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How to write tight, light, and right grants

Writing grants might seem like a dry, boring business to some. But it doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, grant copy that sparkles with life and showcases solid outcomes will garner attention…and successful funding.  

My mantra is to be tight, light, and right. People who write tight copy use simple sentenceto explain the main idea. Prudentcreative word choices and sentence variety lead to a light tone. And right does not mean “conservative,” but correct. So, get those details right, and proof your work! 


What does “tight” copy look like? The subject and verb are easy to find and “belong” together. Prepositional phrases are limited, and clearly reference the subject or verb. Obvious points, filler phrases, and tangential observations are deleted. 

It requires more brain power to process complex sentences than simple ones. The research doesn’t lie. 

You don’t have to devolve to writing pulp fiction to make your grants readable. But you will have to master the grammar. Allow me to twist my hair up into a librarian bun and don my editing glasses. Let’s do a quick grammar refresher. 

Analyze the sentence below, which was pulled from a newspaper article. Find the subject and the verb pairs and count all the clauses and prepositional phrases.   

EXAMPLE:  Put together, these findings paint a bleak picture of how the fates of generations of poor children are largely sealed before they even set foot in a classroom, suggesting the current K-12 school system is ineffective as a springboard for opportunity. (41 words/251 characters) 

There were six prepositional phrases and three clausesWhat is the main idea? It’s not ineffective schools, but rather unprepared children. How many distinct sentences are present? I counted five. Findings” don’t paint, but they could suggest, if the subject were moved closer to the last clause.  

Let’s tighten this sentence up!

TIGHTER: Blame the school if you wish. But children living in poverty lack early childhood experiences that lead to opportunities later. (20 words, 129 characters) 

Steps to tight copy: 

  1. Identify the main idea and make it the subject. 
  2. Eliminate passive constructions and helper verbs. 
  3. Use clauses only to emphasize key details. 
  4. Switch prepositional phrases to adverbs or adjectives. 
  5. Delete filler statements, such as “in order to” or “for the sake of”. 
  6. Ruthlessly delete all non-urgent details. 


Tone of voice is another hard conundrum for grant writers. Most formal applications do not invite a chuckle, nor even a smirk. But don’t forget that real people are reading your proposal. And emotions will make them remember your work. Here are a few tips to create a “light” tone that draws in the grant reviewer as a champion for your cause. 

Use the first and second person plural in grants – because you are proposing to work together as we tackle this huge need in our community. Sure, you can keep it impersonal, if you must. But research also shows emotion affects decision-making more often than most people suspect. 

The danger of tight copy is that the tone can become choppy and robotic. Just the facts, ma’amBut you don’t have to make every sentence short. Varying the sentence length and type can help to make your prose interesting. Another reconstruction technique that is both tight and light is to change the statement to either a command or a question. Both make the reader react, and you want that. 

Finally, grant applications are full of data and key outcomes. It’s all about the mathTo keep your reader engaged, you may need to add in some carefully calibrated fluffLike unusual verbs. Like alliterations. Heck, you could even try an onomatopoeia, just for fun. (Google that!) 

Tips to create light copy: 

  1. Use the first and second person, not the third person. 
  2. Vary sentence lengths. 
  3. Use questions and commands creatively. 
  4. Choose GREAT, active verbs. 
  5. Alliterations always add interest. 

EXAMPLE: In light of the dismal return rates of parent surveys after the program, the recommendation of the team was to revisit the intake process to ensure that parents have an understanding of the program expectations. 

IMPROVED: Why didn’t the parents return our survey? We plan to revise our intake process so parents receive support needed to turn in the survey next year. 

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Grant reviewers, like anyone, are tired after reading a dozen eight-page applications. The applications written with style and clarity stand out. Unfortunately, so do applications with incorrect facts or confusing numbers, or both. You want a standing ovation, not the rotten tomatoes. 

Accurate facts and budgets are crucial to funding. Pay close attention to program budgets FIRST so you don’t have to scramble when writing the grant. Use a pencil for the first round or two of calculations. Then, in the grant, cross-reference every number (e.g., number of participants) and whip out a calculator to ensure it all adds up. 

Implementation will go more smoothly if the program directors know what you promised to provide. Writing has many levels of complexity. By planning reviews, you will benefit from that second set of eyes. (Did you know that typos are a sign your brain is generalizing well? That’s why you need a review partner!) 

Also, involve your staff in tracking both data and dollars. Give them permission to decide how best to do it. Your job should be to ensure that it is done, preferably not the night before the final report is due. 

Time crunches are part of non-profit life. So, start early and identify the grant elements that may take extra time or data to compile. Keep testimonials, program photographs, and letters of support handy for late-night writing.  

Here’s a few tips to ensure that the correct facts make it into the grant: 

  1. Prep the program budget first, and know what you need. 
  2. Add numbers twice. Double check last minute additions. 
  3. Do not fill in any paper applications in pen.  
  4. Ask a colleague or volunteer to review your work. 
  5. Ask staff to help set up budget and grant tracking processes. 
  6. Pre-stage common grant requirements like photos and letters of support. 

Do you need some help writing tight, light, and right grant applications? Upstream Consulting would be happy to help! Visit our Work With Us page for more details. 

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Grant Writing

March 28, 2021

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