Ten Ways to Write a Better Grant

Sure, you need a good idea. But it's more than that.

By | January 1, 2007

<figcaption> Credit: © CORBIS</figcaption>
Credit: © CORBIS

Many of grant-writing consultant Deborah Kluge's clients have something in common, other than spending long hours slaving over funding proposals. They've had conversations with agency representatives at conferences that are "very encouraging" and that leave them feeling like they have a good chance of being funded if they submit a proposal. When some of these researchers seek Kluge's writing services, they are confident they're getting the grant. They are so sure, in fact, that some don't worry about following all the application directions or not submitting some of the requested information. Months later, many of their projects aren't funded.

Why? The numbers tell the story. The National Institutes of Health received more than 40,000 grant proposals in each of the last three years. In 2006, just 20% of the applications received by the NIH and the National Science Foundation were funded, and NIH projects the same success rate for the coming year. Congress' appropriations to the agency haven't increased over the past few years, but the number of applications continues to rise. There were as many grant applicants in a recent two-year period as there were in the five-year span prior to that. The budget has remained flat, but the number of applications continues to grow.

Success in today's environment is based not only on a researcher's willingness to follow directions throughout the process, but also the ability to convince grant reviewers that the project is a good investment. Here's how successful grant writers, reviewers, and gurus say you can set yourself apart and get the grant.

1. DO SOME SLEUTHING. Find out who will be reviewing your grant and search the literature to get an idea of what they are interested in. "Most grants are relatively long and extraordinarily dense because everybody writes about their expertise," says David Kaplan, a researcher at Case Western University and NIH grant proposal reviewer. The key, he says, is to pick something that the reviewer has already thought about. For example, if you pick a virus that no one on the committee has studied, the likelihood of a reviewer being interested in that virus and convincing him or her to accept your proposal is low, says Kaplan.

2. MARKET YOURSELF. This may seem obvious, but it's often ignored, says Kluge. "Don't make assumptions" that the funding agency knows who you are or what you've done, she warns. The first step is to present your studies at conferences and seminars to "get your name out there and to meet people at funding agencies." Successful grant applicants also approach agencies and get them interested in their work. She advises being persistent and hunting for the right people. "If you're going to be active in the grant arena, you should try to meet with them," she says.

3. SLEUTHING PART DEUX. Researchers working at small businesses should look at the fiscal year procurement forecast for the agency they're submitting to, suggests Kluge. The document will provide information about what the agency is looking to acquire in terms of products and services in the coming year or years. "If you're going to go after government grants, you should know what the government is doing," she says. Many agencies post their procurement forecasts on their Web sites, but be prepared to dig around to find them.

When going after government grants, know what the government is doing. Many agencies post their procurement forecasts on their Web sites, but be prepared to dig around to find them.

4. MAKE A SCHEDULE. Many elements go into writing a grant proposal and it certainly isn't all you'll be working on. Create a schedule to help manage the many steps, advises Kluge. Set dates for finishing the first and second drafts of the proposal, when the budget will be prepared, and when the grant will be edited, finalized and submitted. "Most people don't stick to them," she says. "But if you follow it close enough, you will do better."

5. DRAFT AN OUTLINE. "It's a simple thing to say, but a lot of people have a hard time with it," says Kluge. She recommends writing an annotated outline. Start with the grant guidelines, and sketch out what the funding agency wants in each section and subsection and in what order. Next, go back and fill in the information and ideas you want to include in each part of the grant. You'll end up with an outline that can serve as a rough draft of your proposal that Kluge says is "absolutely critical" to writing a grant. If you don't outline, your grant is likely to end up "a mish mash with no logic."

6. FOLLOW DIRECTIONS. If you are submitting a grant in response to a Request for Applications, read previous Requests for Proposals (RFPs) issued by the agency to determine some of the agency's typical requests, says Kluge. Follow all the directions and provide everything the agency asks for. She recalls working with a company submitting two RFPs. The applicants thought they were ready to submit, but the agency requested that they include a control group in their study. The researchers maintained that they didn't need a control group because the approach was tested previously and stood on its own. "They didn't get funded," says Kluge.

7. THINK ABOUT AESTHETICS. Most grants will specify the font, font size and margins for the grant. Stick to these directions. Beyond that, keep in mind that before a reviewer reads a word of your grant, they'll likely take note of what it looks like. "It's a document that you actually look at," says Kaplan. "How it looks is an aspect of how it is evaluated." He recommends highlighting sections and subsections with bold and italic type facing. These signposts "help guide the reader" through the document. Also consider using a numbering system, adding a space between each paragraph, and using standard one-inch margins to format the document.

8. USE PARAGRAPHS. Paragraphs break up ideas and help structure an argument. Kaplan recalls reviewing a grant with a single three-page-long paragraph that was almost impossible to read. Packaging topics and ideas in paragraphs will lead the reader through your logic and strengthen your argument. Each paragraph should cover a specific topic that is supported by details or data. Also, remember that reviewers are reading multiple grants. Using paragraphs will "help break up the monotony," explains Kaplan.

9. HIGHLIGHT IMPORTANT POINTS. If you are subtle, cautions Kaplan, the reviewer may not pick up your points. Important aspects should be mentioned three or four times throughout the document, but your argument shouldn't be redundant. Make sure your core argument runs through the entire document and is supported by the details. This makes a strong argument and allows you to revisit your main idea several times. "You've got to repeat yourself, but in a different way," says Kaplan.

