Plain Writing for Grants Professionals: Four Takeaways
By Heather Murphy Capps
Instructor, Graduate School USA

In September 2022, NGMA hosted the Plain Writing for Grants Professionals webinar, presented by Heather Murphy Capps of Graduate School USA. Below are four takeaways from her presentation. Missed the live webinar? Past webinar recordings are available to members at no cost here.
Clear communication is critical to successful grant managements. Projects often have many moving parts, requirements, guidelines, target dates and more—all of which can be challenging to communicate clearly. Many of us can relate to receiving information written in such a convoluted way it may as well be in a foreign language. But without clear communication, managers can lose track of or fall behind on a project. This has especially been the case with communications between the federal government and its customers. Cumbersome wording of federal documents or communications is inefficient and hampers clear understanding.
In 2010, after decades of smaller steps toward a national federal standard for plain language, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010. Its goal: to improve the effectiveness and accountability of federal agencies to the public by promoting clear government communication that the public can understand and use. While this law applies specifically to federal employees, it articulates a clear standard for all business writing in the 21st century. Grants managers can more successfully, efficiently and effectively navigate projects when they use plain writing to communicate project details, goals and expectations to all involved.
Four key takeaways on the value of plain writing to grants professionals:
1) Understand what plain writing is and how to use it. Plain writing is the 21st century standard for clear, complete and effective writing, no matter who you work for. Plain writing means using conversational, business English.
2) Written material is considered “plain” when your reader can:

a.     find what they need within the first reading and
b.     understand and use what they find.

3) The Federal Plain Language Guidelines are an important writing skills resource for all writers, regardless of whether they work for the government. Guideline components include:

  • Write for your audience
    Use language your audience understands and feels comfortable with.
  • Organize the information
    Place the main idea first; then follow with exceptions and conditions.
  • Choose your words carefully
    Use words that are: familiar, concrete and short
  • Be concise
    Eliminate excess words whenever possible.
  •  Keep it conversational
    Use simple tenses (past, present, future); contractions; and active voice as if- you guessed it- having a regular conversation.
  • Design for reading
    Organize your information so it’s easier to view and read. For example: use listings and headings; consistent typography; and plenty of white space.
  • Follow web standards
    Ensure effective communication online by designing your writing for reading and repurpose print materials for the web. Make your content easy to skim and scan.
  • Test your assumptions
    Test your writing to ensure it’s clear to users and has accurate information. Use iteration- testing, revising and re-testing.

You may find the Guidelines here:
4) Plain writing matters to grants managers because:   

  • Every core competency for grants managers is rooted in strong communication skills;
  • An effective grants management process relies on clear, efficient communication;
  • Clear communication to grant recipients prevents missed timelines, misuse funds, and miss targets; and
  • Plain language ensures effective, transparent and complete communication.

Heather Murphy Capps is an instructor for Graduate School USA, a leading provider of professional development and training courses for the federal government and the private sector.