Less is (Usually) More – Writing Lessons Learned from my Children by Michele Ryan

Like many of you, school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have placed me in the – let’s be honest – not entirely welcome position of balancing a full-time career with my new role of homeschool teacher. I naively and, looking back on it, pompously believed that this would be a piece of cake. I have teenagers, not small children who demand constant attention. They are good students. How hard can it be? Hard. Harder than I thought possible. It turns out getting teenagers out of bed in time to make it on their school Zoom calls is a task equal to climbing Mount Everest some days. Yet, despite the many frustrations, I have actually found that we have been teaching each other some valuable writing lessons in the process of countless essay editing sessions. Unexpected homeschooling came right on the heels of a frenzied college application season. Reviewing everything from literature reviews to college essays has reinforced a skill I have acquired over years of grant writing. Concise, intriguing examples, well-structured sentences, and simple language convey meaning more clearly than a laundry list of ideas.

My first application of this skill is distilling down your organization’s 100-year history into 1,000 characters or less. This has become a genuine art form in an era of online portals that require answers to meet strict character counts. I have to say that helping my daughter edit ten million college application answers this fall refined this skill more than an entire year of grant writing. How do you condense the very essence of a human being into such a small little box, all while convincing the reviewer that she should be one of the chosen few to be accepted? Sounds familiar, right? In grant applications, how can we possibly convince a funder to choose our organization if we aren’t able to list all of our accomplishments? The primary strategy I use is to identify a common thread and use examples to illustrate the point. What is your organization’s primary accomplishment during that 100-year history? Sure, you could list a timeline of activities, but what the reviewer will remember is how providing after-school programming for three generations of Smiths resulted in their family’s first college graduate.

Another valuable skill when constructing a concise answer is to keep in mind the old adage, “Don’t use three words when one will do.” It is easy to fall into the mindset of my thirteen-year-old who firmly believes that if he doesn’t use the biggest word he can think of, it won’t sound “smart” enough. Eliminating filler words and using active voice are two simple ways to quickly tighten up your writing. Take the sentence, “Three Kings Theatre Company has been providing audiences with world-class productions for fifty amazing years in the city center.” What happens when you flip the sentence and eliminate the bolded words? You still get the point, but without becoming lost in unnecessary verbiage. “For fifty years the Three Kings Theatre Company has presented world-class theatre in the city center.” Eliminating the unnecessary frees up valuable space to present key points – increasing your likelihood of funding.

As we all work to create a new normal in our homes and our work, look for opportunities to learn something new or refine skills in unexpected ways. Using language in a concise way helps us garner some control and clarity. This is something we could all use a little more of right now.

Competency #9: Ability to write a convincing case for funding; Skill #3: Convey ideas clearly.