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One of the Open Secrets of Grant Writing and Grant Writers: Reading

April 16th, 2009 · by Jake Seliger · 8 Comments

Good writing is inextricably linked to reading, and this is true not only of grant writing, but of virtually any genre. Most of what you pick up through reading is subliminal: you’re not consciously studying ideas, or rhythms, or structure, or vocabulary,* but you absorb them through osmosis regardless of your intention. You learn words via context, how to understand sophisticated sentences, and the techniques writers use to impart meaning. When it’s time to write, you recombine elements of virtually every writer you’ve ever read; Francine Prose says in her excellent book, Reading Like a Writer, “Like most, maybe all, writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, from books.” After you’ve been writing for a long time, this comes to be so axiomatic that you forget that not everyone knows it.

You not 2_bookshelves_2_smallonly learn how to write, but what to write. With grant writing, if you’ve read The Corner by David Simon and Edward Burns, you’ve read what is probably the best description of urban poverty that exists. If you’ve read Sudhir Venkatesh’s Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, you’ll have still more ballast to add. If you’ve read Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, you know how to describe rural towns so desolate that tumbleweeds count as company and hope for many people means fleeing. Elmore Leonard’s caper novels, like Get Shorty and Out of Sight, are justifiably acclaimed for their impeccable dialog and for their depiction of wise-guys trying to get ahead. The value of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well should be evident from its title.

Reading is more than just books. If you’ve seen our link posts, you know vastly more about a vast array of social issues likely to be the basis of grant programs than you would otherwise. I have hundreds of articles and reports on my hard drive, which I regularly rummage using Spotlight and plain old memory for data and ideas when proposals. If you don’t read, you won’t acquire the stuff from which proposals are often made. In reading, you also learn something of how the world works. If you’re a grant writer and deal with federal, state, and local agencies and you haven’t read Bureaucratic Language in Government and Business, you’re making a mistake, because the book will teach you about why many frustrating things are the way they are.

Beyond content, you’ll also see that grammar, spelling, syntax, and style count. You can find virtually everything on those subjects that you need for grant writing in Write Right!, a book we’ve linked to and praised before before and will no doubt link to again because it’s so extraordinarily useful and terse (perhaps those two adjectives are redundant when combined: were Wright Right! 1,000 pages, would it still be useful?). The book is $10 from Amazon. There is no reason not to have and have read a copy if you produce any amount of prose on even an irregular basis.

It’s important that you know what Write Right! contains, even if you don’t own that book. Steven King says—yes, that Steven King, the one who can’t get no respect—analogizes writing to carpentry in his excellent book On Writing that grammar, spelling, syntax and the like are towards the top of your writers’ toolbox and that you can learn them relatively easily if you want to—and excuses won’t fly:

[T]his isn’t high school. Now that you’re not worried that (a) your skirt is too short or too long and the other kids will laugh at you, (b) you’re not going to make the varsity swimming team, (c) you’re still going to be a pimple-studded virgin when you graduate (probably when you die, for that matter), (d) the physics teacher won’t grade the final on a curve, or (e) nobody really likes you anyway AND THEY NEVER DID . . . now that all that extraneous shit is out of the way, you can study certain academic matters with a degree of concentration you could never manage while attending the local textbook loonybin.

Isn’t that a clever way of putting it? Sure, the passage has a flaw or two—the double “that” in the last sentence is a bit weak and the tone maybe slightly more colloquial than I usually write, but it’s effective. When King writes “local textbook loonybin,” we know exactly how he feels about schools, and he speaks with authority on them, since he’s been both prisoner and warden in them, and it sounds like he wasn’t impressed with his cohort in either role. You don’t develop the skills to show these kinds of subtle cues unless you read a lot and get used to close reading.

