Revising Your Letter of Inquiry: 5 Essential Qualities

Castro to FDR

Castro to FDR

This is the fifth and final article in our five-part series on how to write a letter of inquiry. Before reading on, you may want to check out the series Introduction. The featured image for each post up to this point has been of a letter that changed history or culture. Today's letter didn't necessarily change the world, but it is an interesting historical artifact. In it, a 14-year-old Fidel Castro asks FDR to send him ten American dollars. Castro ends the note by telling the American president where Cuba's best iron mines are located.

Congratulations! You are this close to submitting your letter of inquiry!

If you journeyed with us the first four days, you know what an LOI is and why it is important. You know the nine essential elements an LOI needs to include. You used the LOI template to generate content for your own letter. Then you created an outline and started writing, using this sample letter as inspiration. Now what?

Now comes the fun part.

No kidding: I actually love this part. This is when your letter of inquiry goes from good to great. It’s the final step that is going to elevate your LOI above so many others. Your LOI is already solid. But if you revise it in order to tease out these five characteristics, it will be all but irresistible:

1. Make It Easy on the Eyes

I find it helpful to assume that my letter of inquiry is the fifteenth such letter that the foundation’s program officer has read that day. For this reason, I try to make my LOI as easy to read as possible. Here are some of my tricks:

  • I write in block format, which means that the letter is left-justified with a blank line between paragraphs

  • Depending on the length of the letter, I use subheadings to break up the text

  • I sometimes put key words or phrases in bold too

  • I use one-inch margins around the document

  • I go slightly larger than single-spaced (1.15)

  • I use a 12-point serif font. Though the evidence is still inconclusive, some people believe serif fonts are easier to read than sans serif fonts. Times New Roman is the most common font for grants, but I prefer Cambria, Georgia, Baskerville, and Garamond.

Some of these choices — the blank lines between paragraphs, the subheadings, 1.15 spacing, full margins, and full-size font — will decrease the number words you can include in your letter. But the trade-off is worth it if your LOI can be a breath of fresh air in the middle of a program officer’s busy day.

2. Make It Fit

One of the most important functions of a letter of inquiry is that it demonstrates an affinity between your organization and the grantmaker. Make explicit, at the very beginning of the LOI, how your project or program aligns with the funder’s own mission and current granting priorities.

There are other ways you should be in harmony too. Is the amount of your request within the funder’s usual range of awards? If you see that they normally make awards of $2,000-$5,000, don’t ask for $20,000. Similarly, if the funder is explicit that it doesn’t give multiyear awards —  or doesn’t fund capital projects, or general operating support, or whatever — don’t ask for those things.A letter of inquiry is not the place to ask a grantmaker to make an exception its own rules.

3. Make It Clear

When revising an LOI for clarity, keep three elements in mind:

  • Flow

  • Precision

  • Accessibility

Your letter should flow logically, organically, easily. The structure I laid out on Day Three will help. But are there awkward transitions that still need to be smoothed out? Are there assumptions that need to be justified, or gaps in your thesis that need to be bridged?

By precision I mean both accuracy and “exactness”. Only cite a statistic if it is verifiable, and make sure direct quotes are correct. Also, linger over some of your word choices. Will they convey the message you intend? Remember what Mark Twain said: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

Finally, is your LOI accessible? Avoid jargon, technical language, and trendy buzzwords as much as possible.

4. Make It Compelling

A [few days ago] I wrote that a letter of inquiry isn’t “bait”. And yet an LOI does need to leave the grantmaker wanting more. How can both things be true at the same time? I think the sweet spot is captured in the word compelling, which often carries a connotation of duty or obligation. In other words, your project should be so well-conceived, and your letter of inquiry so well-executed, that the funder is almost duty-bound to invite you to submit a full proposal. Make a strong first impression and it won’t be your last impression.

5. Make It Concise 

No one is sure who said this — I’ve seen it attributed to Blaise Pascal, Abraham Lincoln, and others — but someone once apologized to a friend: “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

My advice to you: take the time.

To be concise is to be “brief but comprehensive” (New Oxford American Dictionary). Every word in your letter of inquiry should serve your purpose. Need encouragement while trimming the fat from your letter? Check out what these 20 famous writers had to say about revision.

Speaking of comprehensive, it's time to bring this long series to a close. I've tried to put in it everything you'll need to know to write a powerful letter of inquiry. Please do leave any questions or comments below. I'll answer as many as I can over the next few weeks.

Best of luck!