Freelance Fridays: What is Grant Writing?


It’s one of those phrases one hears in random snippets of local conversation: So-and-so “wrote a grant,” and now Anytown, USA, is getting a new skate park, or walking trail, or pilot program. Lucky Anytown. Looks like they got some money. We’d like some money. How do we get money?

What the heck is “writing a grant,” anyway?

Freelance Fridays: Coffee
Drink up freelancers, it’s Friday!

Grants are awarded based on submitted applications. There’s a word missing in this colloquialism; properly speaking, it ought to be “writing a grant proposal.” “Grant writing” denotes the practice of applying for grants, which typically includes actually writing a lengthy, heavily detailed proposal or filling out an application form. An effective grant writing process is designed to cover every aspect of the applicant’s desired project to the satisfaction of the reviewers who will be reading the finalized application, from outlining the work to be done to presenting a persuasive case for the desired funding amount.

Grants are a means of funding specific types of work. The money can come from federal, state, local government, or private sources. Depending on the eligibility criteria, it can go to an individual, a nonprofit, a business, or an agency. Very broadly speaking, grants are not given with an expectation of repayment. They are not loans. However, the money is designated for more or less specific types of projects, and whoever is providing the grant may require the recipient to prove the money was spent as intended.

Grants can be restricted. That means the funding sometimes comes with very tight strings attached. Typical grant restrictions include requiring the recipient to account for all expenses paid with grant funds, and specifying how the recipient can or cannot spend the money.  For example, one might be permitted to purchase certain items for a project, but not to pay volunteers or the electric bill. When working with restricted grants, any associated project expenses not allowed by the grant must be handled using a different funding source.

Grants often don’t cover the applicant’s entire project. They aren’t exactly “free money”: While not every grant program out there will require applicants to come up with a “match,” this expectation is extremely common. The reasoning is straightforward; an applicant who contributes something of his or her own to a project has a greater incentive to see it through to completion. The applicant will, in most cases, need to come up with cash or in-kind offerings, either to meet grant match (cost-share contribution) requirements or to pay for expenses not covered by the grant award.

The grant writer’s primary role is to clearly explain why the client’s project deserves to be funded. In order to make that argument, the grant writer must have a firm grasp of not only the grant requirements but also the client’s end goals. A well-drafted proposal from an experienced grant writer can be critical to an applicant’s chances of achieving funding success.


Writers Wednesday: Setting Great Expectations


I’m in the middle of reading a rough draft from a family member. It’s amusing, in a nature-or-nurture way, to see how similar our writing styles have become over time. We’re not big on longwinded passages dedicated to nervous Ralph inhaling the scent of the yellow tuberoses entwined about the trellis on Annabelle’s columned front porch, no matter how heavy with heady fragrance their blooms might be. Nor do we much care about the stately columns gracing the front of the antebellum mansion and the Spanish moss drooping from neighboring trees. We like stories, and we like getting to them fast.

red pen and ink
It’s Wednesday, writers! You know what that means.

Writers who spend half their novels on setup and backstory, working in endless lovely details, run the risk of finding themselves with beautifully boring books. Crafting literature that will stand the test of time is an immense art, perhaps too lofty a goal for the average writer. For those with such a strong literary bent, however, less is still more. The purpose of a novel is to tell a story, preferably an interesting one. Anything that does not enhance the story takes away from it.

What of setting, then? Surely we must include some descriptions in our tales. How else would readers know where or when they were? It’s really quite simple. Setting is how your readers connect to the world in which your story takes place. Think of it as the opening moments of a play, the beginning camera shots of a movie. In theatre and film, we call it “mise-en-scène.” When you write the setting portions of your book, you are effectively setting the stage for the reader to witness the action that is to come.

In that respect, setting is at once paramount and marginal. The details of setting are essential to guide the reader through the narrative. Yet setting’s proper place is in the background. It is there to inform, not to take control. Like seasoning, setting requires finesse: too little, and the reader is lost; too much, and the reader is overwhelmed. A book overloaded with setting is out of balance. Too often, it comes at the expense of story: The reader is getting style over substance.