I’m guessing King didn’t stop and think to himself, “what word or phrase should I use to show what I think of secondary schools in the United States that will convince the reader I’m on their side?” I bet it just hit him, he liked it, and he rolled with it, much as I picked up his theme and wrote “prisoner” and “warden” in lieu of “student” and “teacher” because so many people do feel like school has many penitentiary aspects (I’m hardly the first to notice this: Paul Graham wrote in “Why Nerds are Unpopular:” “What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren’t told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates.” Herman Hesse wrote about the same issues regarding Germany in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.)

Anyway, King’s point is that you have no business being a writer if you’re not going to learn something of grammar, syntax, and style, and I’ll reiterate it. Furthermore, as King also observes, you already know the vast majority of English grammar merely by being a native speaker. Anything additional will mostly be names (what’s a gerund again? “a form regularly derived from a verb and functioning as a noun,” or, more simply, an -ing word, like working. See? You already use gerunds all the time) or fillips like “omit unnecessary words,” which is by the far best writing advice I’ve ever read or heard. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also the shortest.

Oh, and books speak to each other. If I’d never read On Writing, I wouldn’t be able to cite it here. If I hadn’t read a lot, and read deeply, I wouldn’t have been able to construct this post with the numerous examples that help prove my point and give it the force and authority of a bunch of references and links and allusions to other writers, not all of which are explicit. Speaking of allusion, it’s worth shooting down one other amateur’s canard, namely that reading a lot will somehow “pollute” you. Mavis Gallant’s The Paris Notebooks is worth quoting, by way of Kate’s Book Blog:

There is no such thing as a writer who has escaped being influenced. I have never heard a professional writer of any quality or standing talk about “pure” style, or say he would not read this or that for fear of corrupting or affecting his own; but I have heard it from would-be writers and amateurs. Corruption–if that is the word–sets in from the moment a child learns to speak and hear language used and misused. A young person who does not read, and read widely, will never write anything–at least, nothing of interest.

All this isn’t to say that you have to become a monkishly devoted reader, slaving over Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to be a writer (although the latter is more a joy than pain, which Alain de Botton makes a strong argument for in How Proust Can Change Your Life). Even if you don’t let Proust change your life, you should let someone try to via text if you want to be a good writer. One of the best essay I’ve read about reading comes from Caleb Crain’s “Twilight of the Books: What will life be like if people stop reading?“, which says:

[...] the Census Bureau and the National Endowment for the Arts [have,] since 1982, asked thousands of Americans questions about reading that are not only detailed but consistent. The results, first reported by the N.E.A. in 2004, are dispiriting. In 1982, 56.9 per cent of Americans had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. The proportion fell to fifty-four per cent in 1992, and to 46.7 per cent in 2002. Last month, the N.E.A. released a follow-up report, “To Read or Not to Read,” which showed correlations between the decline of reading and social phenomena as diverse as income disparity, exercise, and voting. In his introduction, the N.E.A. chairman, Dana Gioia, wrote, “Poor reading skills correlate heavily with lack of employment, lower wages, and fewer opportunities for advancement.”

Correlation is not causation, as I’ve repeatedly observed, and merely because you don’t read copious amounts of creative literature doesn’t mean you’re not reading lots of other meritorious—as opposed to meretricious—material. Nonetheless, Crain goes into some of the neuroscience behind reading as well as studies regarding readers’ ability to reason, compare arguments, make logical inferences, and the like. Hint: non-readers don’t come out well. By the way, if you didn’t follow my earlier link to “Twilight of the Books,” you should do so now because it’s a brilliant piece, and even were it not, you should read simply for further grant writing knowledge. I regularly quote it in proposals because the article distills so much about what’s known about literacy and the dangers of its reduction in the general population. It often dovetails with Neal Stephenson’s extended argument about the widening gap between the reading/nerd class in his new novel, Anathem, which posits a world in which the reading/nerd class lives in monasteries, shuns video, and studies abstract logic and math, while the outside world takes the equivalent of happy pills and eats junk food. An early form of these ideas are evident in his much more readable op-ed piece, “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out.”

