OWL at Purdue Logo

This page is brought to you by the OWL at Purdue (https://owl.english.purdue.edu/). When printing this page, you must include the entire legal notice at bottom.

Contributors:Dennis Koyama.

This resource provides a general introduction to grant writing and provides information on how to ensure clarity in grant proposals. 

Introduction to Grant Writing


Professional grant writers use clear, specific language to focus the reader’s attention, and to persuade the reader to fund their proposal. Learning to write successful grant proposals is no small task, but the writing process can become easier with practice and awareness of a few common missteps.

No doubt, the first step of successful grant writing is to plan the project, but the second step is following the directions of the granting organization (called, the grantmaker). In most cases, grantmakers require a(n): cover letter, executive summary, problem statements/need description, work schedule, budget, qualifications, conclusions, and appendices (or, supporting materials). Each section will have specific requirements and while keeping to a word limit is straightforward, being specific is less easy.

A Note on Following the Grantmaker’s Rules

Following directions helps the grantmaker read applications efficiently. Specificity of content will not only vary by grantmaker, but also by proposal sections. For example, a grantmaker may limit your application in general terms for background information on the contexts of your proposal:

“Please tell the grant committee in 2 to 3 pages about the support your institution or community will provide for your project if your proposal is granted the requested funds.”

Likewise, a grantmaker may explicitly limit your response to a section on the grant applicant’s qualifications by stating:

“In no more than 350 words, please summarize the grant applicant’s specific qualifications to manage the finances of the proposal. Discuss any financial experience (for example, certifications in accounting services), or other relevant office managerial duties that will help the applicant distribute funds and write regular quarterly financial reports.”

Keep in mind that many grantmakers will not read past the point of your departure from the application rules, no matter how worthy the project is or how neat and well designed the application package looks. So, while there is no guaranteed way to win a grantmaker’s funds, not following directions is a sure fire way of losing your chances at getting any funds. Ultimately, not following directions indicates carelessness—which is not a characteristic of a promising proposal.

Contributors:Dennis Koyama.

This resource provides a general introduction to grant writing and provides information on how to ensure clarity in grant proposals. 

Specificity in Writing: Say Exactly What You Mean

Some authors struggle with specificity because they do not want to claim an absolute. Claiming an absolute usually has to do with using “absolute terms,” such as: all, none, every, never, always, and the like. For example, “All school buses are yellow behemoths that take up every inch of the road.”  This statement is false.  There are school buses that are not yellow and not large. Additionally, buses cannot “take up every inch of the road” because they would crash into oncoming vehicles and they could not maneuver street corners. This language might artistically portray attributes such the physical size and color of a school bus—but grant writing is not usually the best place for such imagery.

Alternatively, absolute language creeps into writing by way of generalizations. Generalizations can come from statements that do not use absolute language such as “all” but include terms that categorize people, places, things, or actions. For example, “Today’s music is loud and obnoxious, unlike the classic sounds of Mozart.”  This sentence generalizes all current music by stating, “Today’s music” which includes the more tranquil modern compositions of classical orchestras around the globe. Not all music composed in modern times is “loud and obnoxious” so using the general term “today’s music” is stating an absolute through a generalization.  Besides, what do “loud” and “obnoxious” mean? Here is another, “Americans eat too much meat.”  This is also false, as some Americans are vegetarian. For ways to work around such absolute language, see the handout on hedging.

Writing specifically does not have to be dry, but it needs to be clear. And a clearly written proposal is no accident. Grantmakers read many applications so they will embrace and appreciate your getting to the point.  his means your proposal must specifically state your issue, and how you will employ the requested funds. Consider the following examples:

General term

More specific term

Very specific term

Young students

Middle school students

Students aged twelve to fifteen

Night time

After 7 PM

Between 7PM and 10PM central time


Corn farmers

Corn farmers with less than 50 square acres of farm land

Math teachers

Algebra teachers

High school algebra teachers with more than 15 years of teaching experience

Marital status


Never been married


Consider the following question: “How will you use the purchased equipment?”

Non-specific response:

Nestled in the foothills of The Bright Peak Alps, the largest mountain range in the state, Bright Valley high school students will use the purchased technology to study the magnificent summer stars.

More specific response:

From May 3rd to August 5th, Bright Valley high school student-members of the solar-science club will identify and catalogue constellations with the Hyper-Scope 225.

The non-specific response offers colorful descriptions of the high school’s location and the stars, but it does not give useful information.  First, summer time is not the same time of year around the globe.  Second, the non-specific response does not designate which students will use the purchased equipment, nor does it mention what they will do with the equipment—which is the thrust of the original question.  Specificity of the population, however, is directly related to the goals of the proposal.  If there are broadly defined goals, a more general description may be appropriate for your proposal.  The point here is, as an author you will have to decide the degree of specificity your proposal needs according to the grantmaker’s requirements.