Setting is not difficult to get right, but it is time consuming. Writing a setting that will immediately deposit readers into a front-row seat takes specifics and attention to detail. Ultimately, setting is about answering some very important questions, hopefully before the reader thinks to ask them: Where are we? When are we? Who is here? Why are we here? What are we doing here?

If your setting isn’t answering those questions quickly and concisely, without detracting from the story itself, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Is it uselessly vague? Or is it chock-full of meaningless details?

What setting difficulties have you encountered?

Freelance Fridays: Lessons From a Failed Grant Application


Everybody falls now and then. Photo via Visual Hunt

A deadline blew by this week.

Not on purpose, of course. I didn’t know about it until after it was far too late. That’s the thing with deadlines, though. Each time you miss one, you stand to lose major opportunities. This one got expensive. You don’t get jobs if you don’t pursue them, and making this deadline was particularly important.

It’s a good a time as any to talk about failure, I suppose.

It’s Round 2 for a grant I reached for—and lost—last year. In preparation for the new grant cycle, I’ve been going over the previous application, searching for ways to improve my client’s chances of success.
The thing with grant writing, of course, is that there’s no guarantee that a particular application will work. They’re mostly long-winded crapshoots. It’s entirely possible that I won’t win anyway, because crapshoots are like that. Still, I found a few takeaways from my previous attempt that I’m working on for next time.

Freelance Fridays: Coffee
Drink up freelancers, it’s Friday!

We bit off too much. The original project scope was not narrow enough, which became clear in hindsight. We were trying to do too many things at once. I don’t believe we requested too much money; if anything, we could have asked for more. We needed a tighter vision of what we wanted to do, however, and we needed to present it more clearly.

Resolution: Examine the project proposal for components that seem too vague or do not fit well with the other elements, and throw them out. Work with the client to fund those parts of the job another way.

We didn’t have all our ducks in a row. At application time, we still needed certain permits. In addition, there were a few feasibility questions that had not been fully resolved. Had we gotten the money but failed to obtain the rest of the documentation we needed, the entire project could have been held up or scrapped.

Of course, we didn’t have to have all the details perfect before applying, and we made a good case for why we expected things to work regardless. Unfortunately, in a very competitive environment, minor details are make-or-break things.

Resolution: Obtain the outstanding permits. Review any remaining potential holdups and discuss what parts of the project could still go forward, no matter what.

My client didn’t have skin in the game. It’s quite typical for grant programs to require recipients to put up matches, either cash or in-kind. The reasoning is pretty simple: Why should the program give you money for your project if you aren’t willing to pitch in yourself? If the applicant doesn’t have money to add to the project pot, an in-kind contribution (think donated time, labor or physical items) may be acceptable. But while this particular program “recommended” applicants plan to put money in, it didn’t “require” them to do so. Of course, that meant some people were going to ask for money without expressing intent to contribute anything on their own. Others knew better. Which would you fund? Yeah, I thought so.

Resolution: Work with the client to determine how the client will be contributing to the project, and rewrite the application to reflect that change.

What have you learned from your writing failures?

Writers Wednesday: Thunder and Brainstorm


Writers are notoriously secretive. We use fake names. We like to play our cards close to the vest. Fellow writers are competitors as much as potential collaborators. Somewhere, deep in the recesses of every writer’s mind, lies the fear of idea theft. The hack peddling a knockoff version of our literary progeny. The common plagiarist. The blabbermouth partner. We protect our developing work with parental ferocity.

Intellectual property fears aren’t the only reason we hesitate to share. You’ll find plenty of advice telling you to keep your story a secret, with good reason. A few years ago, I shared a piece of writing with someone who had minor connections to an industry I was interested in working for. I got ripped apart and then some.

I wasn’t ready for that level of criticism. Nor was that person qualified to give it. That one bad review–more like a personal attack–not only permanently damaged my longtime friendship with that individual but also ended any serious attempts to break into that field. I was done.

