Formatting: Style and Function

So… You wrote a great proposal. You’re feeling pretty good about it. Wait. What just happened? It turns out your margins were too narrow, causing it to fall out of the first round of screening. Those pesky formatting guidelines…

Formatting guidelines are a big part of the port and polish on your proposal. Every funder will have their own preferences regarding formatting. These guidelines serve a couple of purposes. First, they provide a consistent layout and organization for the reviewers. A single reviewer may have to read dozens of applications at a time, so making the process as streamlined as possible helps them get through applications while still being able to provide meaningful critiques. The second purpose is to provide a sterile background for every application. Each application looks the same on the surface, so the only way to set your application apart is with compelling content. Essentially, formatting guidelines are meant to level the playing field.

Formatting Pitfalls

While they do serve a purpose, it can be daunting to navigate formatting guidelines for a number of reasons. Even the professionals can get tripped up once in a while. First, the rules may change from year to year. It can be something major, such as lengthening or restricting the allotted space for an essay. Or it can be something relatively minor, such as requiring that each section be titled or subtitled within the submitted document. Funders make changes as they see the need arise, so stay on top of them.

Another reason these guidelines can be difficult to navigate is that different funders require an amazing spectrum of conformity. Some may dictate very specific requirements down to the font and size of image captions, preempting creative liberty. Others may simply state page, word, or character limit restraints, leaving the writer (that’s you) to make important decisions regarding layout and structure. In these instances, it is important not to clutter the writing space. Remember that the reviewers are human, too. Having to jump around between figures and text can be jarring. Organization is key, both visually and conceptually. The layout has just as much to say about you as the content. Make sure it is bringing out your best!

Funders will usually release an official program announcement corresponding to each award. Read these carefully and make note of any formatting guidelines. In general, it is best to put your document in the proper font and size early. Each font is different, and any one character may take up a different amount of space depending on the typeface. I’m sure we all remember switching our high school essays to “Courier New” in order to fill up more space.

Top Tips

While we can’t say there are any absolutely universal rules (other than to follow each funder’s instructions to a tee), we can suggest a few general tips regarding formatting.

TIP #1: Don’t use monospace fonts like “Courier” and its derivatives unless specifically instructed to do so. Proposal formatting guidelines generally place a premium on page space, so save all you can.

TIP #2: Use only ONE SPACE after a period. First, the two-space rule is an archaic principle based on the monospaced fonts use in typewriters. The two spaces were intended to provide a clear spatial marker after a sentence where a period was assigned just as much horizontal space as the letter “W”. Double spaces are actually jarring to read in modern variable spaced fonts used in word processors. Second, two spaces obviously take up more page space than one space. This can add up to multiple wasted lines over the course of a multi-page document. Again, save space.

TIP #3: Use the tools provided to you. Most word processors have some tool to count words or characters. USE IT. When possible, save a PDF version that will preserve and present your formatting upon submission. Print layout in a word processor sometimes changes during the print rendering.

TIP #4: Don’t get caught up in formatting too early. Get your ideas on paper! Then make them fit the application. Don’t fret over specific formatting guidelines until you have your ideas organized. Your carefully constructed formatting may end up lost after multiple revisions, anyway. So plan to tackle the minutia as part of your polishing process.

TIP #5: Broad requirements, such as page limits, can help you to gauge how specific you can afford to be. There is a huge difference in the amount of detail you can include in five pages as opposed to two pages. A corollary to this is that there is a huge difference in the amount of detail expected in five pages as opposed to two pages.

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