Tone and Voice in Grant Narrative

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed., MLIS

steno and pen

Writer's block is a common problem among grant writers. You work hard to collect useful and relevant information for your narrative, create an outline, get organized, and try to figure out what to cut or leave in a narrative paragraph so it passes word count or page restrictions put in place by the grantor.

It never fails! I get to the point of taking the narrative outline and filling it out to make a pleasing and convincing narrative for the grant readers to evaluate and I freeze. The stakes are high, you want this application to be successful, you know you have competition coming from grant writing professionals from disparate organizations, schools, and social service agencies.

You know you are eligible because you've checked with the foundation to make sure it provides funds to public schools (or whatever entity you are writing for). You can't stall any longer. So, you start to write.

Often, what comes out, at least at first, is a stiff, formal recitation of facts: your test and demographic data to support your need, a list of activities you will pursue to solve the problem, your goals and objectives, and data to support your assessment strategy.

On your first read through a common reaction to your own writing is "Ughrrrgh, that's just awful". Your spelling of "ughrrrgh" will vary depending on your general feelings of self-worth, but it's always the same. It's ok, it's supposed to be awful at this stage, you will write and rewrite many times before you submit your application. It's one of the reasons you have assembled your stakeholders in the first place. They will act as proofreaders and provide commentary when the tortuous task of writing is complete. Thank goodness you have friends!

One tip to hold on to: Every foundation, corporation, or government agency that provides grants has grant readers. These folks are experienced; they've been reading grant applications for a long time. They know what the foundation is trying to achieve by the careful application of funds in the community. In the first round of reading applications, they may read hundreds of narratives. You want your application to stand out, be readable and be persuasive. You may draw the line at entertaining, but an injection of humor is not out of the question, especially if you've met the readers and have a standing relationship with the organization. An excellent, thorough article on grant writing style can be found at the Purdue University OWL (Online Writing Lab) site.

Whatever you do, keep your voice professional. These readers wade through some of the most egregious assaults on the English language you have ever seen. I know this because I have been a reader for a number of private foundations. You would not believe the misspelled, grammatically sinful drivel people submit. Keep your voice professional, your tone serious (but not deadening) and above all, your grammar and spelling impeccable. If you have added footnotes (this is often a good idea if you are providing a review of research literature), use MLA (Modern Language Association) or APA (American Psychological Association) rules of style.

To remind yourself of the best writing you have done, go through old college papers, select the ones that garnered an A, and see for yourself. You're pretty good at this, but you just need encouragement and support. Your goal is to persuade, so a review of guidelines for persuasive essays might help.

Another tip, when you've finished your first draft, go back and eliminate redundancies, shorten your sentences (more like Hemingway than Faulkner). Save your long, winding, lyrical prose for the great American novel you know will write one day.

Tips and tricks for a great grant narrative:

  • Be kind to the beloved grant reader.
  • Keep your sentences short.
  • Use a professional tone and voice.
  • Perform positive, self-affirming exercises in the mirror each day.
  • Support your application with strong demographic information.
  • Used an organized approach (outline, footnotes).
  • Avoid the "aaarrrggghhh" by taking breaks and deep breaths.

Remember, you may fail the first time around, but you WILL get better at this.

If you fail the first time, be sure to contact the grantor and ask for an evaluation rubric so you can find out why your attempt wasn't successful. They will be helpful and will share their thoughts freely. They want you to succeed; a good strong application narrative helps them see the beauty of your argument and your solution to the problem you face in your school.