10 tips toward better grant writing

Johnny CashHappy New Year everybody. I hope your holiday has been restful and productive. Mine has been….productive, as I’ve been participating in the yearly ritual of grant-writing over Xmas break.

Grant writing serves two purposes to the academic. It is first a way to get money. Money is good, and allows you to do stuff.

Another reason field biologists spend winter break writing grant proposals is that it’s a logical time to plan for the upcoming field season. What are the next steps in your research program (or programme, if you prefer your vocabulary spiced up with a few extra letters)? A convincing grant proposal will convince you of a course of action that will occupy a significant chunk of your life. Here are a few tips that might make this journey a bit less ornerous.

1. Grant writing is a year-round activity. Think about it. Grant proposals are all about your research plans. As an academic, aren’t you frequently scribbling down ideas? Where do those ideas go? In your “next projects” folder of course! When you read a paper that clicks, save the PDF to your reference library, import it into your bibliographic reference, and link it, along with the abstract, to your next projects folder. Over the course of the year, spend time wandering around this folder. See how the goodies are piling up. This is the raw material for your next grant.

2. Grant writing is about accretion. There are two types of sculptors. Some take a block of stone and release the figure trapped within. Then there are those that put together a wire skeleton add the clay, glob by gob. When it comes time to start serious writing (and for me that means at least 1.5 months before the deadline…your mileage may vary) it’s time to start adding the clay. At that point I have a couple of good hypotheses and a couple of ideas on how to get them going. Then it is a process of slapping things together, organizing and re-organizing arguments, and, in the process, finding what works and what doesn’t. I don’t know of many scientists for whom manuscripts, let alone grant proposals, spring fully formed from their brow. Needless to say, these people are not very popular at parties.

3. If you can bear it use Microsoft Word‘s Outline View– Arrrrggghhh, it burns! As much as I am trying to move away from all things Microsoft (using Word for the Mac nowadays is the textbook definition of masochism) there is nothing quite like Word’s Outline View for writing by accretion (do you hear that Pages?). Type your headings and subheadings as levels of the hierarchy, then start writing by dragging your notes and references, one by one, into the framework. When it comes time to focus on one section, collapse the rest. In Outline view, the longer you stare, the more the text will almost rearrange itself into logical arguments, bidding your hand to drag it around until paragraphs forms. I am amazed at how many young scientists try to carve marble when an outliner allows you to add your notes, references, and hypotheses, one glop at a time.

5. Think big, but not too big. Steve Hubbell (Dept. Biology, UCLA and Steve HubbellSmithsonian Tropical Research Institute) is no slouch at getting funding. Steve once described the funding habits of the National Science Foundation thusly:

“NSF funds the cutting edge of the status quo.”

This means that your proposal has to walk the fine line between introducing exciting, doable research, while at the same time making it so accessible and so non-threatening as to get uniformly good reviews. This is because when funding is hard to come by, one or (gasp!, two) reviewers who find your work odd, a little “out-there”, or otherwise threatening, is the kiss of death.

6. Know your audience. If you are crafting a proposal for the local Audubon society’s “Goatsucker fund” use the language, metaphors, and approaches comfortable for their panel. If you are writing to your University’s Research Council, don’t assume they know what is cutting edge (let alone status quo) in your discipline. In a Dissertation Improvement Grant for NSF, assume that the people who get your proposal will know something about your field but not about your subdiscipline. Writing, like teaching, is first about catering the message to the audience. However, there is one quality that all your audiences will share:

They are busy people staring at a stack of proposals and want to sort them by quality as quickly as they can.

larrysanders_cast.jpgThe next three tips are all about making your proposal stand out against the crowd.

7. Follow the grant guidelines for form and structure– Your reviewers are using the funding agency’s section headings to organize their reviews. Is the Conceptual Framework sound? Are the Hypotheses clear? Has the Previously Funded Work born fruit? Even slight deviations make the reviewer flip, flip, flip through the proposal looking for the required material.

