The Development Source

Reviewers Hate Bad Grant Proposal Prose!

I hate to read poorly written grant proposals, and reviewers do too.  When proposals are written in the passive voice, when proposals are wordy, and when proposals use language incorrectly or in silly ways, reviewers have trouble reading your prose and finding your arguments persuasive. 

 Despite all the good graphics and tables you may include, a proposal is primarily a text-based document.  Be your best by using good prose.  Among other things, this means using the right words in the right places.

 Bob Lohfeld, the founder and head of the Lohfeld Consulting Group, has usefully identified kinds of words that you should avoid if you want your proposal to sparkle and keep reviewers awake.  Although he is applying them to business proposals, his advice equally applies to grant proposals from the nonprofit sector.  They are briefly described below.

 Crutch Words

Avoid crutch words that are designed to make reviewers think you know your stuff.  My favorite is the word “understand.”  Do not tell reviewers that you “understand” their needs.  Demonstrate that you have a deep understanding.

Boasting Words

No one likes a braggart, especially in proposals.  Here are some unfortunate examples that frequently appear in proposal prose:  best-in-class, world class, state-of-the-art, and uniquely qualified.  Convey a confident tone in your prose and provide plenty of evidence that your organization is highly qualified – that is the best way to brag.

 Useless Words

Do not tell reviewers how pleased you are to submit your proposal.  Do not tell reviewers that you are committed to quality.  Do not use cant, platitudes, and clichés such as “At our organization, we have been putting our clients first for 16 years.” 

 Weak Words

A proposal is not the best place to be self-effacing.  Do not qualify everything (“should we be awarded this grant” or “we propose to perform”) – convey a tone of quiet confidence and directly state what you intend to do.


Many proposals are painful to read because they say the same thing over and over and over again.  Be concise and get to the point quickly – this approach will endear you to busy, harried reviewers. 

 Long Words

For some odd reason, some adults actually believe that bigger words demonstrate that you are highly intelligent and insightful.  True, but only to a point.  Do not say “utilize,” one of my favorite bad long words, say “use.”  Avoid “ascertain” and use “learn” instead.  I have a simple rule in my grant proposal prose:  if sports announcers keep using a big word frequently and incorrectly, drop it from your prose.  You will never go wrong using this rule.


It is permissible to say “hit the ground running” over lunch, but not in a grant proposal.  Your proposal prose should be formal because of the seriousness of the occasion and the respect you have for the reviewers.

 Prune your grant proposals of bad prose and they will become more competitive.  Good words can help you win, but inappropriate or bad words will certainly help you lose.



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