The Pains of Plaintext

One of my biggest frustrations with grant portals is that they make writing feel primitive. Most portals only allow you to submit answers in unformatted plaintext, taking away a lot of important formatting tools that good writers use to make their text easy to read and to understand.

Don’t just take my word for it: some of the things in the standard formatting toolbox come recommended by the U.S. government! At plainlanguage.gov you can find a whole set of guidelines about how to be a clear and effective writer. These guidelines are designed for people in government who might write a regulation, a form, or a letter that is sent out to citizens, but the advice applies to a lot of technical writing. Grant writing is no exception.

Here is a selection of some of their tips:

The descriptive text for “Highlight important concepts” is particularly fun to read:

You can … add bold and italics to emphasize important concepts within a particular section …. Only emphasize important information, otherwise you’ll dilute its impact.

PUTTING EVERYTHING IN CAPITAL LETTERS IS NOT A GOOD EMPHASIS TECHNIQUE. ALTHOUGH IT MAY DRAW THE USER’S ATTENTION TO THE SECTION, IT MAKES IT HARDER TO READ. AND ONLINE, IT’S CONSIDERED SHOUTING.

Inspired by this fabulous Wall Street Journal Article, I’m going to start removing these formatting techniques as I talk about them so that you can see what it looks like when you’re not able to use them in your writing1.

Problem 1: Organizing Complex Information is Hard Without Headings

In most grant applications, it’s not a huge deal that you can’t make your own headings because the application is structured for you, with headings and questions set out by the funder. However, I still find myself using headings all the time—usually in one of two cases:

Case 1 - The Question Is Incredibly Long

Most grant application questions have word limits in the range of 100–500 words. Since a full page of single-spaced writing is usually about 500 words, this makes things very manageable, and ensures that there’s usually at least one heading on each page.

However, there are some cases where questions can be much, much longer. In the Year 1 Canada Council for the Arts operating funding application, half of the questions are over 500 words, and the longest is a full 3,000 words, which is about six full pages of text. For one question!

Case 2 - The Question Has Multiple Parts

Quite often, a question will ask you to talk about multiple things in the same answer. Take this question from the Ontario Arts Council operating funding application, for example:

Brief History

Tell us about your organization, for example: the year you were founded, what you’re doing now, the communities you serve, important milestones in your development and how they have had an impact on your current programming.

This question has a 250-word limit, so instead of moving from topic to topic with transition sentences, you can just use simple headings instead like “Current Activities”, “Milestones”, and “Communities Served” to jump between topics without wasting words.

To make sure the reviewers don’t get lost in the sea of your 3,000 word answer or can follow along as you jump between different topics or time periods, you have to use headings, even though it’s not supported in plaintext. The best workaround I’ve found so far is to shout THIS IS A HEADING in all caps and put some extra space before it through judicious use of the enter key. It’s not ideal—it doesn’t help people who might use headings to navigate with a screen reader—and you can’t use bigger or smaller headings to organize your work in a sophisticated way.



PROBLEM 2: YOU CAN'T HIGHLIGHT KEY POINTS OR ITALICIZE TITLES IN PLAINTEXT

Let’s try an experiment. Imagine you are skimming the following paragraph in an application. Where do your eyes land? How long does it take you to understand the main point of the paragraph?

Schools scoring in the top 25% of the Learning Opportunity Index (LOI)2 make up 40% of paid attendees, and schools in the bottom 25% only represent 10% of participants, showing that schools from lower-income neighbourhoods face barriers to attending our theatre programs. However, ABC Neighbourhood Theatre has long run a targeted program offering complimentary tickets, with over 80% of free tickets going to schools with LOI scores in the bottom 25%. As a result, 30% of our total attendees are from schools with LOI scores in the bottom 25%, demonstrating our commitment to serving schools that do not usually have good access to arts programs.

Now skim it again without the formatting. What changes? Are you still able to figure out the main point in only a couple seconds?

Schools scoring in the top 25% of the Learning Opportunity Index (LOI) make up 40% of paid attendees, and schools in the bottom 25% only represent 10% of participants, showing that schools from lower-income neighbourhoods face barriers to attending our theatre programs. However, ABC Neighbourhood Theatre has long run a targeted program offering complimentary tickets, with over 80% of free tickets going to schools with LOI scores in the bottom 25%. As a result, 30% of our total attendees are from schools with LOI scores in the bottom 25%, demonstrating our commitment to serving schools that do not usually have good access to arts programs.

