Grow by Shrinking: Become More Effective with Fewer Words

May is a month of growth. Trees leaf out more fully and flowers bloom. The temperature rises without being sweltering. We slip the cold bonds of winter and the chaotic weather of early spring, and we breathe deeply of air redolent with the fragrance of blossoms and freshly mown grass. I do, at least until my allergies cause my sinuses to shut tighter than a 100-words-or-less organizational description.

As spring’s warmth sets in, we may clean out some of the clutter we accumulated during the long winter. Yes, May is a good month for decluttering our living spaces, and it’s a good month to declutter our writing. By paring down our writing to its essentials, we can be much more effective as grant writers. We can actually grow by shrinking. And not only can we reduce the physical space our writing occupies, but we can also reduce the effort needed to read it and understand it.

What do I mean by paring down writing? We can start by eliminating unnecessary words. I’ll use the sentence I just wrote as an example. I originally wrote We can start by finding and eliminating unnecessary words. Did I really need finding and in that sentence? If I eliminate an unnecessary word, doesn’t that imply that I already found it? I say yes. By paring down the words, we can shrink the mental space our writing requires.

Another way to eliminate unnecessary words is to let verbs do their own work. The word provide is a great anti-example. I often see things like the agency will provide training to staff. There’s a word that means to provide training. Train! Isn’t it basically the same thing to say the agency will train staff? Let the verb train do that work. Another example is located. The agency is located in Jackson County, MO. Why not say the agency is in Jackson County, MO? Isn’t the located aspect of is located in implied in is in? I argue it is, at least in an obvious geographic context like the example. The verb is, in this case, does not need help from the word located. Be on the lookout for places where one verb can take the place of several words.

So how do we identify unnecessary words? We have to ruthlessly interrogate our own writing. In the early draft of this blog post, I spent 20 minutes or so on conceptual organization, going on and on about topic sentences, concluding sentences, and transitioning between paragraphs. It was dynamite stuff, in my oh-so-humble opinion. But it wasn’t really about paring down writing to its essentials. So, I set that section aside for a future blog post. We have to be as objective as possible when examining if a word, a sentence, or even an entire paragraph actually fits into a given response. We have to continually evaluate our writing to burn away the fluff.

Get used to reading your own writing as you write. That will slow you down, so budget more time than you think you’ll need. Read a sentence after you write it. Brutally examine every word. If a word isn’t serving a purpose, delete it. As Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch said in his 1916 book On the Art of Writing, “Murder your darlings.” Have somebody else read your writing, preferably another professional who won’t be tempted to spare your feelings. They should help you identify which concepts are taking up space without adding enough support to your arguments and which words aren’t pulling their weight.

Grant writers must be concise. This isn’t only due to word and character count restrictions. Somebody will read our writing, and that somebody will typically have lots of other proposals to read. We must make our writing easy to read and easy to understand for it to be easy to fund. Be respectful of the reviewer’s time, and get to the point. Examine your own writing with a critical eye and cut what isn’t necessary, and you’ll be a more effective grant writer.

GPC Competency 9: Ability to write a convincing case for funding. Skill 4: Convey ideas clearly.