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The Golden Rule of Writing Winning Submissions

Whether you’re applying for a job, responding to a request for proposals, or submitting a grant or award nomination, there is one rule you just can’t break. No matter how impressive your qualifications and regardless how compelling your case, unless you follow instructions, the prize will always go to someone else. Why is it so important to follow instructions? Let’s take a look.

Instructions level the playing field

treadmill-1201014__340Imagine that you find an advertisement for your dream job. The deadline for applying is March 1, but you didn’t see the ad until February 29. From everything you’ve ever read about applying for a job, you know that your chances are best if you write a targeted cover letter specifically for the job at hand. However, your day is already full, and there’s no way you can find any spare time to do this. Instead of sending in a sub-par letter, you e-mail the hiring manager and ask for an extension to submit your application.

You never know, you might get lucky. But if the hiring manager wants to run a fair process, they will decline your request. If they make an exception for you, they will probably feel compelled to make an exception for anyone else who asks for one. But how far does that go? What about someone who didn’t see the ad until the day after the deadline? How about a week after the deadline?

The only decision that isn’t arbitrary is sticking to the posted deadline (unless they decide to advertise a new extended deadline for everyone). You aren’t entitled to your own special due date. Besides that, is asking for an extension really the first impression you want to make on prospective employer?

Instructions make it easier for the people in charge

Imagine that your non-profit organization is finalizing a grant application, and you see that the granting organization has requested a cover page that contains only the name of the project that you want them to fund. They want this information in 12-point Times New Roman, halfway down the page, centre aligned.

bicycling-1160860__340Your organization already has a slick cover page that you’ve adapted to include only the information requested, but the template uses Calibri bold, the text is aligned to the right and sits closer to the top of the page to leave room for your organization’s logo. It is official policy that all external communication must bear the logo, and you decide that your slightly modified cover sheet fits the description closely enough. You even think that the presentation might stand out just a little bit extra for its professionalism, which could give you an edge.

The problem is that you don’t know the reason why they’ve asked for the cover page to be that way. In fact, if you carefully read the rest of the application instructions, you might find that the judging process is blind, which means that the reviewers aren’t supposed to know whose submission they’re reading when they assess it. By having your organization’s logo on the cover sheet, you’re interfering with the integrity of the process. This is likely serious enough to have your application disqualified.

Even if the reason isn’t that specific, think about the people reviewing all the submissions. You might be one of dozens or even hundreds of applicants. The reviewers responsible for sorting, reading, and making decisions on these applications have a boatload of work to do, without the extra trouble of trying to figure out why your cover sheet looks different than everyone else’s. You may well end up standing out, but not for the right reasons. Don’t be that person.

Following instructions shows respect

When you’re submitting an application to win an award, all of your focus is on you or your company. But as much as your application is about your or your company’s achievements, you’re also asking for an honour from an organization that’s investing a lot of energy reviewing submissions from many other deserving candidates. Show respect for the reviewers by adhering to the rules, even if it’s not obvious to you why they matter. They matter to the people organizing the awards, and that should be good enough.

In addition to followingfeet-1137240__340 official instructions, there are two other things you should always do, even if they’re not explicitly written out for you.

Follow the spirit of the instructions, not just the letter. If a question in the submission form says, “Solves a specific problem for your customer”, don’t just say “yes”. Say instead, “Yes, our customer was receiving an unacceptable number of complaints, and our solution eliminated complaints by reducing call wait times.” Be compelling. If you’re only aiming for mediocre, why apply in the first place? This is your opportunity to put your best foot forward. Take it.

Use proper spelling and grammar. Despite the feeling that communication has become more informal in a world dominated by social media, proper spelling and grammar is still expected, even if the rules don’t specifically say so. If words aren’t your strong suit, ask someone else to review your work before you send it, so that you don’t diminish the value of your submission with something that’s easily preventable.

If you can follow the instructions, and follow them well, your chances of success will improve significantly. Need assistance with a grant application or award submission? Email kaarina@onpointwriting.ca to see how I can help you craft the best submission for your organization.

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The wrong picture is worth a thousand words

We saw some spectacular editorial mistakes leading up to the 2015 federal election in Canada. In addition to the post-debate tweet about the “Prime Minster“, we also saw several spectacular photo failures. For example, there was the story about the mistaken salmon identity, followed by the environmental protection tweet that featured the state of Oregon in a tribute to the Canadian wilderness.

salmon

When people start playing the blame game, it’s easy to look at the quality control chain to see what went wrong. Depending on the publication, there are copy editors, managing editors, and proofreaders, who each have a clear role to play in catching editorial errors. But whose job is it to verify the photos?

Editors Canada has established professional standards for four types of editing: structural/substantive editing, stylistic editing, copy editing, and proofreading. Stylistic editing includes “creating or recasting tables or figures”. Copy editing includes “writing or editing captions”. But all this work is focused on the business of words.

Editors Canada also defines various editorial skills. Developmental or project editing can include “design supervision”. Picture research includes “locating suitable photos and/or artwork”, which comes closest to what we’re talking about here. But neither of these are part of the major editing disciplines. So where does that leave us?

First and foremost, responsibility for any piece rests with the author—the person who created the content. But we still can’t help asking ourselves, “Shouldn’t someone else have noticed?” So who should that have been? The answer is surprisingly unsatisfying.

It depends.

Every job, every project, and every task is different. As a freelance writer and editor, I clarify my client’s expectations up front. For in-house employees, communication with your boss is key. When responsibilities aren’t clearly defined, it’s easier for mistakes to slip through.

In any work environment, it’s important for everyone in the quality control chain, no matter how long or short the chain is, to stay sharp. When a mistake goes unnoticed until it’s in print or on screen, does it really matter how many people could have fixed it? The fact is, no one did, and that’s embarrassing for everyone.