Reading the New Yorker regularly allowed me to find “Twilight of the Books,” and many of the proposals I’ve written would’ve been worse without it. Now, I’m not trying to be this guy or say that TV rots your brain or whatever else lit snobs say. TV offers some material and allusions that’ll be more widely recognized than many literary allusions, but it’s difficult to quote TV or movies directly and seldom at the depth you’ll need for writing.**

In addition, I’m not arguing that you need reading boot camp. I don’t think you can force yourself to read, boot camp style, and only the actual enjoyment of reading will work. Virtually all professional writers do. If you want to read more, the question arises concerning what you should read. My answer is that it probably doesn’t matter much, as long as you’re reading something that’s been professionally written and edited. In periodical terms, the Wall Street Journal and New York Times are excellent, as is the Atlantic magazine. I also like the New Yorker, as mentioned earlier, although I don’t think I’ve ever read every article word-for-word. But great articles like “Twilight of the Books” make up for ones that grow tedious after a page. The Economist has an impressive grasp on foreign affairs and it’s not unusual for people to swear by Harper’s.

The other major source of good stuff is books. If you read some of the newspapers and magazines listed above, you’ll notice their book review sections, which will often point you toward things to read. In addition, the ten books I most often recommend are:

Fiction Nonfiction
Richard Russo, Straight Man Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence:
500 Years of Western Cultural Life
Alain de Botton, On Love Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd,
The Time Paradox
Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise:
Listening to the 20th Century
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, & Steel
Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

None of these books are directly related to grant writing, but they’re all enormously fun while also being reasonably cerebral. All the King’s Men describes politics and, in a broader sense, human nature; Cryptonomicon is hilarious and insightful, and it’s not coincidental that I cited another Stephenson novel above; From Dawn to Decadence imparts more knowledge about history than four years of high school did; and Reading like a Writer will help anyone read and think better.

Chances are that I shouldn’t have to explain all this, but I read tons of proposals and blog posts and reports that indicate their authors don’t read much, which is virtually synonymous with saying they don’t like to read, because if you like to do something, you’ll do it, particularly given that reading is, these days, considered a virtue, which is pretty funny if you know about the history of the novel. Isaac said that I’m perhaps being overly strident or emphatic in this post. He might be correct, but it’s obvious that many would-be writers aren’t taking the advice given above. Don’t be one of them.

In short, if you’re trying to be a grant writer—or any kind of writer—and you don’t like to read, you’re going to be like a person trying to swim with iron weights tied around their ankles. You might make it a little ways, but it’ll be neither pretty nor easy nor pleasant. Plenty of people in such circumstances flail around publicly on blogs or embarrass themselves privately in e-mail. But if you’re going to write professionally, or even as a competent volunteer, you’re not going to get anywhere without reading, and you’re not going to understand why you’re not getting anywhere or why you’re not getting funded.

single_shelf_2Did you find it easy to follow my metaphor of the swimmer? If so, you’re probably used to comparative imagery, as virtually all forms of human speech are, on some level, comparative, which Steven Pinker argues in The Stuff of Thought. If you didn’t find that metaphor easy to follow, scroll up to the table that’s a few paragraphs above this one.

That’s a good place to start.

EDIT: Isaac wrote “Reading ‘Arugulance’ and then Writing It” as a follow-up.


* Vocabulary is such a good proxy for reading sophistication that lots of standardized tests, including the GRE and SAT, use it. Sure, you can memorize word lists to the game the test, but that’s tremendously cumbersome, boring and probably ineffective. Even then, you still can’t fake a lifetime of not reading by two months of cramming, as I discovered when I taught the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) for about a year and found people who were terrible at the reading comprehension and wanted to know how to improve within weeks. I never had a good answer for them, because there is no way over the short term.

** Notice that the top 100 TV catchphrases of all time as measured by, well, whoever measures such things, contains mostly interjections (“a part of speech that usually has no grammatical connection with the rest of the sentence and simply expresses emotion on the part of the speaker”) and short, simple phrases more noted for their delivery than their word content. On the page, you don’t get delivery: you only get content.

Tags: Advice · Grants · How-to