When you are able to put your key points in bold, you have much more flexibility to decide how to structure your writing. In this case, it allows you to use the following logical sequence…

  1. Problem
  2. Solution
  3. Result

without having the reader miss your key point at the end.

When you can’t use formatting for emphasis, you have to write everything like a newspaper article—main point at the top, and less important information below. The only thing you can do to help out a skim reader is to put your paragraph breaks in the right places. IT’S NOT LIKE YOU CAN PUT YOUR KEY POINTS IN ALL CAPS INSTEAD. THEN YOU JUST COME ACROSS LIKE “LOUD HOWARD” FROM DILBERT.


A WORKAROUND FOR ITALICS

As someone who has mostly written grants for arts organizations, one of the most frustrating limitations of grant portals is that you can’t use italics, since they are an essential part of writing titles of artistic works like movies and pieces of music. There’s an easy workaround for this, but let me illustrate the problem first:

Imagine that there is a composer who writes a piece for orchestra called “My deepest, most horrible fantasy”. When I write my grant, I might write a sentence like:

The orchestra performed My deepest, most horrible fantasy in Salzburg last spring.

You can see that the italics really help make it clear that the orchestra did not commit any crimes or heinous acts on stage in Salzburg.

The solution is pretty simple—use single quotes instead. So in most portals, I would write:

The orchestra performed ‘My deepest, most horrible fantasy’ in Salzburg last spring.

The only challenges I sometimes come across are communicating this convention to my editors (I usually leave a note at the top saying something like “single quotes = italics”) and catching myself when I habitually italicize things in my answers. Fortunately, searching for italicized text is actually quite easy in Microsoft Word, so you can just look for any italics that should be single quotes before the text is uploaded into a portal.

Unfortunately, there isn’t really a good replacement for using italics as a method of emphasis. You could use some plaintext alternatives, but they *very* often look _incredibly_ odd, and -unprofessional- to many readers.



PROBLEM 3: LIFE WITHOUT LISTS IS LACKING

So far, I’ve shown you that *without formatting*:

- you can only use ALL CAPS for headings, which is a little off-putting, not very sophisticated, and not terribly accessible
- you can't highlight key points to help skim readers, and you can't italicize titles of artistic works etc. and have to use single quotes instead
- you can't use italics for emphasis, unless you want to look very _strange_.

1. Now it’s time to explore what it means to write without proper lists. As you can see above, without formatting, lists can start to look a little messy and become harder to read. If you want your list items to go on for multiple lines, then the numbering or bullets you use really don’t stand out as strongly as they should. I’ve numbered these paragraphs so you can see what that looks like.

2. You can re-write your lists into paragraphs, but that will make them harder to read (there’s a reason listicles are so popular), it will probably increase your word count, and it won’t give you the benefit of providing some variety in the way you write your answers. The Canada Council application I mentioned earlier is about 22 pages long—can you imagine how much harder it would be to read 22 pages without the occasional list to spice things up a bit?

3. Lists are another great way to emphasize key points. If you want to talk about the three key parts of your strategic plan, a list will make it stand out. If it looks like the three paragraphs you just read, the effect is nowhere near as strong.



NEXT WEEK: TABLES, VISUALS, AND OTHER GRIPES

I have more formatting complaints to make, but those will have to wait for the next post. This is already pretty long, and I definitely need to look up how to make tables in markdown before I keep going…

As a concluding thought to tie all these things together, when I tell people that I’m a grant writer, people often tell me that they think grant writing is uniquely difficult, with lots of traps you need to avoid and tricks and techniques you have to know to be successful.

In an ideal world, it wouldn’t be like this. If you assume that funders want to give funding to the best organizations and the best ideas, then that should be possible without talented grant writers. Putting barriers in the way of clear communication only benefits established organizations who have grant writers on staff. List formatting and ALL CAPS HEADINGS may be small gripes, but they matter because they contribute to a system of giving out public money that is exclusionary.


  1. To make sure this post is still navigable for people using screen readers, the “unformatted” headings are regular HTML headings with all the distinctive formatting removed. 

  2. This is a real metric used by the Toronto District School Board: tdsb.on.ca/Portals/research/docs/reports/LOI2017.pdf