Grant writing in a character limited world

I can’t imagine the challenges grant writers faced before this fancy technological age that we live in. From research to the ease of cutting and pasting text­­­, technology has certainly done a lot for the grant-writing process. I’ve had conversations with people who have been at this a lot longer than me and they speak of driving to get to foundation libraries, or sending away for books in the post and leafing through page after page looking for potential funders. And being a grant writer during the days of the typewriter? I don’t even like to think about that. So, it was technology to the rescue: mostly.

Written by
Charlene Rocha
May 22, 2012

As with many things in life, there is good news and bad news.

In the days before technology came to the rescue a grant writer often had to spend hours leafing through page after page to find funders.

First the good news – ­­more and more opportunities for grants can be identified through online databases of those making grants, as well as through Internet searches. This makes research far easier than in the ‘olden days’. Also, being able to submit grant applications online means you don’t have to factor in time for postal delivery so you have longer to complete your proposal. So, three cheers for technology here!

Here’s the flip side though – most online applications have strict character and or word limits for your responses to each question. For example, sometimes you’ll get 1000 or 2000 words per response to describe your history, need, programme, results, etc. Other times, you may be called upon to fit your text in a meagre 250, 100, or 50 words. And still other times, it’s not even words but character limits so every punctuation mark and space also count. Such limits can give even the best grant writers a run for their money. There are so many good things to say about your organisations and your work but limited space to do so.

The good news is that more and more grants can be found online.

For paper applications, you can reduce margin or font size slightly (only if allowed by a funder of course) to help you meet page limit requirements. No such luck in the online application. In fact, enter one character too many and you receive a pop-up message saying you’ve gone over the limit, or your keystrokes are instantly stopped. You’ve been cut off my fellow grant writer. But, take heart – with practice you can learn to do something you should probably be doing as a grant writer anyway – keeping your text concise while still retaining focus and meaning.

So with that I offer up a few thoughts on trimming your grant proposals:

1. Resist ‘ampersand fever’

The first thought many grant writers may have when trying to shorten their text is to break out the ampersand. Every a-n-d becomes ‘&’. But too many these & those, & I’m being serious here, & your grant can look downright weird & odd. While you save two characters with the ampersand, you gain a distracting element in your application.

Instead: use the ampersand sparingly. 

2. Quick edits

But there is a flip side, of course.

A good first swipe at trimming text can be the quick edit. This is zeroing in on those words that sometimes pop up in your writing that are not truly necessary to get your point across. With practice you will see them more easily and realise they are easy pickings when it comes to quick trims and tweaks.

As an example, I am going to show a ‘quick edit’ that I wrote previously about explaining target population in grants.

Original: target population

Who will you help and why? What gender are they? What age? Do they live in a specific region? Do they all share a common challenge or problem? What income bracket are they from? How many people will be served by your programme? Also, add any other detail that will make clear who you are working to help. Maybe it’s inner-city kids, maybe it’s elderly women, or maybe it’s anyone with ‘x’ challenge or ‘z’ issue. No matter who they are or where they come from, the point is to simply make clear who or what your efforts are designed to help.

Instead: target population

Every word crossed out can be cut to help stay within character or word limits.

Who will you help? and Why? What gender are they? What age? Do they live in a specific region? Do they all share a common challenge or problem? What income bracket are they from? How many people will be served by your programme? Also, add anyother details that will to make clear who you are working to help. Maybe it’s inner- city kids, maybe it’s elderly women, or maybe it’sanyone with ‘x’ challenge or ‘z’ issue. No matter who they are or where they come from, the point is to simply make clear who or what your efforts are designed to help.

3. Be active. Be direct

You might have to find a different angle.

Keep your sentences direct and active. For example:

We help families in need by providing them with food and clothing.


We provide families in need with food and clothing.

The result saves character/text and is more direct.

4. Restructure, reword, tweak

You’d be surprised by the number of times grant writers use more words than they have to in a sentence. It’s surprising how often grant writers use more words than necessary in a sentence. See what I did just there? Word count on the first sentence 20, on the second, 14. Or better yet – sometimes grant writers use more words than necessary, nine words. On the quest to trim words or characters it’s necessary just to start the sentence over and go about it from a different angle.

5. Make every character (or lack thereof) count

Here’s the title I used for this article: ‘writing grants in a character limited world, or grant writing in a character limited world’. There is a difference in only one character, but when you are down to the nitty gritty, reducing a single character here and there can slide you in just before the cut-off point. The moral of this point being that a bunch of small edits can lead to a big total effort.

Good luck in the world of online applications fellow grant writers!

About the author: Charlene Rocha

Charlene Rocha

For more than 17 years, Charlene Rocha has been writing grants for a human service organisation that provides mental health services and programmes that strengthen families. She’s written numerous successful government grants, family foundation proposals and corporate proposals. She believes that the world of grants is waiting for you, yes you. So, rally your inner grant writer and go forth and make a difference.

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