Rule 7a–no flipping.

8. Mix specifics with generalities. In any proposal it is impossible to maximize the big picture and the details. This is called a logical impossibility (a phrase, by the way, you never want a reviewer to scribble in the margin of your proposal). So the craft of proposal writing is to paint your ideas in broad enough strokes to engage a general audience, and to give enough details, particularly in how you will do the work, to convince reviewers you will be able to finish this research. I’ve read proposals where by the third page I knew that, as fascinating as the work was, they would never get it done in 3 years for $150K. I’ve read proposals that want to do careful, unexciting work, and have power analyses and degrees of freedoms for every experiment. Neither of them got a high rating.

9. Three things. Humor comes in threes. We remember things in threes (social security and telephone numbers). If you have lots of ideas, condense them down to three really good, complementary ones. Picture someone asking you what the grant is about. You look them in the eye and say “Well, we propose to One framazam the sishkabibble for the first time, Two probation the buffalo using the neuheisel protocol, and Three identify the major micronutrient limiting decomposition. If the reviewer can remember those three things an hour after reading your proposal, you’ve done your job.

10. Write for yourself, hope for the best, and turn it around.–When you’ve finished a proposal, you’ve laid out a plan of research. Congratulations. It is hard work, but it is work at the very heart of science. However, money has always been tight. Even the best most thoughtful proposals get turned down. If you subscribe to Hubbell’s law (#5) it’s easy to conjecture a unimodal (hump-shaped) relationship between the content of an idea and the likelihood of it getting funded. Remember

Quality = great content * great design

where design in this case is how you pitch the proposal. And like any craft, it takes practice to get better at it. Finally, consider that in a fifteen page proposal, the first 10 pages are a concise description of a field, combined with hypotheses to take that field forward. Sounds like a review article? Hmmm?

OK, your turn. What have I left out? Oops just thought of one.

See also Grant Writing 101 (written, not coincidentally, last year about this time)


15 Responses to 10 tips toward better grant writing

  1. Mike says:

    11. Use figures. When you eschew figures because they take up too much space or they are hard to format, you are leaving out some of the most compelling, concise ways to communicate relationships. And since so few people use figures effectively, you are also making your proposal stand out

  2. […] Mike Kaspari of Getting Things Done in Academia has a great New Years article on 10 Tips Towards Better Grant Writing. Here is the […]

  3. Sasha says:

    In response to your MS Word Outline comments, you should check out Scrivener. Not only does it let you easily organize and arrange semi-formed chunks of writing, it also allows you to capture all those PDFs, brain dumps, and other accumulated bits of hopeful thinking that accrue over the year in the Next Projects folder. It is incredibly well suited for putting together polished drafts which you can then export into your word processor of choice (Latex, Word, etc.) Thanks for the great advice and great website.

  4. Mike says:

    I’ve heard about Scrivener, but am always leery about adding another piece of technology. However, it looks pretty keen, and I’m going to reward myself with a trial download as soon as this grant is uploaded. Thanks for the tip!

  5. […] leaving MS Word for cleaner pastures My mini-rant against Microsoft Word prompted reader Sasha to suggest looking into Scrivener. Now wouldn’t […]

  6. museyme says:

    12. Do NOT file all the space with dense, jargony text. No one wants to read 15 pages of single-spaced, 10 point font packed onto the page in a sea of black. Use white space (it is your friend), make the proposal look nice (e.g., add a bit of space between paragraphs), use nice headings, don’t be afraid to add short summaries throughout highlighting the points you need to punch. Make sure any colors you use print well in grayscale in case your reviewers are printing on black and white printers!

  7. Black Friday says:

    Black Friday…

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  8. Just like any other proposal writing, the important thing is to capture the attention on the audience…

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  11. Rhoda says:

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  12. john says:

    Just like any other proposal writing, the important thing is to capture the attention on the audience…

  13. Unconditional Love

    10 tips toward better grant writing | Survive and Thrive in Grad School

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