By Sandy Wiegand, Copyeditor and Writer at Joining Vision and Action

Just about every grant application that JVA writes spends some time on my laptop screen being edited, mostly for things like style, spelling and grammar. Frequently, though, our grantwriters ask me to help trim grant narratives down to a required word length or character count. This is a task I actually enjoy (and not because I’m a bad person).

Often, a writer will tell me to feel free to cut entire lines or paragraphs if I see redundancies. Many times, though, I don’t see obvious or unnecessary repetition. And I’m always a bit wary of accidentally removing some key term that the writer has included because their research suggests it will really speak to a particular funder. (Is the population “underserved”? Is the program “evidence-based”?)

Cut out for this work

Luckily, there’s usually a better way. The countless hours I’ve spent trimming wire service stories to fit into newspapers have taught me a few tricks for tightening sentences. (I always wanted to include just one more detail…) I’ve never had a list of these strategies; they just tend to show themselves after I stare at a sentence long enough. But in case they are useful to anyone completing a grant application or just writing anything with a word limit, I thought I’d spell out a few here:

  • Look for sentences written in passive voice and make them active. So, for example, “The book was written by me.” (six words or 27 characters) becomes “I wrote the book.” (four words or 17 characters)
  • Try to rephrase sentences that contain “there is” or “there are” to shorten them. (There are many services available./Many services are available./Many services exist.)
  • When possible, change prepositional phrases (which start with words such as “for,” “from” and “within”) to adjectives. (So, “funding from the government” becomes “government funding.” And “input from the community” becomes “community input.” A “cage for rabbits” can just be a “rabbit cage.”)
  • Change verb constructions with “will + be + -ing form of the verb” to simple future tense. (For example, “We will be applying” becomes “We will apply.”)
  • Trim out the extra word in redundant phrases such as “advance planning” (just say “planning”) and “intense scrutiny” (just say “scrutiny”). Check out this list of some common ones, from ThoughtCo.
  • The following words are often unnecessary and can frequently be deleted:
    • “Located” (“The shelter is located at 123 Elm Street” means the same thing as “The shelter is at 123 Elm Street”)
    • “Both” (Readers will know you are talking about two things when they read the two things.)
    • “That” (“Surveys indicate that families were traveling across the city to access services.” Read it without “that” and it still makes sense.)
    • “Currently” (Readers will usually assume you are referring to the present.)
    • “Total” (The word adds nothing to this sentence, for example: “The crew spent six hours total cleaning up the trail.”)

Slicing for a piece of the grant pie

These are just a few ideas, and you’ll come up with more of your own once you start looking at writing this way.

Of course, this technique takes more time than just slashing full sentences. But when you’re trying to tell your organization’s story in a limited space, it can mean the difference between including that final selling point and eliminating it. You’ll have a great feeling of satisfaction when you cut a couple hundred words from a narrative but you’re still able to include all of the details that are meaningful to you—and hopefully, to your potential funders!