By Kelsey Boudin
President and Founder, Southern Tier Communications Strategies, LLC
“That damn character count!” I remember hollering in the office at a previous nonprofit employer. A few co-workers familiar with the grant process would laugh from their offices. “Having a tough time cutting words that can’t be cut?” I recall one responding.
I learned to be VERY cognizant of the character counts included in the grant proposal. Sometimes the space allotted is mind-numbingly limited. It seems almost unfair. How could you possibly explain your amazing grant project and invite funders to partner in your success in 1,000 characters or less? Not 1,000 words.
One … thousand … characters.
How about 500 characters? 250? Now we’re pushing it. (The first paragraph of this blog is 264, counting spaces.) You’ll have to do it, though.
Most nonprofit grantmakers today accept proposals through an online portal with text boxes restricting responses to certain character or word counts. If you go over, it won’t accept your proposal. You’ll be prompted to try again. They’re great for streamlining the review process. Funders receive direct answers and virtually eliminate proposals outside their formatting requirements. They likely enjoy saving untold hours, days and weeks sifting through hard copies and email submissions that don’t come close.
From your end, ironically, limited word and character counts make your grant writing more complex. You probably spent months developing a full blanket proposal, illustrating all of the ins and outs of a grant initiative in pages of extreme detail. And now you have to give the condensed-soup version that still makes your project narrative sing.
A Few Tips for Managing that Tricky Grant Writing Character Count
Omit Needless Words
Shoutout to the great journalism professor Dr. Denny Wilkins of St. Bonaventure University fame for the refrain beaten into thousands of heads. “Omit needless words,” he’d boom, hellfire on his breath. We learned.
Why say something in 10 words when seven will do? Why seven when five will do? Four?
Omitting needless words is a hallmark of strong writing, no matter the media. In journalism and grant writing, a great exercise involves cutting 1,000 words in half, then half again, then half again without losing meaning. Advertising? Ever try to say 1,000 words in three words?
Your grant proposal doesn’t need flowery language. Concise, muscular writing argues a point more easily. After all, all you really need to say is what your organization intends to do and how it will benefit people.
Avoid Unnecessary Adverbs and Adjectives
Novice writers lean on adverbs and adjectives. I remember. Writing didn’t feel like writing without puffing it up with modifiers to “paint the picture.” Nonsense. Unless you’re writing fiction that would be dead without it.
Adverbs and adjectives have spice, if used correctly. They’re often pointless for didactic writing required in grant proposals.
Along the lines of omitting needless words, here are some examples:
- “Certainly,” “really” and “truly” — If it’s certain, real and true, you don’t need another word to proclaim it.
- “Significant” or “great” — It’s natural to want to describe your impact as momentous, but positivity described well stands on its own without 11 or even five extra characters.
- Let dialog stand alone — Quotes let program recipients and stakeholders speak for themselves, but don’t qualify them. A quote doesn’t need to be “said boldly” or “said assuredly” to be bold and assured. If the quote doesn’t wield power, don’t use it. Also, don’t use quotes that merely echo the point.
Nuts and Bolts
Grant funders use character and word counts to save their time and yours. If you have 500 words (or characters) to explain your proposal, they want just that much detail. So don’t even worry about how to squeeze each element, no matter how great, into that tiny space.
Give the nuts and bolts. That’s all anyone else will be giving. Whittling a blanket proposal down to key points takes prioritization. What’s the crux? You must clearly and succinctly indicate aspects like:
- Impact (the measuring stick for improvement)
- Goals and objectives (the big target and individual checkpoints)
- Methodology (how it’ll be done)
- Rationale (why it’s important and why your methods are best)
If you can express all of that in four simple sentences — or less — your grant writing is now streamlined.
Drop the Passive Voice
Grant tasks are not done by someone. Someone does them. Admittedly, it’s hard to avoid using forms of common passive verbs like “is” and “are,” but you must ensure each sentence has a subject performing an action — in that order. It cuts clutter.
If you’re having trouble, there’s no shame in contacting a grant writing professional for a free consultation.