May 16, 2014

Of Chainsaws and Bonsai Shears: Trimming Text to Meet Length Limits

As I sit down to write this article, the piercing buzz of a chainsaw grinds outside, slicing off chunks of a neighbor’s elm tree (or perhaps several trees as this has been going on for quite a while). If you’ve written grants or been a member of the editing crew, it might feel like you’ve had to take a chainsaw to the draft, hacking it to fit within a funder’s character, word, or page length limit. Editing for length can be a lot more complicated than pruning a tree, however. It is not a one-size-fits all process; at least, it isn’t if you want to do it efficiently. Different levels of length overflow call for different tactics. If you have a large amount of trimming, starting with the major cuts then moving on to the more minor will save time and aggravation. In this article, we’ll explore different approaches to reducing over-limit text.

The Chainsaw

When your draft is pages over the limit, it is not time to go through the draft line by line; it’s time to make targeted and significant changes and cuts:

  • Cut content chunks that are not specifically requested by the instructions;
  • Look for repetitive text and reduce through deleting, adding cross-references, or trimming to retain information specific to particular areas;
  • See if some content can be moved to attachments;
  • Target trimming to bring the relative section lengths into harmony with point weights if review scoring is disclosed (for instance, if a proposal’s overall limit is 20 pages and Organization History is worth 10% of points, aim to make that section two pages); and
  • Shorten stories or quotes or incorporate brief excerpts within general text.

The Loppers

When you have excess text of a few paragraphs to two pages, couple general editing with a few more creative tactics:

  • Edit your document to keep language concise (eliminate extra words, avoid complicated phrasing when simple will do, use active rather than passive voice);
  • Check your instruction requirements for margins, line spacing, and text formatting (you want to avoid chunks of hard-to-read mouse print, but you will still maintain a reader-friendly document reducing to 11-point typeface with .75 inch margins);
  • See if there is text that can be converted to a shorter form using tables or graphics, as information can be easier to process and many double-spacing requirements do not apply for tables or figures;
  • Ensure you are using a typeface that is not especially wide (e.g. Courier); and
  • Look to pull lines up through your headers and subheads by using shorter titles and having the body text start on the same line.

The Shears

If your language is already clean and tight, but it’s dribbling over by a few lines, there are a few tricks to quickly get it into limits:

  • Scroll through your proposal looking for paragraphs with last lines that are just a few words long then delete or shorten words, starting from the bottom and working up until you’ve achieved the page limit;
  • Check your document settings to disable widow/orphan controls, a setting that prohibits a single line from appearing at the top or bottom of a page;
  • If you have a full carriage return between paragraphs, change it to a smaller distance using before or after paragraph spacing;
  • See if you can combine bulleted list items into related clusters to reduce the number of bullets (or if each item is short, change a single column list to two column); and
  • Check your references, shortening citations and formatting footnotes to use a small type size.

A grant writer’s tendency is to dislike length limits, however, perhaps my best piece of advice is to give thanks. These limits encourage concise writing, keep reviewers’ attention engaged, level the playing field between agencies, and give the skilled writer (with a compelling request) a tremendous advantage.


Contact: Aly Sanchez, Director of Organizational Strategy and Learning,

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