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On Getting It Right: Grant Applications

Yesterday I told a story about my little girl learning to read. She hasn’t got the patience to read a whole block of text yet, though. She’ll start at the beginning, and if she doesn’t recognize the first word, she says, “I can’t read this page!” And that’s it. She pushes the book away and asks to do something else.

Even when she can read the first word (and the second, and the third…), she keeps looking at each new word with the same critical analysis. The moment she finds one she doesn’t know, she’s ready to give up.

It’s my job, then, to make sure I present her with words she can handle, and to give her a compelling reason to keep reading even when she wants to give up. That’s…well, that’s just eerily similar to the process a writer uses to apply for valuable grant money. So I guess I’m getting lots of good practice, because I’m extremely motivated in both pursuits.

What Are Grants?

Grants are non-loan cash awards that the government and charitable foundations provide to fund specific missions, whether that’s medical research in a critical field or support for the arts and education in struggling communities. Grants are available to help college kids afford tuition, to help PBS produce adorable cartoons about dinosaurs, and to help Cornell develop a network link a thousand times faster than even a fast internet connection today.

Grant awards can range from a couple hundred bucks to many millions of dollars. The National Endowment for the Arts offers grants from $5,000-$150,000, but they say the vast majority of their awards run less than $20,000. On the other hand, I’ve heard it said that fully half of the University of Oklahoma’s substantial annual operating expenses are paid with grant money. In every case, though, the money goes to the people who get the application right.

How Do You Get Them?

As I said before, the people providing the money — whether they’re government institutions or charitable foundations — always have a specific mission to perform, and limited funds to perform it with. As a result, every grant application has to compete with all the others demanding money from the same pool.

The judges of that competition are called grant selection committees. The National Endowment for the Arts uses artists and art professors, and foundations often use their boards of directors. No matter who they are, you can safely assume they’re overwhelmed with a deluge of desperate, hopeful requests — all of them written with passion, and virtually all of them destined for rejection.

If you’re a novelist, that last sentence probably made your heart ache just a little bit, because it’s a remarkably familiar type of despair. It’s the slush pile all over again, and the lessons we’ve learned from Nathan Bransford and Writer’s Digest put us in a strong position to understand and work in the grant writing process.

Because just like agents and submissions editors, grant selection committees are so inundated that they review every application looking for a justification to reject it. I’ve been told that if an application doesn’t make its case in 30 seconds, it’s rejected. I suspect the sad reality is that it has to keep making its case, every 30 seconds, over the course of a dozen pages. As soon as it falters, it’s in the trash.

Then What’s the Point?

So how do you overcome that? Why would you even try? The answer is the same that has us studying query letters in our free time, and most of the methods and best practices you’ll find out there are the same.

First things first, you’ve got to tell a compelling story. You’ve got to understand your audience, establish a compelling connection, and structure a message that keeps them engaged from start to end.

And, y’know, that doesn’t sound too hard, but there’s one last bit. You’ve got to do all those things (and keep it short!), and you’ve got to do them in a rigidly pre-structured format that changes from one grant selection committee to the next. How fun!

It’s a challenge, though — and one that offers real rewards to its victors. It’s a powerful application of fundamental Technical Writing principles, too, so it’s well worth discussing as an extreme example. I’ll share that with you tomorrow, looking at how to write a successful grant application.

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