Is Your Proposal Overdressed?

March 02, 2015 | 0 Comments

I often have other grant writers ask me about grammar rules. Is it ever OK to use first person? Should my proposals follow a style manual? My boss, or a board member, or my 3rd grade English teacher told me to never [fill-in-the-blank].

To which I say -- this is a tempest in a teapot. And I think organizational style guides are communist plots.

Since I just broke one of the sacrosanct grammar rules by starting that last sentence with a conjunction, I guess you know where I likely stand on many of the "rules" that hem in and constrain our writing.

Am I advocating for purposefully sloppy or poor grammar? No!

Rules have their places. We should not break them lightly. But don't become so enslaved to the rules that your writing becomes hard to understand, or, even worse--boring!

In grant proposals, the levels of expected formality shift depending on who you are writing to. For local family foundations, you can afford to take a warmer, more personal tone. In research proposals, it's all third-person clinical prose. You adapt.

A recent discussion in one of the grantwriting online forums raised the questions of active voice versus passive voice and first person versus third person.

Some writers get these two mixed up. Meaning they think writing in third person equals writing in passive voice. Not so. Although it can be more challenging to put third person constructions into active voice.

And that, my friends, is my major beef against writing grant proposals in third person. Even most of my federal proposals are written in first person. Clarity and space are the two biggest reasons. First person usually takes up less space (fewer words).

In most circles today, third person can sound pompous. You have to engage in some complicated gymnastics to communicate some important concepts in third person.

But don't take my word for it. Two former grantmakers jumped into the online conversation. One wrote, "personally, I enjoyed applications which used first person and active voice, as I felt like the person writing the proposal was more engaged in the work."

A former corporate grantmaker was more blunt: "Passive voice is never compelling or clear; succinct, evocative and personal writing often is."

She went on to say, "Ideally, audience-appropriate, targeted content should trump grammar and style."

Both were quick to say that poor spelling, clumsy grammar, or awkward constructions do not reflect well on an applicant. But they agreed that clear, lively, specific writing can incline a grant reviewer to view your proposal more favorably.

I would love to hear your experiences with writing style and  grammar decisions. Please leave a comment or question below.

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