Writing Well

Writing Exercises by Witheyes on Flickr Creative Commons
Writing Exercises by Witheyes on Flickr Creative Commons

One of the things you get a lot of practice doing when taking on this kind of work is writing – for grant applications, press materials, other supporting documents. There are a few things I have learned along the way, and they may not necessarily be what would get you through a masters writing program, but they seem to work for me:

1. Love the outline. Put down the list of things you want or need to address in your proposal* and then reorganize that in a manner that makes your story compelling. This helps to organize your thoughts and ensures you get everything in up front. (Writing the bulk and then adding big pieces of information can make the writing seem disjointed).

2. Write once, twice and three times. Write your project proposal. Then put that away and write it again. Then if you have it in you, write it one more time. Then take out all three documents and use them to write the final version. I don’t usually manage to do this up front (although often at least twice) but I find that it isn’t until about the third grant application that things are written well.

3. Write in the third person. I sometimes find it helpful to write about the work from an outside point of view. I wrote a press release about myself and my work to get a better perspective of what might be interesting to other people (not just me) and what facts were really important to include.

4. Remember the 3 C’s: Clear Concise Compelling. Check your writing, does it achieve each of these? Or is it convoluted, wordy and interesting mostly to you. Make use of the outline to help with clarity. Also avoid jargon, assume your audience doesn’t know what you know. (Just because the app is for an environmental grant, don’t assume they know what you mean by remediation or urban heat island, or if applying to art grants, while you can assume art historical references, your ability to clearly communicate your ideas is better than using overly academic language). Don’t be afraid to use simple language (more syllables isn’t necessarily better). To ensure that it is concise, try tip #5. For compelling, ask other people what they find interesting about your work/project, you may be surprised.

5. Characters count. Self impose a character count. If there is one already, write generously and then go back and edit, trim, delete and edit again. You will be surprised at how much this aids in achieving clarity & concision (is that a word?) And don’t be afraid to be brutal with your editing, it often helps.

6. Have a busy person read it. My friend Aaron Landsman is a big proponent of this, he suggests grabbing someone on their way out the door. I use my busy or distracted friends. If someone who doesn’t have time to read it thoroughly can both get the gist of the project and get excited about it, then the writing works. Also remember that most of your audience – whether journalists or panelists – aren’t going to have much time to devote to reading your proposal.

7. Use bullets & lists. This is a great way to organize data or call out important information. I always do this for listing project goals or process steps. It enables the reader to learn a lot in a scan.

8. Pay it forward. If you are admittedly a terrible writer or disorganized in your thinking/writing, then hire someone to help you. But make sure that you also learn from them. Have them go over their recommended edits & changes with you and that they explain it to you. This becomes invaluable knowledge for you to use on future writing projects. (Paying a good grant writer to work with you once can pay off for many years of your own writing).

Other resources:

http://www.fireandknowledge.org/archives/2007/01/08/a-guide-to-writing-well/

*I’m using the term “proposal” but most of this applies to everything you are writing about your project.

Do you have some ideas that help you write about your work? Share them in the comments…

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