If you ask me, formatting, style, and grammar are the unsung heroes of successful grant applications.
Although I’ve never seen “excessive use of dangling participles” or other English neuroticisms as evaluation criteria, poor formatting, inconsistent style, and bad grammar shed an unfavorable light on your organization’s credibility and capacity to implement your proposed program.
Fortunately, there are lots of tricks, tools, and best practices available to help you develop polished proposals and win more grants.
FORMATTING & PRESENTATION
Your proposal’s format is simply how your document is laid out on the page. Formatting includes components such as font, line spacing, headings, and margins.
Many funders will provide specific guidance on formatting. If your application lists formatting requirements, follow it exactly. You don’t want your application automatically dismissed because you used a narrower margin than what was requested.
In the absence of any guidance, here are some recommendations:
Font. Use a traditional font that’s easy to read, such as Times New Roman or Arial. For Times New Roman, 12-point font is standard; for Arial, 11 will be large enough.
Line spacing. Line spacing is the amount of space that comes after each line of text. The standard spacing options in most word processing programs are single, double, and 1.5-spaced lines. Try not to go any tighter than 1.5 spacing but if you absolutely have to squeeze more in, you can manually adjust your settings to slightly less than 1.5.
Headings & sub-headings. Using appropriate headings and sub-headings is a great way to help your reader find exactly what they’re looking for. Base your headings and the order of the headings off the information requested in the application.
For example, if the application requests a summary of your organization, substantiation of need, program description, and project budget, your headings would be those items, verbatim, and in the same order.
Sentences & paragraphs. You may have mastered long, eloquent sentences, but this is not the time to use them. Both sentences and paragraphs in a grant application should be short and concise. If a reader gets lost in your narrative, there’s a good chance you won’t leave a lasting impression, which means less chance for funding.
Margins. It’s best to stick with the standard 1” margin on all sides of your document, unless you’re printing on a letterhead that requires otherwise. This ensures there’s plenty of white space, which makes reading easier.
Headers. There’s no fixed rule for what (if anything) should go in the header, but this area provides some quality real estate that shouldn’t be ignored. If you’re applying to a federal application, it’s common to add the funding opportunity number and organization, typically right-justified and italicized. For smaller corporate or foundation applications that only have one funding opportunity, you can simply add your organization’s name, right-justified and italicized.
Adding this header serves two purposes: 1) it ensures your materials don’t get mixed up with another organization’s materials if someone drops your application (assuming it’s a paper copy), and 2) it helps the reader easily recall whose application they’re reading (trust me, it’s easy to forget when you’re reviewing federal applications!).
Page numbers. Adding page numbers is another great way to ensure your materials don’t get mixed up. It also makes it easier for reviewers to reference a specific piece of information in your proposal. If you choose to add them, use a simple numeral, centered or right-justified in the footer, in the same font as the rest of your document.
Binding. My rule of thumb is to leave 2-page letters unbound and paperclip longer letters, proposals, and supporting materials. This makes it easier for the funders to make copies if necessary.
Table of Contents. Most large applications require a table of contents. Even if it’s not required, consider adding a table of contents for proposals over 15 pages. Again, this makes it easier for the reviewer to find what they’re looking for.
Tables & Graphs. If you’re writing a large proposal with a lot of data, consider using tables and/or graphs instead of long sentences full of numbers. This helps the reader make quick comparisons and identify the most important points you’re trying to make.
Thanks to all the writing styles used in the U.S. (e.g., Chicago, Turabian, APA, AP, etc.), there are dozens of ways of structuring your writing, and they’re technically all correct.
Since there isn’t a dedicated stylebook for grant writing (wouldn’t that be nice?!), I recommend you create your own rules, write them down, and stick to them. Then, select a stylebook that you’ll use when in doubt. This will help you avoid blatant inconsistencies, which is one of the first things I notice when reviewing an application (yes, I’m one of those people).
The list below includes some items you might want to include on your personal style sheet. Again, there’s no right or wrong way of doing any of the items below (unless your application says otherwise!) so feel free to choose what you want.
Spacing after sentences. Is it one or is it two? Some folks are adamant that using two spaces is wrong but there are style guides that say otherwise. Using two spaces provides extra white space to appease the reader but one space saves much-needed room for more narrative, so most grant writers use one space in their grant applications.
Commas. To Oxford or not, that is the question! The Oxford comma is the final comma used between the last two items in a list. Here’s an example sentence that includes the Oxford comma:
The afterschool program will provide tutoring services, mentorship, and sports opportunities.
If you don’t use the Oxford comma, the sentence above will read:
The afterschool program will provide tutoring services, mentorship and sports opportunities.
Some folks feel strongly that the Oxford comma should always be used because the meaning of some sentences can be misinterpreted without it. But if you’re tight on space or characters in a grant application, the Oxford comma should be the first to go.
