The first grant proposal that I ever wrote was a request for a few thousand dollars to fund the creation of a public mural on the side of a building. Without any work experience in grant writing and eager to write something long and interesting, I filled several pages with a flowing narrative about the importance of public art, complete with big words and citations. Needless to say, that was not the draft that got submitted. (Thankfully, the revised version was funded.)
In college, I was praised for being a good writer, and nothing made me happier than lengthy writing assignments. A ten-page term paper that must reach the bottom of the last page? Can’t wait to start! Bring on the flowing narrative, big words, and citations. Like surely many others in the grant development field, landing a job as a grant writer initially felt like an opportunity to revisit the good old days of writing long papers in which demonstration of academic writing skills was as important as demonstration of subject matter knowledge and that you could find information in places other than Wikipedia. After all, that is what “good writers” do.
A good writer knows their audience and the purpose of their piece. The purpose of a grant proposal is to request money to do something. While a grant reviewer for an agency that funds art projects still needs to be convinced that you have subject matter knowledge (among other things), they already know the value of public art, and with a stack of proposals to read and their coffee half gone, they’re probably not interested in reading your beautiful flowing narrative with big words and citations demonstrating what a good writer you are.
The reviewer is interested in evaluating your project and your organization against the funder’s criteria for grantmaking, which are provided in the RFP in the form of questions to answer or points to address in your narrative. Bonus points if you can find criteria or trends beyond what is given in the RFP. The reviewer doesn’t want a Pulitzer Prize worthy work of nonfiction about your community. They may not even read it word for word. The reviewer wants you to answer the funder’s questions. They want to be able to easily understand who you are and what you are proposing to do, and be excited about giving you the money to do it. The reviewer wants to finish evaluating your proposal before their coffee gets cold, and helping the reviewer have a better morning is never a bad thing.
So how is this done?
3 Tips to Write a Narrative the Reviewer WANTS to Read:
1. Target an 8th grade reading level. I admit that this sometimes is easier said than done. The narrative needs to be easy to read and understand. The reviewer should not feel like they are reading a term paper or an academic journal article. They should not have to read the same paragraph three times to understand it. This piece scores at a grade 9.4 reading level.
2. Structure the narrative to directly align with the questions or scoring rubric. If you are completing an online application where you have one response box per question, this has largely been done for you. However, if you are writing a separate narrative to be uploaded or mailed, and you have freedom over how it is presented, set up the narrative to correspond with the questions or the scoring rubric (usually the same).
For example, if the RFP categorizes questions into four numbered categories – I. Need for Project, II. Program Design, III. Management, and IV. Evaluation – structure your narrative around these categories, number and label the sections, and make the labels out with bold font or as separate title lines if you have room. Then, structure each section around the criteria that you are given. For example, if in the “Need for Project” section the RFP questions or scoring rubric indicate that you are to describe the community, the needs of the students, and the value of the proposed project, create italicized subheadings called A. The Community, B. Needs of Students, and C. Value of Project. (If you recognize this as being from the 21st CCLC grant program, I raise my glass to you.)
The narrative may not be a beautiful piece of writing. It may look choppy. It may not flow very well if the criteria are in a strange order (been there, done that). However, you will have directly answered the questions instead of presenting what you think is important instead, and the reviewer will be able to easily find the information that they are looking for without having to hunt for it.
3. Use formatting tools to break up the text. Always follow the rules in the RFP, but if you can format the narrative so it is not just an endless block of text, it will be more enjoyable to read, and the reviewer will have an easier time finding information. This can include using bold, italics, headings and subheadings, bulleted lists, and tables to present data. In online applications where you don’t always have formatting tools, try using hyphens as bullets.
What other tips do you have for writing a narrative that reviewers WANT to read? We’d love to hear! Share them in the comments below.