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The Perils of Perfectionism

January 16th, 2008 · by Jake Seliger · 4 Comments

In The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross says: “Studio heads were confident that Stravinsky’s name would prove a box office draw; Louis B. Mayer reportedly agreed to give the composer a whooping $100,000, which would be well over a million dollars in today’s money. In a review of the composer’s Hollywood activities, Charles Joseph observes that in almost every case Stravinsky demanded too much time to finish the music and too much control over the finished product.” The same is true of journalism, where deadlines rule the day, and the same is true of grant writing, where perfect is the enemy of good—a necessary truism given the deadline-oriented nature of projects. Neither journalism nor grant writing are flawless arts, and as long as deadlines exist that isn’t going to change. Those who, like Stravinsky, want time to work should find another line of business, because additional time just isn’t going to be forthcoming.

There’s a reason we keep analogizing to movies: there’s a fair amount of similarity between the “get it done” attitude apparently necessary for movies, which are a kind of art, and grant writing, which is also a kind of art. In grant writing, working quickly is a large part of the art. Even if you do have more time than whatever the deadline imposes, the end result might not be any better. I’ll switch metaphors to Go, a board game in which two players take turns placing black and white stones. The game scales in difficulty almost linearly and takes five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master—which isn’t where I actually want this metaphor to go, but it’s good to keep in mind nonetheless. The real point: Go is best learned by playing many games quickly, rather than agonizing over particular moves or situations. The game is faster, more fluid, and more fun, and you’ll acquire skill faster than you would otherwise. In the same way, grant writing is best learned by doing: you’re better off writing two proposals of reasonable quality a month rather than one proposal of slightly higher quality. If you continue the two-per month regimen, at the end of twelve months you’ll write two better proposals than the single one you would write if you only wrote one per month.

Later we’ll post more on the subject of how to write proposals under pressure if you’ve never written one before, but in the meantime you should remember that proposals are more like making movies than writing a novel or symphony. Don’t be Stravinsky by implicitly turning down $100,000 because you take too long to prepare: write fast, correct your mistakes, and move on—don’t linger, because you can’t win the race unless you enter. So if you are facing a proposal, the best way to start is with a sentence that attempts to answer whatever first question an RFP asks. Then write another sentence. When you pile enough sentences together, you have a proposal, but if you take too long, it’s not going to matter. Stravinsky was among the Twentieth Century’s most important composers, but he didn’t make much of a difference to Hollywood.

If you’re going to write proposals, you’re going to be in another version Hollywood, and you better meet those deadlines. Keep in mind that any proposal that is turned in late is automatically rejected, no matter how wonderfully crafted.


EDIT: I posted a follow-up article on Perfectionism Revisited.

Tags: Advice · Grants