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Money to Write By (Part 2): Writing a Killer Proposal

I promised to follow up my last blog post on searching for relevant grants [1]with a post on how to write a killer proposal. Well, here we are, at my next blog post, but also in another world. One with far more questions than answers–not just about writing, but about basic life and the shape of the future. I have had too much time during shelter in place to think how useless, or even callous it would be for me to carry on as planned. Will there even be grants for writers in the future? Shouldn’t I write a post about how to navigate the now, rather than the not so certain future?

I am not a navel-gazing sort, and my only advice on how to get through the current day-to-day is simply do your best, forgive yourself often and fully, and give yourself permission to pursue what you love and want to do as often as you can. And that last piece of advice is what convinced me to carry on as planned. Because ‘permission’ to do what you love is often linked to having the financial means to do so. Perhaps it’s naïve, but I believe that when we reach the other side of this transformation there will still be opportunities worth pursuing that will require proposals and applications. Perhaps not necessarily just for writing fiction. Perhaps for getting a job. Perhaps for landing a contract. Perhaps for applying for school or education.

Whatever future we are reeling towards, knowing how to describe what you want to do convincingly, concisely, and purposely is useful. Even if you only do it as an exercise to clarify your own understanding of your goals. So here is a strategy for writing an awesome proposal, for whatever you want to pursue.

How to Write a Killer Proposal

At different points in my career some very smart, successful people (including scientists, humanities scholars, writers, and even fitness gurus) have given me advice about how to craft a good project proposal. Despite their drastically different career paths, their advice was surprisingly consistent and could essentially be boiled down to one cardinal rule and four basic pieces of information.

The Cardinal Rule: clarity of language is of more value than trying to write to impress, whether with style, wit, language, name-dropping or jargon. (Although if you can be clear and witty at the same time, then by all means do so.) A good proposal is not about how much you say, but about how well formulated what you say is.

The Four Basic Elements of a Good Proposal.  Simply tell them:

  1. What you propose to do.
  2. Why it is important.
  3. Why you are the ‘only’ or ‘best’ person to do it.
  4. What you need to get it done.

Include all four of those pieces of information in a convincing and engaging manner (and in the format requested by the application guidelines for a specific grant or opportunity) and you have a killer proposal. I’ll go into a little more detail on each element below, but if you can get to the clear, focused real answer to those questions, even just for yourself, then you can craft a strong proposal.

Element 1: I propose to . . .

In order for people to give you money to work on a project, they will want to know in detail what their money is going to ‘buy.’ What is your project? What part of the project will it support? How does that piece of the project enable you to continue on your path to completion?  Your answer to this question can be as short as a sentence or two; or it can run to pages.

For the writers who make up most of the audience of this blog, my expectation is that the proposal would be to write a piece of (or perhaps all of) a work of fiction. In that case, explain what kind of a story it will be– Is your story about something that is a current hot topic? Something that is a universal experience? Something that simply is a delightful retelling of an oft-told tale.

You want to give a clear understanding of what it is you are working on, but not to get bogged down in extraneous details that matter to you, but not to the funder. Many proposal writers fall into the trap of trying to inflate the importance or the consequence of this part of the proposal either by excessive elaboration of details or by claiming they will produce far more than can possibly be produced. If you are seeking two weeks of quiet residential fellowship to allow you to do a final focused edit of a complete manuscript, then say that. Don’t elaborate on all the distractions at home that have kept you from focusing. And don’t promise to write an entire manuscript in that time.

Element 2. This is important because . . .

In order for people to give you money to work on a project, they want to know that it is a worthwhile project. That you are serious about what you do, whether or not what you write is in a serious vein. Why do we need another book on this subject? What about it is unique? Why is your story worth telling? Does it have the potential to change how people think? Or act? Or to simply take them out of their daily routine?

In many applications, this is referred to as the project’s significance or statement of impact. It explains why what you propose to do is worth doing. That does not necessarily imply something of world-shaking proportions. A focused, narrowly-targeted, but reachable purpose is fine. Helping to end hunger is a good and important topic, a book may not convincingly be the means to achieve it. Raising awareness about hunger and the need to end it is important, and a story that delivers such amessage can have a lasting impact one reader at a time.

Element 3. I am the best person to write this because . . .

Why you? And why are you the one who can write it? What can you show us to make us believe you can do this? If there are already projects similar to this one, why do we need another one? If there aren’t, why aren’t there? What about your project is better than or different than all the other similar projects? What did prior writers do differently or inaccurately that you want to improve upon or even correct? Do you have special experience or expertise that gives you the necessary information to complete the project you propose?

This is probably the most difficult section for fiction writers, and especially for aspiring fiction writers. But the arts (as the last month has more than proven) are valuable, not only in distracting from what is, but for posing what might be. If you simply want to write your fabulous work of fiction, and aren’t plugging in to specific topics or issues, then it’s OK to state that. Just make it clear what is unique about your story, what angle you are taking, what your experience, training, or even research allows you to bring to the story.

Element 4. To do this project, I need . . .

In many proposals, this is called a work plan or project outline. It typically includes a proposed budget, schedule, and a brief outline of what tasks you will be doing to advance the project.

This is where you get down to brass tacks about what the opportunity is going to provide for you that will facilitate your ability to complete the project. If it’s going to pay for you to travel and do some crucial research, you will likely list the research locations and give a travel itinerary and estimated expenses. If it’s going to pay for a couple weeks of time at a retreat focusing on writing, then the ‘budget’ may already be assumed (and consist of room and board), and all you have to provide is a description of the work you intend to do while on the retreat.

This part of a proposal will also often ask for the nitty gritty of what equipment or facilities you need to complete your work, and whether or not you or they will be responsible for providing that equipment. For writers, this is not a hefty part of a proposal, you probably have your own computer, or notepads, or index cards. But if you are counting on internet access or a printer you need to include those needs somewhere in your proposal and make it clear whether you expect the funder to provide them.

The most difficult aspect of this part of the proposal is to find the level of detail that is needed. The length guidelines given in the proposal forms should serve as a guide. For example. Let’s say you are proposing five weeks of travel research to the area in which your story is set. If the proposal allows you five pages for a budget and work plan then you should itemize every stop on that research trip schedule, what you hope to find or who you plan to meet with at each stop, and list local per diem costs for each night. If the proposal allows you five paragraphs, then summarize the overall trip, list the meetings and research stops, and provide an ‘average’ nightly cost per location and the total number of nights.

I know that grants and fellowships for writers are not for everyone. I also know that writing proposals can often seem like more work than it’s worth, when the payoff is often a couple weeks, or a small amount of funding. But I have never gone through a grant proposal process without coming away with a better understanding of my own interest in and goals for my writing.

Is anyone out there contemplating applying for something? What have your stumbling blocks been?

About Jeanne Kisacky [2]

Jeanne Kisacky trained to be an architect before going back to her first love--writing. She studied the history of architecture, has written and published nonfiction, and has taught college courses. She is the author of the recently published book, Rise of the Modern Hospital: An Architectural History of Health and Healing, 1870-1940 [3]. She currently fights valiantly to keep her writing time despite the demands of a day-job, a family, and a very particular cat.

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