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February 2009
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Notes to a screenwriter
Filed under: GENERAL
Posted by: Jon @ 6:04 am

Occasionally in my blogdom, I’m going to share with you correspondence I have with grantwriters and screenwriters and writers of all types. Why here? Because it’s all about storytelling. Some of these thoughts could just as easily apply to a proposal’s program design.

By about page 40 I completely understood why your feedback on this and your other scripts has been mixed. I can hear people saying, “I liked it but….” As always, I’ll try to explain the “but…”

First, your characters are excellent; brilliantly conceived, well drawn and executed vividly. Nothing but high marks there.

Second, your dialogue is also excellent; subtle, a balance of humor and drama and irony and enough of a flavor of the dialect to make it appear authentic. I would go so far as to say that your dialogue easily stands up to that of most professional scripts. No doubt.

The research and atmosphere of your script also gets high marks; essential for a period piece but to not stop the script and make a history lesson out of the thing is a tough task and you pulled it off.

But where your script falls - actually never gets to its feet - is in the basic storytelling aspect. You have all the ingredients of a story but not the recipe for mixing it all together and telling it. In that sense, it was a very frustrating read. For example, with the superbly drawn young mother character who we care most about, you constantly cut away from her and don’t come back to her plight for pages. All basic storytelling stuff. Another example, there’s no sense of who (i.e., the one person) the story is about. Basic storytelling stuff. The story never really takes time to let us get inside the heads and hearts of the character. Back to the young mother again. In the first sequence she burns the body of her dead baby. As a parent, I know that would send me to the edge of suicide, that I couldn’t function, that I would be dying a slow death from the inside. But there’s none of that in the script. She does her deed and moves onto the next sequence - seemingly unphased by what happens prior. Basic storytelling stuff. In the first sequence there’s blindingly fast crosscuts between the burning of the baby and the burning of the building. That fails your story in two ways. It never allows the reader to latch onto a character and two it portrays you as a writer crying out, “This is how my script should be directed and edited.” While that may not be your intent, it read like it was your purpose.

Basic storytelling: Allowing the audience to see the story unfold through the eyes of the main character. The focus should be on simple structure, while letting the emotions of the story and the depths of the character bring complexity to the story.

This is something you’re going to have to really study and work on if you want to be seriously considered. Break down a classic movie - HIGH NOON for instance - and pay attention to how a majority of the scenes contain and are about the main character. Note that some of the supporting players who were actually nominated for awards in that story, had very few scenes without the main character. Had very few scenes period. Study BRAVEHEART. Break it down. You’ll be surprised at how simply the stories unfold.

This will probably come as a shock to you as most of us assume we know how to tell a story. But, trust me, that’s not true. We all like and appreciate and are mesmerized by a good story - but that’s because we’re on the receiving end. And the good ones make it look simple. As writers, are brains are cluttered with so many vital details and story points. But few are the writers who have a mechanism to declutter when it’s time to tell the story. Those are the ones that break through. The rest of us are left puzzling “why don’t they like my writing?” That’s because most of us can see our story in the theater of our minds but haven’t learned the ability to tell that story to others.

It’s the battle of a lifetime. Welcome to the Lifetime Pass.


My new book, RIGHT BEFORE YOU WRITE, applies the FUNdamental principles of storytelling and screenwriting to the program design and grant writing process. Check it out at

Grants and Success Rates - Part 2
Posted by: Jon @ 7:39 am

So, just between you, me and this blog — do the math. Not the defense contractor type, but honest math. Calculate your success rate into a percentage — the number of grants (full proposals, not letters) won divided by the number of grants written.

If the grant writing business were to establish the equivalent of a Mendoza line, I believe it would be the 50% mark.

So, if what you just HONESTLY totaled up came out to less than 50%, you’re doing something wrong. And I think I know what.
But more about that in my book, RIGHT BEFORE YOU WRITE.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of the success rate and grant writers who flaunt it in front of clients and workshop attendees. It’s misleading and it doesn’t take into account extenuating circumstances that go far beyond the grant writer’s control. And, frankly, too many grant writers fabricate — or as they say in Hollywood, “re-imagine” — their success rate to impress potential clients, get more work and charge higher rates.

Some grant writers will tally a positive response to a one-page letter of inquiry to a foundation into their success rate, even though they might not win the grant that follows as a result of that. On the other hand, it’s not ALWAYS the grant writer’s fault that an agency doesn’t win a grant, yet that writer’s success rate will always suffer.

And now I can hear your muttering, “Yeah right, spoken like a true grant writer — and probably one who ‘re-imagines’ his own success rate.” Well, for your information, my actual, honest success rate is — no, never mind, it doesn’t matter. Besides, there are too many other indicators of a grant writer’s worthiness and ability.

To me, a better way to judge a grant writer’s track record is to compare the ratio of the client’s total expenditures for a grant writer’s services over a period of time - say, one year — to how much was earned for that client.

Let’s take my last year with one client for an example. I wrote 18 proposals for them. Ten were state grants, six were federal and two were requests to foundations. It was a loooong year. Seven of those were due within a ten day period! But that’s another chapter…in my psychotherapy journal. Of those, we’ve received news about 16. Thirteen of those 16 were funded. Although three months have passed since the announcement deadline, we’re still waiting to hear about the other three (that too is another chapter in itself). Thirteen out of 16 comes out to a success rate of 81%.

However, more telling, I think, is the fact that the client’s expenditure of $60,000 that year resulted in approximately $13 million dollars worth of grants (some lasting as many as four years). In other words, for every $1 of expenditures in professional grant writing services they earned back approximately $216 dollars. If I were in charge of hiring a grant writer, I’d prefer to know a writer’s more verifiable E-to-E ratio rather than their more inflatable and less verifiable success rate.

Oh, and by the way, my overall lifetime success rate is approximately 75%. Honest. So there. Want to know how I do. Check out RIGHT BEFORE YOU WRITE at