The first several grant proposals I wrote were for federal government agencies. To me, these proposals were reasonable, enjoyable, and allowed plenty of room to say what I needed to say. To this day, government grant applications are still my favorite.
But foundation and corporate proposals? You want me to say all that in 500 words or less?! I’m a woman of few words and even I sometimes struggle with meeting the infinitesimal word and character limits for some applications. Fortunately, I’ve picked up a few tricks to reducing the length of grant proposals. Here are my top four:
ANSWER THE QUESTIONS (and nothing else)
If you’ve never written a grant proposal, this may seem like a painfully obvious first step. But when you’re learning how to write grants, you’re taught about all the standard sections (statement of need, program description, evaluation, etc.) and all the information that should go in each section, so when you begin writing your first proposal and realize it’s not that clear-cut, you may panic and start writing everything. This is not the best plan! Not only is this approach a waste of time, it also increases the risk of you leaving something out that the funder really wants to know.
So, whenever you’re limited on space, try to forget everything you learned about those nice, tidy grant sections. Instead, focus on exactly what the funder has asked for and respond only to their request.
GET RID OF WORDS
If you’re happy with the content of your grant proposal but still need to cut some length, start looking for words you can get rid of. Here are the three easiest ways to start chopping words:
Look for sentences written in the passive voice. Sentences written in the passive voice have the subject being acted upon (e.g., The food was eaten by Mary); active voice sentences have the subject doing the action (e.g., Mary ate the food). Writing in the passive voice can eat up a lot of space, as you can see from the two example sentences – switching to passive voice saved two words and nine characters.
If you’re using a proofreading program, it will likely show you which sentences are passive. If not, just go through your narrative and identify the passive ones. Once you’ve identified your passive sentences, start rewriting them to be active. Note of caution – don’t feel like you have to change every single passive sentence. Passive sentences aren’t grammatically incorrect and sometimes they simply sound better or are the best way to emphasize one part of a sentence. Change the ones you can and make sure you’ve retained the flow and key points in your narrative.
Look for long, confusing sentences. Although many of us got in the habit of writing verbosely in school (so we could meet the minimum page requirement!), this is not a best practice in grant writing. Read through your narrative slowly, or even backwards, to catch sentences that are several lines long or full of commas (two quick indicators of sentences that may be unnecessarily long). Cutting these sentences down will not only save space, it will also make your grant proposal easier and more enjoyable to read.
Look for unnecessary words. This may be the hardest way to reduce the length of your proposal because if you thought a word was unnecessary, you wouldn’t have included it in the first place, right? If possible, enlist the help of a co-worker or friend who knows how to edit grants – they’ll probably have an easier time ripping words from your narrative than you will. If you’re not sure how to identify unnecessary words, here are some great articles to get you started:
- Eliminate unnecessary words by Writing Commons
- 43 words you should cut from your writing immediately by Diana Urban
- Eliminating words by Purdue University
ADD TABLES OR IMAGES
Wait…you want me to add something?!
Well, maybe. Sometimes, adding a table or image can save space and (bonus!) make it easier for your reader to understand the information you’ve presented. Consider the example below:
Option 1: Awesome Organization serves youth ages 10 – 17 in Town A, Town B, and Town C. These three communities are racially/ethnically diverse. Town A’s youth population is 43% Caucasian, 32% African American, 17% Hispanic/Latino, 6% Asian, and 2% Multi-racial. Town B is 64% African American, 22% Caucasian, 10% Hispanic/Latino, and 4% Multi- racial. Town C is 12% African American, 72% Caucasian, 14% Hispanic/Latino, and 2% Asian.
See how much space that saved?!
Whenever possible, use tables or images (e.g., a small, embedded organization chart) to save space and make reading easier for your grant reviewers.
FORMAT LIKE A MAGICIAN
Formatting wizardry is the last desperate trick to shrinking your proposal and should only be done 1) after you’ve tried everything else and 2) after you’ve triple-checked all the grant application formatting requirements (in other words, don’t try to sneak in an 11-size font when the application clearly requires size 12!).
Here are some tricks you can try if your grant application doesn’t have clear guidelines that say otherwise:
- Reduce your line spacing, but don’t go any less than 1.15 spaces between lines.
- Reduce your margin size from 1” (which is the standard) to 0.75” or 0.5”.
- Change your document from left-justified to full-justified (where the text lines up on both the left and right margins). This can sometimes shave off a few lines, saving you much-needed space. Be warned – some folks think fully-justified text is harder to read and you’ll need to look through your text after you change the settings – sometimes this can cause words to stretch oddly across the page.
- Reduce the size of your font. First, if you’re given an option between Times New Roman and Arial but forced to stick with a size (e.g., 12-point) always choose Times New Roman (it’s smaller). If you have the freedom to change your size, try going smaller, regardless of the font you’re using. Be conservative and start with a 0.5-size reduction and see where that gets you. Depending on what font size you started with, you may be able to reduce the size a bit more, but don’t go any smaller than 10.5 for Times New Roman or 10 for Arial.
- Use one space between sentences instead of two.
- Get rid of commas. If you’re desperate for characters, find places where you can delete commas but still be grammatically correct.
- If you have headers, footers, page numbers, or footnotes, make them slightly smaller than the text in your narrative.
- If you indent your paragraphs, try a half indent (5 spaces) instead of a full indent (10 spaces).
- Shrink the space between your letters. To do this in Microsoft Word, expand your font editing box, go to the advanced options, and then change the character spacing option to condensed. From there, you can play around with how close you want your letters to be.
Keep in mind, a human has to read your grant proposal so be considerate with your formatting tricks. You don’t want to make it difficult, irritating, or downright impossible to read your grant application materials.