The Development Source
Decades ago, I used to joke with friends that one day I would soon be standing on a street corner making a living writing letters and documents for the many people who could no longer handle written communication. My prediction has come true – today I spend a great deal of time writing and editing as a Proposal Manager.
There are many reasons why even decently educated Americans in the nonprofit world cannot write prose that is clear, coherent, and persuasive. Rather than rant, I would like to suggest ways that nonprofit professionals can learn to write better proposal prose.
As Chris Simmons, the founder and principal of Rainmaker Consulting, points, out persuasive proposal writing is both an art and a science. It is an art because written prose is a form of personal expression that varies from person to person. We all have different prose styles, just as we all have different personalities and perspectives.
Persuasive proposal writing also is a science because we know a great deal about the methodology of creating good proposal prose. Consequently, all of us can take certain proven steps to become better writers.
Below are some of Simmons’s recommended steps that are true for my own writing and for good proposal professionals around me. Although he is discussing the business world, his recommendations also apply to grant proposals from nonprofit organizations. Follow them and your proposal prose will improve.
Put the reader first and you and your company second. Proposals should be written from the point of view of the reader, not your point of view. Figure out what the reader wants to know before you start writing.
Brainstorm. No one can sit down in front of a computer keyboard and begin typing out good proposal prose. First, figure out your strategies, themes, and approaches.
Organize and outline. In proposals, the best prose comes from tightly organized and detailed outlines. You need a strong scaffolding structure to write well.
Identify your main points first. Begin with your benefits and add on the features. Tell the readers what is most important early and often.
Write for your children. No matter how technical or complex your proposal may be, write so that an intelligent adolescent can understand your proposal volumes. When writing, follow the KISS strategy. It works in your kid’s soccer games, and it will work in your proposal.
Revise, Revise, Revise. Too much proposal prose is wordy and overblown. Once you have a first draft, you should revise, revise, and then revise to pare your prose down and make everything clear and easy to understand. You should be merciless in your revisions, and your revisions should lead to prose that is shorter, clearer, simpler, and more persuasive than the previous version. Delete all hype, verbosity, and unproven claims!
Use Time as your Ally. Prose cannot be written well in a hurry. You need plenty of time to think, write, and revise.
Writing anything well – including grant proposals – is not an easy task. Begin early, brainstorm, organize and outline, write, and revise to make your argument simpler, more direct, and more persuasive.
Writing is both an art and science. Learn how to do it more systematically and thoughtfully, and your grant proposals will improve.