Percent or %. It makes absolutely no difference if you spell it out or use the symbol, but most grant writers will opt for the symbol to save space. Your choice should also align well with your numbering style, as it would be weird to write “seventy-eight %”.
Numbers. There are several options here: you can use words for your numbers (e.g., twelve), figures for your numbers (e.g., 12), or you can be completely nonsensical (as with APA style) and use words for your numbers below 10 and figures for your numbers above 10 (e.g., two or 12).
British or American English. Words spelled in British English tend to crop up from time to time. Some of the more common slip-ups are: grey, theatre, analyse, and travelled. Again, none of these words are spelled incorrectly, so feel free to use what you want, as long as you’re consistent.
Hyphenation. Hyphenation is commonly used when writing a two-word adjective (e.g., steroid-fueled rage) or a compound noun (e.g., get-together). Less commonly, hyphens are added after prefixes (e.g., re-align). But some writers leave out the hyphens altogether; it’s your choice!
Hopefully the style section left you feeling like you had all the choice in the world, because now I’m going to tell you about the hard-and-fast rules that must not be broken.
There are hundreds of grammar rules, but I’ve only included the ones that I see commonly and that aren’t typically caught by your word processing program’s grammar checker.
i.e. and e.g. i.e. and e.g. are both Latin abbreviations; their meanings of which are irrelevant. The important thing to commit to memory is that “i.e.” is used in place of “in other words” and “e.g.” is used in place of “for example”.
Random capitalization. I’ve never understood the logic behind randomly capitalized words and I see them everywhere! Capital letters are mostly reserved for proper nouns. In a grant application, this is typically going to include the organization’s name, city, state, county, racial/ethnic groups, and staff titles if you’re referring to a specific person. When in doubt, look it up.
Random quotation marks. Quotation marks should only be used in a sentence if you’re quoting directly, referencing a specific word, indicating a title (for some writing styles), or if the quoted word has an alternative meaning. For a complete review of proper quotation mark usage, check out this great article on quotations by Grammarly.
Etc. Okay, using “etc.” is technically not wrong but I find it unnecessary in grant applications. Your goal is to be concise while providing the funder all the information they need to make a well-informed decision to fund you.
When I read “etc.” in a grant application, I always wonder if it was added because the applicant still isn’t sure what they’re going to offer in their proposed program. I also wonder if any of the items that were replaced with an “etc.” would make me want to not fund this organization.
1970s (not 1970’s). Unless your sentence involves a decade possessing something, there’s no apostrophe (e.g., “In the 1990s, Awesome Organization’s founder identified a gap in healthcare services for the homeless.”).
Affect vs. Effect. Affect denotes action; effect is the result of that action. For example, “The Youth One program affects student learning outcomes by mitigating the lifelong effects of poor study habits.”
Assure, Insure, & Ensure. To assure someone is to make a promise or negate any doubts they have. To insure is to cover someone with an insurance policy. To ensure is to make sure that something happens. For example, “I assure you that we insure all people, regardless of their ability to pay. This ensures we have healthy, productive communities.”
Systemic vs. Systematic. Systemic is something engrained within a system (e.g., “The racism in this community is systemic.”). Systematic is an orderly way of doing things (e.g., “Children are enrolled in the program using a systematic screening and registration process.”).
Degrees. Academic degrees are only capitalized when you’re referencing the entire degree (e.g., Bachelor of Science). If you’re referring to a general bachelor’s or master’s degree, it would be lower-case, and you would have a possessive apostrophe at the end (e.g., She has a bachelor’s degree.). If you’re referring to a general associate or doctoral degree, there would be no apostrophe (e.g., “He earned an associate degree in 1990 and a doctoral degree (or doctorate) in 2007.”).
A FEW MORE TIPS
Here are a few more tips that are especially important in grant writing:
Active vs. passive voice. Use an active voice as much as possible to make your writing clearer. An active sentence is one in which the subject precedes the verb (e.g., The dog ate the bone.). A passive sentence is the opposite (e.g., The bone was eaten by the dog.).
Exaggeration and opinions. Avoid exaggeration and opinions in your grant proposals. If you provide quality data to show your community’s need and the impacts of your proposed program, then you won’t need either.
Use basic words. Remember, you’re trying to make your proposal easy and enjoyable to read, so use basic words when possible (e.g., “use” instead of “utilize”).
FINAL TIPS FOR SUCCESS
Whew! That was a lot! Hopefully that list gave you some new ideas for preparing a perfectly polished proposal.
Here are some final tips to save you time and frustration when preparing your proposals:
Always use the funder’s formatting guidelines.
Finish your applications at least a few days before the final due/send date. This will give you some time to rest so you can do a final review with fresh eyes.
Ask someone you know to provide a final review and edit or work with a professional grant writer. This is a great way to catch grammar issues, as well as content weaknesses.