As you plan your proposal, remember that it is important to:

Specifically state the desired outcomes of your project.  This is can be done by stating clear, measurable objectives, for example,


Students will improve their test scores on end-of-the year tests.

More specific response:

Participating students in the after school support program will improve their beginning-of-the-year test scores by 10% on end-of-the year state-mandated tests.

The non-specific response does not give useful information on what tests will be used; “end-of-the year” is when the test will be not which test will be used (remember to avoid jargon in your application). The more specific response includes when and which test will be used, and it clarifies the ambiguous word “improve” to a quantifiable amount. Not all learning measures are captured in percentage points, but the point here is vague terms such as, “improve, raise, lower, decease” indicate a direction not an amount. How much impact will the grantmaker get for their investment? Showing this is an important consideration for grant applications that seek a change in condition.

Specifically describe the methods you will implement to attain your objectives, for example,


Students will participate in reading improvement lessons lead by volunteer teachers after school.

More specific response:

Students will learn the 25 most common prefixes and suffixes for reading vocabulary in a two hour after school support program that will be led by state-certified literacy specialists.

The non-specific response does not give specific information about what the students will learn, who will teach the students, nor does it provide a way to know if the proposal is making progress. This is an important element for some grantmakers as they may require a detailed mid-term progress report.

Specifically state how you will know whether the proposal’s objectives have been achieved.


Students will be tested every ten lessons, and will score at least 80%.

More specific response:

After completing ten lessons, students will take a timed 25-item multiple choice achievement test that has 20 items based on materials covered and 5 items to help identify areas for improvement in the next level of lessons. Successful students will answer 80% of the materials covered items correctly.  Items scored incorrect will be “recycled” into the next testing session. Students who score less than 50% on the timed 25-item tests will not be allowed to proceed to the next level of lessons, and they will not be permitted to take the same level test until 5 remedial lessons have been completed.

While the non-specific response seems to give specific information, there is a disparity in the quality of information in the specific response.  This whole story description available in the specific response gives the grantmakers useful information and provides evidence that your project is well planned and organized.

Additional OWL resources you may find useful:

Imprecision in writing can result from ambiguous pronouns or poorly constructed relative pronouns in non-defining clauses, so a sentence level approach to editing is also needed.  

Contributors:Dennis Koyama.

This resource provides a general introduction to grant writing and provides information on how to ensure clarity in grant proposals. 

Clarity in Writing: Avoiding the Department of Redundancy Department

The last tip on writing grants is to conserve words that are doing double duty.  For example:

better improvements” Improvements are by definition “better”, use “improvements”. 

 “Both teachers and students” This is the equivalent to saying, “teachers and students”. Some authors will argue that using “both” is a way of emphasizing “teachers and students,” but this could be done with italics, which is what italics were designed for—emphasis: “teachers and students”.

It is important to edit word-level redundancies like “unique, one-of-a-kind opportunity,” but it is also important to turn attention to longer phrases, such as:

“The entire math department, including the department head and new teachers, will fully participate in the support tutoring sessions” The phrase, “the entire math department” implies the whole department (new teachers and the department head, alike), “support tutoring sessions” is redundant because “tutoring sessions” are “support sessions”. Further reduction might yield the sentence, “All math department teachers will conduct the tutoring sessions.”

Here is another example:

Needs improvement

Every student in all grades will create, organize, and produce an personalized individual portfolio that includes all the writing assignments from the entire academic school year.”


“Each student will make a writing portfolio that includes all their work from the school year.
Additional OWL resources you may find useful:

Some authors have found help with sentence clarity by using the paramedic method and by not over using hedgingPlagiarism is a concern of many authors, and help with quoting, paraphrasing and summarizing is also available on the OWL. Information on how to personalize and getting started with editing and proofreading can be found here.

Contributors:Dennis Koyama.

This resource provides a general introduction to grant writing and provides information on how to ensure clarity in grant proposals. 

Making the Request

After your opening, you should make your request. This is arguably the most important part of your letter and should be the most informative. Your recipient should be able to make an informed decision about whether to donate, and including the following in your request will help them do so:

Describe and Justify the Need

Be specific and clear about what your need is. If you want your audience to contribute, they must first believe that there is a need. This explanation should go beyond the obvious – the need for a donation. For example, if your college organization needs money to attend a conference, explain why your organization needs to attend the conference, not just why they are in need of monetary donations.

Consider how to best convince your audience that there is a need. What information will they be more likely to respond to? Generally, relevant quantifiable data such as statistics and other numerical data should be included, if available, to help describe and justify a need. You may choose, however, to describe the need using a brief story or by quoting those who have been involved in your particular program or event in the past.

