The Development Source

Prune Your Grant Proposals!

A grant proposal is a written document that is designed to sell your nonprofit organization’s service to a company, foundation, government agency, or individual.  Consequently, words count, and by that I mean two things – the number of words you use and the choice of words you use to make your case will help determine the persuasiveness of your proposal. 

Therefore, we should all heed the sage advice of Chuck Keller, an expert at writing compelling business proposals:  make your proposals clear, concise, easy to understand, and accurate.

Here are two practical pieces of advice about writing by two of the best analysts of prose:

William Zinsser, On Writing Well (2006):  “Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly.  Be grateful for everything you can throw away.  Reexamine each sentence you put on paper.  Is every word doing new work?  Can any thought be expressed with more economy?  Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish?. . . . Simplify, simplify.”

Claire Kehrwald Cook, Line by Line:  How to Edit Your Won Writing (1985):  “Under a variety of headings – Officialese, Prolixity, Verbiage, Periphrasis, Windfoggery, and Jargon – the experts agree that, when it comes to exposition, less is usually more.”

Keller has a number of practical recommendations for cleaning up our clotted proposal prose.  Although he is writing about business proposals, his advice can also be applied to grant proposals from nonprofits.  I will pick the ones that I have observed most commonly in grant proposals:

Long or unneeded words.  Replace these words with shorter and simpler synonyms.  My favorite example, so beloved by sports announcers, is the word “utilize.”  Change it to “use.”

Long or unneeded phrases and expressions.  Prune your prepositional and nominal phrases.  For example, change “during the course of” and “made a call” to “during” and “called.”

Clichés.  Replace the many clichés that clutter proposals with concrete words, or better yet, delete them.  “To numerous to mention” should be changed to “many,” and “good to go” changed to “ready.”  For an impressive list of business clichés to avoid, visit

Obnoxious Puffery.  Ruthlessly delete exaggerated or undocumented claims about your company.  These often involve phrases such as “state-of-the-art,” “world class,” and “best qualified.”

Subjunctive Mood.  Don’t tell reviewers what you “might” or “could” do.  Tell reviewers what you “will” do using strong verbs and the indicative mood.

Passive Voice.  This is a real snoozer.  Whenever possible, use the active voice where someone (subject) performs something (verb).

Compound and Compound-Complex Sentences.  Avoid long sentences with lengthy subordinate clauses.  Use simple sentences as much as possible. 

If you follow these rules, as you edit your proposal something miraculous will occur – your proposal will get shorter, more concise, and more persuasive and understandable.  As Henry David Thoreau advised his readers in Walden:  simplify, simplify, simplify.


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