7 Tips to Write Like a Reporter When Grant Application Space Is Limited


By Corinne Marasco

Storytelling is an effective way to persuade a funder to award your organization a grant. It communicates a need, offers a solution, and presents an opportunity for someone to help by making a financial contribution, according to Cheryl Clarke, author of Storytelling for Grantseekers.

As a grant writer you’ve got a great story to tell: How your organization helps the homeless. How your organization addresses inequity in your city’s elementary schools. How your organization helps wounded veterans with combat stress and traumatic brain injury.

You’ve got data to support why your programs are needed. You’ve got anecdotes about clients you’ve helped. You’ve got outputs and outcomes to demonstrate your programs’ effectiveness.

What you probably don’t have is space.

The downside of having a great story to tell is very often you have to shoehorn it into a common grant application or perhaps the foundation has its own requirement that limits you to four pages, single spaced, with one-inch margins and 12-point Times Roman font. Or-one of my pet peeves-the funder uses a web-based application where you have only 1,000 characters to answer a question.

Reporters call this “writing tight.” It means conveying as much information as possible in as few words as possible. It sounds easy, but if you’ve spent years writing research papers, for example, it can be quite a change from the way you’ve been used to writing.

The advantage to writing tight is the grant reviewer can still quickly take away important information about why your approach is the best compared to 20, 50 or 100 others. Here’s how it’s done.

1. Find Your Focus

Before you write a single word, can you sum up your ask in a single paragraph? If you’re applying for general operating funds, this may mean summing up your organization’s mission in a sentence or two. If you’re applying for program funding, what’s the program’s goal? Decide what your main point is, then stick to it. Anything that doesn’t relate should be left out.

2. Keep Paragraphs Short

Look at the news section of today’s paper. Do you see any long, expository paragraphs? Nope. Chances are you see something like this:

“Now that spring has arrived in New England it’s not just plants that are popping up. It’s kitten season. Because of the warm weather, cats are having litters of kittens and filling up animal shelters, which are looking to find them homes.”

Short paragraphs are easier for readers to skim. How do you keep paragraphs short?

3. Keep Sentences Short

Sentences get long when you try to stuff too many ideas into them. Which of these is more effective?

“A unique resource for our community, energetically changing the world one person at a time, ABC Charity provides delicious and nutritious meals each and every day, rain or shine, to impoverished homebound seniors who often welcome these meals with effusive gratitude, as it not only fills their stomachs but provides them with a vital sense of human connection as well.”

OR

“ABC Charity delivers hot meals to 100 homebound seniors every day. Our program allows impoverished seniors to live independently in their own homes. Our volunteers also provide seniors with a vital sense of human connection.”

Sentences are long when there are too many clauses. The first example has four clauses:

A unique resource for our community, energetically changing the world one person at a time, ABC Charity provides delicious and nutritious meals each and every day, rain or shine, to impoverished homebound seniors who often welcome these meals with effusive gratitude, as it not only fills their stomachs but provides them with a vital sense of human connection as well.”

If you find yourself writing a sentence that has more than one or two commas in it, that’s your cue to insert a period after a clause then start a new sentence.

4. Break Up With Bullets

Give yourself and the grant reviewer some variety in your proposal. If you have a series of three or more items, don’t write a paragraph-use a bulleted or numbered list. Bullets can break up a paragraph and also cut words by eliminating the need for transitions.

5. Highlight What to Keep

One of Strunk and White’s commandments is “Omit needless words.” If you’re stuck trying to pare down a lengthy paragraph, try this technique: Take a highlighter or colored pencil and highlight words you want to keep. Highlighting needed words is more effective than omitting needless words and can help you cut through the clutter to streamline your message.

6. Think Active

We hear this advice frequently: Use active verbs in writing. Nothing will suck the energy out of your grant proposal faster than the passive voice. One clue is when you see a phrase like “was…by,” as in, “Center City Hospital was founded 50 years ago by Dr. Gregory House.” It’s an easy fix to flip from passive to active voice: “Dr. Gregory House founded Center City Hospital 50 years ago.”

Active verbs show that your organization is, well, active. Saying that “900 women received services last year” doesn’t give your organization credit. Saying “We provided food, shelter and clothing to 900 women last year” has much greater impact. Verbs make sentences shorter, brisker, and simpler.

7. Use Your Eyes and Ears

If possible, print out your grant proposal and read the copy backwards, reading last page to first, right to left, bottom to top. Why? Your brain knows what you meant to write, so you tend to skip over typos when you’re reading from beginning to end.

When you’re done, read your story out loud. Does it sound conversational, as if you were talking with the foundation officer?

Reading out loud can also smooth out long-winded sentences. Any sentence that can’t be easily read in a single breath should be trimmed.

Put the proposal aside and proofread it another time. If you’re working on a tight turnaround schedule, this may not be possible. However if you have time before the proposal is due, read it when you can look at it with a fresh perspective.

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