want more information on how to write to proposal readers, check out: Five Tips to Keep Your Writing Simple. We also compiled a list of the most common grammar mistakes, Top 10 Grammar Mistakes to Avoid, so you don’t turn in a grant proposal full of errors. Check them out!

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