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On Getting It Right: How to Write a Grant Application

I’ve been investigating document types for a while now, and this week I’ve been talking about grant writing — the common name used for writing grant applications. It’s enough of a complicated process that it does have its own name (albeit a slightly confusing one).

It’s not that writing grant applications is puzzling. Virtually every grant out there comes with a clearly-defined set of requirements for the application, and many of them even provide (successful) sample applications. The tricky part is just sticking to the rules, and making your big idea fit into the narrow confines of their format.

Saying It Right

Your first job is to prepare the basic information for them, the body of your application which is charmingly referred to as “the narrative.” The narrative, as I said, can take many different forms depending on the grant in question, but in general you can expect something very similar to the business plan I talked about last week. (In fact, you can often copy significant portions of the business plan directly into the relevant sections of your grant application).

One thing nearly every grant application will require is an analysis of your proposed project in relation to the grant-provider’s mission. How are you going to put their money to use in support of the specific purpose that money is dedicated to? If you want to get this right, you need to provide concrete, quantifiable objectives you think you can achieve, and the better they match the grant’s purposes the better your chances of winning the award.

Everyone will tell you that. You could find a dozen website with that advice at a pretty simple Google search. And you can find the list of required sections attached to pretty much every grant application. So why did I feel a need to share write a blog post on the topic?

Because there’s a big difference between copying the appropriate sections from your business plan into the closest match on the grant application form, and then calling it a “narrative.” That charming bit of jargon serves a real purpose, and it explains in a handful of syllables exactly why grant writing is such hard work.

You’ve got to weave the prescribed pieces together into a smooth whole that tells a story. It’s not enough to provide clear and measurable values, it’s not enough to check off every box on the list. If you want to prepared a competitive application, you need to tell a compelling tale.

A grant application has a set of requirements, but that doesn’t make it easy. A business plan has seven prescribed sections, an appendix, and an executive summary, but a good one is still a work of art. For that matter, a haiku is five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables, and it can contain some incredibly potent poetry. If you don’t understand that format, though, it’s just an arbitrary arrangement of syllables.

Following the Rules

I know I already pointed this out yesterday, but I really wish I already had a blog post (or series) written on “How to Write a Query Letter,” because it’s astonishing how parallel the two processes are. And writers so often stumble with query letters because it’s not what they want to do. Novelists, by definition, enjoy writing long and twisty tales, so it’s no surprise that they get irked (and more than a little flummoxed) when you ask them to convey all the critical information about their work in a one-page (single-sided) business letter.

Business plans tend to evoke the same kind of reaction, too, because they ask an entrepreneur to boil down this grand vision, this compelling — maybe even world-changing — idea into discrete, measurable chunks of a pre-defined shape.

That’s Technical Writing, though, front to back — translating your information into the format most useful for your audience. As it happens, that’s something I’m really good at. And I know exactly why.

Manipulating Words in Confined Spaces (Technical Writing Exercise)

The lovely Kelley, writing at a coffee shopIt’s not my education. I had precisely one Technical Writing class in my entire college career, and I skipped at least  a third of the classes. It’s not really work experience, either, because I was already good at this stuff before I landed my first job. No, the real trick to it is something I picked up back in high school in an effort to impress smokin’ hotties.

I already told that story, huh? Well, that’s it. Poetry. The trick to becoming a fantastic Technical Writer is practicing poetry. And I’m not talking about this e e cummings nonsense. The whole point is to pick a rigorous set of rules, and learn how to say what you need to say within someone else’s framework.

So make a haiku, or learn how to write a sonnet in an afternoon, and if that’s not enough of a challenge, do one of these sestinas Courtney’s always talking about. Learn the fine art of verbal spatial manipulation, and document types will open up before you like so many flowers on a fine spring day.

3 Responses to “On Getting It Right: How to Write a Grant Application”

  1. Courtney Cantrell says:

    Hmmm….I sense a sestina-related WILAWriTWe coming up… ;o)

    Also, I’m of the opinion that it’s learning and practicing the forms that gives one the right to pursue the formless e e cummings “nonsense.” Ya can’t break the rules unless ya learn ’em first! ;o)

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      I agree wholeheartedly with every bit of that comment, Courtney.

      As I’ve shown through the rest of this week, I have little hesitation to point a critical finger at artists who are demonstrably more successful than I am…. Even so, in the context, I was really only referring to free verse as “nonsense” in the value it had to offer for this particular Tech Writing application.

      I have a deep appreciate for structured poetry, but my absolute favorite of all the poems I’ve ever written, hands down, is one of my very few free verse pieces.

      • Courtney Cantrell says:

        If the free verse piece you’re referring to is the same one I’m thinking of, then I can only emphasize that it is some well-crafted art, indeed.

        And I knew you meant the “nonsense” simply in regards to Tech Writing. I just couldn’t resist getting in a good-natured dig. 😉