July 25, 2012

Writing Something Worth Reading: It’s Complicated

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” –Benjamin Franklin

 Lately, I have been thinking quite a bit about the intersection of creative and technical writing – two fields that are often thought of as mutually exclusive. I would argue that grantwriting sits precisely at that juncture, which is what makes it so challenging. We probably all know someone who has never written a grant proposal who does not understand how challenging (and time consuming) the process is. How hard can it be, they think – just describe why the money is needed, right? However, being a successful grantwriter requires balancing a variety of elements. You have to be in tune with the nonprofit world, think like a fundraiser and a businessperson, craft compelling prose like a novelist, and be comfortable with research and jargon like a technical writer. I think anyone who has tried it can attest that this is not easy, no matter what acquaintances in other fields may think. Balancing so many different moving parts, often under tight deadlines, and doing it over and over for different RFPs can seem like an alternatively Herculean and Sisyphean task.

Before you begin a proposal, you have to think like a businessperson, even if your organization is a nonprofit. You must know your target market (the specific foundation or granting organization) in order to sell your product (the services your organization/client provides). You want funders to buy into the product you are selling, be it services for the homeless or implementing a new academic program in a school, and this involves knowing what motivates and interests your target market. You have to do your homework on a funder’s priorities, what types of programs are typically funded, any political preferences the organization has, and vocabulary quirks you need to account for (does “goal” for them mean the same as it does for you?). Once you know your audience, you need to frame your program in order to sell it effectively while remaining within structural and length limits prescribed by the RFP.

It is necessary that you have a worthy program that fits within a funder’s priorities, but this is not usually sufficient to get a funder’s attention. You need to make your proposal interesting. No one wants to read boring writing – not even the driest and most formal of grantmakers. It is highly beneficial for grantwriters to develop stellar creative writing and storytelling skills. Being able to write like a short story author may not seem necessary to be a great grantwriter, but a big part of your job is to tell narratives compelling enough to be funded. Besides, don’t most of us like to be told stories? Furthermore, compelling writing makes it easier for you to make your reader care about the topic.

As a veteran of writing workshops, I can attest that the basics of storytelling can come in handy in most genres of writing, particularly in those fields where people are not necessarily trained to write creatively – or at all (business, math, and science all come to mind). How many boring, absolutely unreadable business articles and science papers have we come across in our time? These are not fields that teach practitioners how to tell an interesting story. As so in grantwriting, the ability to craft a compelling narrative can help you get noticed.

Here are a few tips gleaned from writing workshops that I hope will help fledgling grantwriters and professionals alike step up their writing game.

  • Introduce key plot points that correlate with the specific funder’s focus areas and the key characters (the staff and the audience served) early on and repeat them. This helps you establish your narrative arc. Poets and songwriters do this in an obvious way when they create a chorus. You want to underscore the most important elements of your proposal and remind the reader throughout. This is especially important in longer narratives. Maintaining a narrative is not the same as redundancy. Return to the theme, but do not make the point with exactly the same words. You do not want to reduce the quality of your content through unnecessary repetitions, especially when working within length restrictions.
  • Make sure the entire proposal reads as a coherent whole. You are telling a story, so make it read like one. This is especially important if your organization employs a team approach to grantwriting. If you tend to divide a proposal into sections written by various authors, make sure that one person does the final edit – preferably a detail-oriented person with editing experience.
  • Think about the reasons why reviewers should care about your project more than another project and include those details. If you can draw them into a story about why funding your museum of 19th century telephones is important and make them truly care, you have a foot in the door.
  • Along that line, make sure your proposal has heart! Even the most formal, conservative foundation wants to see some personality in a proposal. Reviewers have to wade through a lot of proposals, so make sure you give yours every opportunity to stand out. Keep the language in line with the funder’s language, but inject a little soul. Establish a history for the project and provide details about those affected by your work. Interest your reader in the key characters. You may want to provide some testimonials or quotes from people aided by the project. These touches make the narrative more personal and let reviewers know that real people benefit from your services. Pictures and other visual aids may help you succinctly underscore your points while making your project’s audience more real to reviewers.
  • Even when working with statistics and hard facts, think about how to present them in a way that prevents your readers’ eyes from glazing over. Maybe provide some concrete examples to help readers understand abstruse facts. Or think about how you could incorporate a chart or table to concisely and visually convey a lot of information. If you want to illustrate an increase or decrease in child homelessness effectively, for example, a chart may be more impactful than a list of statistics.
  • When in doubt, use font to your advantage. Writers have been doing this for generations, so why not you? Pick a compelling font (within the boundaries of funder stipulations), boldface section heads, underline or italicize important phrases, and use bullets to set lists apart. These are all means of organizing your proposal so that your points get noticed – just do not use them in lieu of interesting writing.
  • At the risk of sounding redundant myself, know your audience! A successful author would never adopt a romance novel tone and vocabulary for an academic article. To be well-informed, you need to do your homework. Check out their website; take note of writing style and tone in their written materials. Also, look at the grantmaking priorities and review what has been funded in the past. For instance, if a foundation states that it funds healthcare, but actually only gives funds to providers of homeopathic medicine, it is probably not helpful to include citations from reports written by major pharmaceutical companies in your proposal.

Remember, that making writing easy to read and pleasurable to your audience requires a great deal of behind-the-scenes preparation and work. It’s all part of the job, which is precisely why grantwriting can be so rewarding and yet so exhausting, no matter what your non-grantwriting acquaintances may think.

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