Strengthen Your Grant Writing by Avoiding Overused Words

Grant writing, like other types of writing, is susceptible to words that have lost their impact through overuse. The three words below frequently appear in grant proposals to add emphasis or communicate progress but often fail to do either. Fortunately, they can easily be exchanged for stronger descriptive words that can be more persuasive and precise.

Three Words Worthy of a Second Look

Very: Grant proposals and reports are particularly vulnerable to overuse of the word “very” because of the desire for emphasis. As grant writers, we want to underscore how very large the problem is, how very eager our volunteers are to help, and how much we have been able to accomplish with very few resources. When describing a problem that is pressing and significant, it seems appropriate to use "very" to add to the sense of urgency

Grantmakers may be so accustomed to seeing “very” sprinkled throughout grant applications and project reports that they may not notice the word anymore. Even so, eliminating “very” from your writing can help you write stronger, tighter, more impactful prose…and sound more sophisticated. For example, “very unique” doesn’t make sense, does it? Something is either unique (one of a kind) or not—and if not, it deserves a word other than “unique."

Not sure how to get your point across without using “very”? Try thinking of one-word substitutions for your “very” phrases that provide the effect you want. Some examples include:

  • very large—>immense, enormous
  • very capable—>talented, accomplished
  • very strong—>robust, powerful

Need more inspiration? Check out this list from the South African company Writers Write.

Increase: Many projects have the goal of increasing the number of services or clients served. When writing the objectives section of a proposal, this can lead to an over-reliance on the word “increase." There is nothing inherently wrong with "increase," and sometimes it is the best word for the job. However, often there is a better word or a more descriptive way to frame your work.

"Increase" is a relative term. To use "increase" for a project objective (e.g., "our objective is to increase the number of clients served by 25% over the next year"), you need to know where you are starting from. Without baseline data, you will not be able to measure the degree of change that has occurred during the project period.

There are a couple of ways to get around the use of the word "increase." If you are proposing to deliver services to a specific population, instead of talking about how your project will increase services or increase the number of clients, you can frame at least some of your objectives around a reduction of an aspect of the problem. An increase in clients served is also a reduction of an unmet need for services.

If you are proposing a new project that will use a novel intervention, talking about a reduction of some aspect of the problem is a useful way to discuss your project's potential impact. If you can find data to describe the problem you want to work on, you can use that data to help measure your project's success at the end of the project period (e.g. "According to the city's task force, there are 100 at-risk youth living on our city's streets. Through our proposed intervention program, we will reduce that number by 30% by Year 2").

Reliance on the word “increase” can also be minimized by employing other words that may capture more accurately the kind or degree of change you intend to realize with your work. Some words to consider include:

  • Raise
  • Rise
  • Surge
  • Maximization
  • Spread
  • Multiplication

Improve: Like “increase,” improve frequently appears in grant writing, and understandably so, as the majority of projects are typically designed to improve a situation. However, as with “increase,” improve should be used cautiously. First, it is also a relative term and requires that you know your starting point. If you can’t describe where things currently stand with the issue you are concerned about, you will not be in a position to document how things have changed for the better by the end of your project. For example, if you work with the elderly and you write that through your proposed project your organization will “improve" your clients’ quality of life, you'll need to define what you mean by "quality of life." You'll also need to provide some data (which could be qualitative or quantitative) on where your clients are pre-intervention. Without this baseline information, at the end of the project you won't be able to show how things have gotten better for your clients thanks to your efforts.

If you don't have the baseline data, or if you want to be more descriptive, consider replacing “improve” with a word that captures more closely the kind of change you intend to bring about.  Using the example above of working with the elderly to improve their quality of life, maybe by “improve” you mean that your clients will achieve greater physical mobility or cultivate a larger social network.

Some suggested replacements for the word "improve" include:

  • Develop
  • Expand
  • Lift
  • Recover
  • Recuperate
  • Refine
  • Promote

Making a few adjustments in your writing will not only make your writing more interesting but will also enhance the impact of your writing by giving the reader a better visual picture of what you intend to accomplish. Perhaps more importantly, checking your writing for words like “very,” which add bulk but limited value, can lead you to substitute more dynamic words that communicate your points more concisely and effectively.

Sometimes it can be hard to think of alternatives for commonly used words and phrases, especially those that we use habitually. In the past, the standbys for finding alternative wording included looking in a dictionary or thesaurus. Today, you can try Googling a word or phrase to generate alternatives.

A word of caution: It can become a time-sink to look for the "perfect" adjective or verb, so set a time limit for your research. When your time is up, accept what you have and move on to the next task. While exchanging commonplace words for stronger ones will improve your writing, a few weak words or phrases in your proposal will probably not make or break your proposal.

Recommended Books on Writing & Grammar

If you think your writing needs to be strengthened, below are several books you to add to your library. The books are quick reads and provide useful tips to minimize common challenges with English grammar and composition. Because the books have been in circulation for a number of years, you can find copies for just a few dollars each.

Strunk & White's The Elements of Style is a classic. It is short (about 100 pages), to the point, and covers the essentials. If you only want to purchase one book, this would be a good one.

Another classic that has been in circulation a while is Merriam-Webster's Concise Handbook for Writers. It is a useful reference book, but probably not a book you'll enjoy reading cover-to-cover like some of the more contemporary and entertaining grammar books.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation came out in 2006 and became a bestseller in Britain and the U.S. Focused on punctuation, this book tackles one aspect of writing that is important to get right. This is the most entertaining book of the three and is also a short 240 pages.

To read more about the value of expanding your vocabulary in your nonprofit communications, check out the article "Great Mission. Bad Statement: Why the social sector should worry more about words."   by Erica Mills, posted on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog on January 15, 2016.