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August 23, 2017

Hallmarks of Effective Grant Writing
Part 2: Be Clear

Under pressure to get past all the hurdles of preparing a grant proposal, what can sometimes fall short is the grant writer’s most important job of all: communicating ideas clearly.

It’s frustrating to struggle through unclear writing. Consider the times you’ve had to go back a page when confused by what you’re reading. This is not a challenge you want to create for the busy foundation program officer evaluating your grant request alongside dozens of others. You want your proposal to rise above the competition by being clear and enjoyable to read, not be set aside by an exasperated reviewer.

Your grant proposal has a job to do

Some grant proposals aim to impress, counting on big words and inflated passages to signal authority and credibility. But in our experience crafting thousands of proposals, the opposite tends to be true. Unfamiliar words, winding sentences, and dense paragraphs can all serve to dilute the writer’s meaning and drag down the reader.

Instead write a grant proposal with the intention to help the reviewer do his or her job. At a typical private foundation, your proposal passes first to a program officer who is responsible for bringing the best requests before a board of ultimate decision makers.

Daniel Cohn, Program Officer at Mt. Sinai Health Care Foundation, explains that when he brings a grant request before the foundation’s board of directors, he must boil it down into a few paragraphs that describe the goals and plans of the project and articulate what the foundation’s impact on the community will be if funding is approved.

When you consider that the goal of the program officer is to distill your proposal down into a condensed summary, it’s easier to see that writing clearly and simply is not only considerate, but savvy. A program officer isn’t looking to be awed by your linguistic chops. He or she is hoping to easily understand your proposal and determine its alignment to the foundation’s mission, guidelines, and priorities. The more difficult your proposal is to follow, the more work you are creating for the program officer, and the more distance you are putting between your application and a grant approval letter.

Good grant writing is good writing

To effectively convey meaning, good grant writing must first and foremost be good writing. And good writing starts with being simple and clear. How to write grant applications that are clear and logical to follow? Below are a few fundamental rules to build into your grant writing practice that can help transform your grant proposal into a compelling and efficient delivery system of ideas.

Is your grant proposal CLEAR? Make it a part of your grant writing discipline to express even complex ideas as simply as possible.

  • Think before you write. Be clear about the idea you want to convey, then write.
  • Use familiar, concrete words. Avoid pretension and unhelpful jargon (or explain it).
  • Limit sentences to a single idea. Aim for several short sentences over a single overly complex one. Consult Grammar Girl’s helpful tips on writing simpler sentences.
  • Write in active voice (where the subject of the sentence performs the action—for example, “The Board approved the request,” not “The request was approved by the Board”), except where there is good reason to write in passive voice.

Is your grant proposal LOGICAL? Stand-up comedians are masters of the art of doling out details of a story in just the right order to achieve a desired effect. How you shape and sequence the ideas in your proposal is key to gradually building your reader’s understanding to a point of buy-in. Follow these suggestions for achieving a compelling logical flow:

  • Don’t bury your points. Articulate your main ideas early. Lead paragraphs and sections with topic sentences that help orient the reader to where you’re heading.
  • Develop transitions to link ideas, arguments, paragraphs, and sections. See this advice on effective transitions.
  • Use signposts that provide an organizational scheme. Headings and subheadings, lists, and bullet points help “hold the reader’s hand” from one idea to the next.
  • Read your work and try to feel whether meaning is building sequentially. Where are there gaps in logic? Where does one idea not flow smoothly to the next? Where might you lose the reader?

Most of us could stand to have a basic refresher on writing from our fourth grade teacher. Try practicing these tips for clearer writing on a regular basis and above all remember: strive to help make your reader’s job easy. The hard work should be on your end, to plan and execute a grant proposal that is compelling, clear, and logical to understand. Clear writing is often easier said than done—but it’s well worth the effort to put your proposal one step closer to being funded.

Explore Our Entire Hallmarks of Effective Grantwriting Series

Hallmarks Part 1: Tailoring the Proposal

Hallmarks Part 2: Be Clear

Hallmarks Part 3: Conveying the Core Compelling Idea

Hallmarks Part 4: Write to Persuade


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