It may be the case that meeting the need you described will be or can be seen as difficult. For example, if there is a tight time constraint. If there are possible obstacles to your success that are easily identifiable, don’t ignore them. Instead, mention and then counter them – briefly. Minimize them by showing the competency of the group on whose behalf you write.

Ask Clearly

Your audience should know exactly what it is you are asking of them. For example, if you are requesting a contribution in the form of product, your audience should know how much product – a particular monetary amount’s worth? A particular number of items? Even if you are willing to take any amount, state your goal amount. Being unspecific may come across as unorganized, unprofessional, and makes your audience less likely to contribute.

Remember that you can (and often should) ask for different contributions from different recipients, based on their resources and your relationship with them. Remember that the other aspects of your request should be modified to fit the type of contribution you are requesting. You may also choose to provide several donation options for your recipient to choose from.

Be sure to ask more than once. It is customary to ask once near the beginning of your letter, and once again before closing. Never apologize for asking or for imposing on your recipient’s time. Your request should be reasonable and mutually beneficial, so there is never anything to apologize for.

State Benefits

Ultimately, the contribution should clearly benefit not only your cause, but your audience as well. Make sure that you state clearly and in concrete terms what the donation you are requesting will do for both parties, particularly if you are writing to a business or other formal organization.

For you:

When requesting a donation from your audience, make it clear what their donation will do. After all, you have just convinced them of the need for their donation, and now you must show how their donation can and will meet that need. It is important to provide concrete, specific details to help your audience imagine the impact of their donation and to support your professional ethos as an organized individual or group.

For instance, if you are requesting donations in increments of $5 for an after-school Thanksgiving dinner, tell your audience how far $5 will go with detail: “A donation of $5 will provide a hungry middle-school child with a home cooked turkey dinner”. Don’t forget to include details about the benefits of the different options available, if there are any.

For them:

For most formal or professional organizations, donating is ultimately a business transaction. They may have a specific budget set aside for donations, and you certainly won’t be the only one vying for their resources. Therefore, it is important that your audience sees how their donation will benefit them directly. The benefit for the audience should be clearly identified and should meet their particular values and needs. Possible benefits are:

Whatever you promise your audience, be sure that you can deliver, and make sure to show your audience that you can deliver. For instance, if you promise publicity at an event, provide statistics related to how many individuals, businesses, etc. have attended your events in the past. You need to be able to not only provide these benefits, but to convince your audience that you can provide them.

Provide a Path of Action

Now that your audience knows what you need, why you need it, and what their donation will accomplish, tell them exactly how to proceed. What is the next step? Do they mail in an enclosed envelope? Do they call the sender? Do they go online and fill out a form? However you want your recipient to proceed, make sure that it is clear and simple. Making their next move as easy as possible will increase the chance that they will complete it. For instance, you could include a pre-addressed and stamped envelope with your letter, if it is in your budget.

If you are requesting monetary donation, your audience should know how to send their money. By check? Money order? Online? In person?

It is also important that you include a time frame. When do you need to know if they will contribute? Is there a formal deadline? Is the need urgent or ongoing? Can they still contribute to you or your organization after the event has passed?

Contributors:Dennis Koyama.

This resource provides a general introduction to grant writing and provides information on how to ensure clarity in grant proposals. 

Language Considerations When Writing Donation Request Letters

Successful donation request letters are specific, conversational, and concise.


The tone you use will depend on your audience, but a general rule when writing donation request letters is that using informal language will help you to connect with your audience. When describing your cause, your needs, and your request, choose language that is approachable rather than stiff and technical.

Use “you” to address the recipient directly and personally. Although your letter needs to introduce the sender and the sender’s cause, focus more on the recipient, how they can donate, and what their donation will accomplish. Rephrasing statements about you or your cause to focus on the recipient and using “you” language helps do this. Similarly, referring to the body you represent as “we” will help make the letter sound more personal.


Being clear and specific is a good practice in writing in general, but it becomes especially important when you are stating a need and suggesting a path of action to your reader. The more specific your writing is, the more clearly audience will be able to imagine the situation and the impact they could have by donating to your cause. For more infomation on specificity in writing, see the resource located here.


It is important to be concise when writing a donation request letter. You want to include only as much information and as many details as are necessary to accomplish all the things your request must. Because your audience is preoccupied and your medium is limited (one or two pages), you want to make the best use of your space by being concise and efficient. For more information on writing concisely, click here

Be strategic when editing your letter for conciseness. For instance, your description and justification of your need should be the most substantial, though still concise. This section of your letter must convince your audience to donate, while the introduction to your company or organization may not need to be more than a line or two, especially if you’ve included supplemental materials.