Friday, November 5, 2010

Grant Writing is No Mystery

A good grant writer does not leave much to the readers' imagination. Page restrictions limit grant narratives and require a taut, limited narrative. A mystery writer seeks to spark the reader’s imagination but a grant writer seeks to answer all possible questions directly and early on.  A grant writer who writes grant narrative mysteries won’t be writing grants for very long.

Let’s compare grant writing to the rules of mystery writing.

1. In mystery writing, plot is everything – In grant writing the core is project design, but you can’t really say it’s everything. All parts of a grant are scored and since a nearly perfect score is what you need to get funding, you can’t say that one part of a grant is “everything.”

2. Introduce both the detective and the culprit early on –I like to open each grant with a short summary paragraph about what the grant will do and for whom. It sets the stage for the reader.

3. Introduce the crime within the first three chapters of your mystery novel – This is probably most like the purpose of your grant and here again, I like to introduce that immediately, certainly sooner, not later.

4. The crime should be sufficiently violent -- preferably a murder – Yikes! Well, let’s say that your solution to the needs presented should be compelling, perhaps not murderously so.

5. The crime should be believable – Your goals and objectives must be believable in terms of addressing the needs presented, in terms of scope, in terms of budget, and so on.

6. The detective should solve the case using only rational and scientific methods – In this case, your project manager, principal investigator, of project director should be implementing activities that use rational, research-based, evidence-based methods to meet the needs described.

7. The culprit must be capable of committing the crime – Use real data and cite sources for needs data, cite sources for methods to be implemented that demonstrate to the reader that the proposal and the proposing agency are capable of, and likely to, “commit the solution”.

8. In mystery writing, don't try to fool your reader – WOW, maybe mystery writing is a lot like grant writing. #1 rule in grant writing is to tell the truth. Lay it all out there clearly and succinctly and you will have made the best possible case for your proposal and when it’s funded, you won’t have trouble meeting your objectives!

9. Do your research – Amen!

10. Wait as long as possible to reveal the culprit – This is where grant writing and mystery writing are at polar opposites. If you wait until the end of your grant to reveal important details about your project, you’re sunk. A grant is not a mystery, and those that are receive low scores and don’t get funded.

There are other differences between writing a mystery and writing a grant. The amount of descriptive language contributing to setting and character development are minimized in writing a grant. It may be important to talk about the general setting of the place where the project will be implemented such as, “impoverished inner-city neighborhood.” A mystery writer may have the luxury of using a whole page to describe the dank alley in this neighborhood where the crime took place. A mystery writer may take pages to describe characters but in a grant this is typically replaced with an attached resume for the principal investigator.

Writing fiction and writing grants are not the same, but grant writers who also write fiction develop a variety of skills that cross over. Plain English that tells a story well is a common goal of both grant writing and mystery writing.

(Ten Rules of Mystery Writing taken from:, accessed on 11/5/10)
Photo Credit - Marija Gjurgjan

By Derek Link


Anonymous said...

I love your tips. I am a grant writer myself, located in Egypt. Because most of the funds come from foreign donors, grants proposals are written in english for the most part. I am also a writer and most of the writing stuff that I do in english. I recently quit my job to embark on a freelance writing journey including "grant writing" so being new in this business with a humble experience in grant writing would like to know if there's a certain framework of attitude should be followed besides the aforementioned tips.

Derek said...

Hi May,

Thanks for reading our blog and for commenting here! WOW you're in Egypt writing grants! I'm so intrigued! Please look at our free ebooks and webinars and you'll find lots of good information to help you get started. We are also offering online courses in the Grant Goddess University site at so those may be of interest to you as well. All the best of luck to you in your new career!

About Creative Resources & Research

My photo
Woodland, CA, United States
Creative Resources and Research is a consulting firm specializing in grant writing, grant seeking, program evaluation and professional development training. We have worked with hundreds of clients including public and private schools, school districts, universities, non-profit organizations, and social service agencies throughout California, securing over $155 million from federal, state and private foundation funding sources over the past decade. Our primary grant writers and program evaluators have over 50 years of combined experience in the education and social services fields. At CRR we prefer a personal approach to the clients we work with; by developing long term relationships, we are better suited to match client’s needs with available funding sources. We provide a variety of services to help assist you, including grant writing, evaluation consulting, professional development opportunities, and workshops.