Six Tips for Cutting Character Counts by AGS Staff


Online grant applications – they’re convenient, easy to use, and eliminate a trip to the post office. But where there are online grant applications, there are likely character count restrictions. Here are some tips and tricks for writing proposals that maximize impact while minimizing character usage.

Before we start, here are some basic tips for preparing an online application.

  • Always work offline! Online proposals are much easier to write and edit in an offline word document.
  • Copy and paste your responses directly from your offline draft into the online application – don’t retype. Not only does retyping take forever, but there are so many opportunities to introduce errors.
  • Word processors will tell you the character counts of your writing with and without spaces – online character restrictions usually include spaces.
  1. Utilize Active Voice – Not only is active voice easier for the reader to follow, but it also tends to be more concise – meaning smaller character counts! In active voice, your subject (usually listed first) does something; in passive voice, something is being done by the subject (the words “being” and “by” are good indicators that you may be slipping into passive voice).
    What does this look like?
    Active voice: I wrote the grant. (four words; 18 characters)
    Passive voice: The grant was written by me. (six words; 28 characters)
  2. Watch for Redundancy – Redundancy can creep into your writing in a few different ways. Many phrases we use in everyday conversation are full of redundancy: end result, past history, add an additional, etc. Often, these phrases can be replaced by a single word and still convey the same message. Another form of redundancy is communicating the same message multiple times. Ask yourself what you want the reader to gain from each statement and eliminate anything that doesn’t strengthen the case you are trying to make.
  3. Eliminate Unnecessary Words – Like reducing redundancy, there are several commonly used words which do little more than take up space on the page. For example, the phrase “in order to” (11 characters) can be replaced with just “to” (2 characters). The word “that” is also often unnecessary. Reread your sentence without the word “that,” and if it still makes sense, kiss those five characters (four letters with a space) goodbye! Another tip is to limit your use of adverbs and adjectives (grammar recap: adjectives describe nouns; adverbs typically end with “-ly” and describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs). Often these words aren’t necessary to express you point or can be replaced with a more descriptive noun or verb.
  4. Use Acronyms (within reason) – Organization names and program titles can take up a lot of space and will likely be repeated often throughout your proposal. If you plan to replace a commonly used phrase or string of words, spell out the phrase in its entirety and then include the associated acronym in parentheses afterword (Convenient Acronym Technique (CAT)). It is only necessary to spell out the abbreviated phrase when it is first mentioned, and you can proceed using just the acronym for all subsequent mentions (The CAT is simple and saves space).  Avoid using TMA (Too Many Acronyms). It can be difficult for the reader to keep track of multiple acronyms, making your writing a chore to read. A good general rule is to limit yourself to three acronyms throughout a single proposal.
  5. Consider Using Dashes Instead of Bullets – It varies from grant to grant, but the online application may not format your bulleted lists properly when you paste them into the text box.

-One way to avoid this headache is to preemptively format your lists with dashes instead of bullets. Dashes are guaranteed to only be one character in length, whereas bullets can vary.

-Be aware that those oh-so-nice looking indents can take up valuable character space, as well.

-It may not be the most aesthetically pleasing, but a dashed, left-aligned list (like this one!) will do the trick and likely save you space.

  1. Single Space after Periods – Yes, we know… this one is a bit controversial. We, too, were taught to double-space after a period in typing class. We know from firsthand experience that old habits die hard. Don’t worry, this millennial isn’t here to tell you that using two spaces after a period is wrong (that’s a different blog for a different day). We’re just here to state the facts – double the spaces, double the character usage.

Bonus: Have you ever copied text from Microsoft Word to find all your apostrophes and hyphens look like some sort of alien language? That has to do with the way MS Word encodes certain characters and how those characters interact with the online form’s HTML (or something like that…) Regardless of why it happens, we can all agree it’s super frustrating! If you encounter this issue, the easiest work-around is to simply copy and paste the final draft of your grant from MS Word into a plain text file, such as Notepad on PC or TextEdit on Mac (default applications on most computers). This will strip away all the hidden code and aesthetic niceties of MS Word, leaving just the text which should easily copy into your online form without issue.

GPC Competency 9: Ability to write a convincing case for funding.  Skill 6: Follow formatting guidelines.