Pursuing a writing career requires the ability to develop a cowhide-thick skin. There is a difference, however, between finding oneself on the un-fun end of a tough critique from an industry expert and being subjected to a nasty dress down by someone who has no idea what he or she is talking about.

red pen and ink
It’s Wednesday, writers! You know what that means.

Much of the advice about keeping stories under wraps is aimed at protecting writers from those unprovoked attacks by typically well-meaning, occasionally jealous, but always ill-informed friends, relatives, and writing-world acquaintances. A budding story, entrusted to the wrong hands, can be shredded to the point of unrecognizability and shoved into a drawer. Although rescuing the world from one more terrible book could be construed as a public service, damage occurs whenever talented would-be creators are injured.

Yet telling writers they must go it alone until the story is a perfectly polished pearl is equally problematic. Nobody successfully walks the path to publication alone. There are teachers, sources, editors, agents, critics, layout experts, graphic designers, photographers, advertisers, illustrators, promoters, and countless others involved in every publishing medium. You won’t build a prominent writing career by yourself. Why would you expect to craft the Great American Novel (or anything else) without help?

Your novel will come to a screeching halt at some point in your writing process. If it doesn’t, you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough. You will find yourself contending with implausible story arcs, confusing characters, boring filler moments. You will question everything, and the temptation to throw it all into the nearest paper shredder, never to be seen again, will be palpably real. Perfectionists, recognize.

There are two things you could do next. You could follow the technique prescribed by NaNoWriMo coaches: Ignore your inner editor and push ahead. Get the words on the page. All systems go. Forget the mess, you’ll clean it up later.

Or, you could recognize that some problems are simpler to fix before you hit revisions. Keep writing, but make notes of the things you need to fix: this character’s behavior, that subplot, those research holes. And never underestimate the power of a good brainstorm session. You don’t have to share your ratty early drafts or adopt anyone else’s changes, but opening a conversation about a specific issue that is giving you pause can send a fresh jolt through your creative process.

Earlier this week, I went into a brainstorm session feeling that my protagonist and a secondary character didn’t go together. The story was morphing into two different books rather than main plot and subplot, and I needed to take back control. I came out of that conversation–which naturally covered a ton of ridiculous, insane plot pitches–with slightly more confidence and a few workable ideas. Also, by addressing the issue at the first opportunity, I didn’t let myself write my way into a corner, and I didn’t put myself in a position where several chapters would have to be heavily redlined or tossed out. Instead, I’m going back in with a game plan.

Have you tried brainstorming your way out of writer’s block?

English as a Second Language: What’s in a Game?

One thing we’ve learned as foreign exchange parents is that homesickness pops up at random moments. Social isolation, no can do. Enter family game night.

Apples to Apples, and its much dirtier sibling, Cards Against Humanity, make frequent appearances in our circle. If one must play a board game, it might as well be an entertaining one. Find an extra chair and deal another handful of cards, and you can keep a whole party going. Somewhere during the process of deciding what to play the other night, it occurred to me that there probably is no simpler game out there for building English vocabulary.

There are plenty of other word games, of course. Classics. Boggle. UpWords. Scrabble. Taboo. But I have not seen one so amenable to breaking the ice around the table and expanding an ESL student’s understanding of English nuances than a solid round of Apples to Apples. It’s easy, it’s squeaky, G-rated clean, and it never fails to get everybody talking.

The premise is simple enough: Each player chooses a noun card–a person, place, or thing–and tries to match it to the adjective card displayed on the table. “Hungry” might be paired with “vampires,” or “peanut butter and jelly.” Of course, not all matches are great ones, and general hilarity ensues. It’s a perfect opportunity to discuss exactly what the words being played mean and explain how to use them correctly.

Our student picked up the rules just fine, well enough to win and beg for a second round! Language is easiest for students to acquire when we treat it as the functional creation it is. And vocabulary lessons are much more fun when you make a game out of them.

What’s your favorite vocabulary game?