10. EDIT, EDIT, EDIT. Having a "fresh eye" to look at your proposal will greatly improve its quality, says Kluge. The ideal editor is someone who wasn't involved with the grant preparation but is knowledgeable about the subject. Many companies have so-called "red team" reviews in which a team of reviewers read the grant, make comments, discuss the proposal among themselves and then present an "honest critique" to the applicant. Setting up a smaller-scale team review within your department could be one editing approach.


January 9, 2007

What wonderful advice, even if trying to get a grant for charity.

January 10, 2007

Applicants generally do not appreciate the importance of points 7 and 10 in the article. "White space" in a proposal (point 7) allows a reviewer to annotate the document while reading, instead of jotting comments on a note pad, which can be missplaced prior to writing a formal critique. In addition, white space "lightens" the document in a reviewer-friendly way. Applicants should consider that their proposal may be read by a reviewer late at night when a baby is crying or on an airplane travelling to a meeting. The more reviewer-friendly, the better.\n\nHaving a disinterested party read the proposal (point 10) can identify errors that the applicant is so familiar with as to miss altogether. Examples: incorreclty labeled axes on graphs, undefined acronyms, or references to field-specific methodology that the reviewer may be unfamiliar with.
Avatar of: Thomas Chacko

Thomas Chacko

Posts: 1

January 11, 2007

The tips are eminently practicable and extremely useful to both applicants and teachers of advanced scientific communication. My suggestions on aesthetics, highlighting and editing have encountered resistance from researchers who have consulted me, especially the young ones. Senior scientists are remarkably receptive to such suggestions. I feel quite vindicated that a professional journal like The Scientist clearly endorses many of the ideas that I, as a science communication teacher, have struggled to convince my students and scientific colleagues of.

January 16, 2007

These grant writing tips are not only right on target for grant-writing per se, but for writing more generally. I teach undergraduate science majors how to effectively write arguments in the process of doing science and reflecting on the relation of science to society. It is often an uphill battle to convince scientists in training, as well as in practice, of the merits of being able to write concisely, precisely, and in a way that makes content exceedingly clear to the reader. \n\nThe grant-writing tips provided here mimic general rules of good writing, including dividing paragraphs up according to distinct points, supporting your points, clearly stating a thesis/hypothesis, consistently and explicitly tying all portions of your writing back to the thesis/hypothesis, and the importance of proofreading and rewriting.\n\nThese grant writing tips will prove helpful to my pedagogy by illustrating the utility of good writing in the daily practice of science.

January 29, 2007

I heard it many times but it still gets me. Why are the grants read by reviewers late at night with the crying babies next to them? I understand the importance of writing a grant clearly and concisely and I understand that the reviewers are busy people but they should not use those "crying baby" excuses for not giving the grant careful and serious consideration.
Avatar of: tian xia

tian xia

Posts: 34

January 29, 2007

My boss can read one thing a dozen times, he has 5 R01 now. I can only read 2 times before I throw up.
Avatar of: JP Moore MD

JP Moore MD

Posts: 1

January 30, 2007

Two of the commentators (Trimble and Chacko) ended sentences with a preposition. That is something up with which we should not put. (Aplogies to Winston Churchill)

January 30, 2007

Excellent article.
Avatar of: Lin Ji

Lin Ji

Posts: 1

January 30, 2007

I can not agree more that a grant should be written and ideas should be conveyed in a clear form. However, I am really concerned and bothered by the notion that one has to cater to the taste of the reviewers in order to get funded. This is against the spirit of independent and innovative scientific research. As politics get more and more weight in a successful scientific career, I found it is discouraging to people who really enjoy research instead of administering it.\n\nI am wondering whether the increasing number of applications has anything to do with this kind of atmosphere since everyone is tempted to submit a grant if it is more about how you write it instead of thinking more about the potential value of the research.\n\nAs an individual, I will certainly follow these very useful suggestions proposed in this article in order to survive. Hopefully, I will.
Avatar of: Eric J. Murphy

Eric J. Murphy

Posts: 18

January 31, 2007

Like many of my colleagues, we are all submitting many grants to the NIH, all playing the numbers game. That said, it would be of interest to see how many investigators are submitting grants rather than how many grants are submitted. \n\nHaving reviewed grants myself, I will say it is done late at night, thus clear, concise presentations of one's ideas is critical for success. (Remember most of us have a day job as well as our own grants to write, manuscripts to edit, manuscripts to review for journals, quality time to spend with PDF and students, meetings to attend, seminars to go to etc, you get the point why grants are reviewed on planes, in airports, and late at night, it is reality) Too many people make the assumption that their ideas are clearly communicated, certainly a mistake that we have all committed. The need for organization and white space is critical as are figures outlining experiments and the main idea underlying the application. These figures really let the reviewer know what is the system.\n\nI too have an issue with writing to the reviewers. This is a workable strategy, but then it hampers what our younger colleague said about innovation and independent research. This of course is a concern, especially for those of us who work in an area where there are a limited number of individuals who work in the field. Such a niche is as much of an advantage as it is a curse.\n\nThe most important point, that I think is often missed by reviewers and study sections is a simple question. Can this horse run the race? One of the most important considerations for a grant application should be the investigators involved with the application. Have they been successful in publishing quality papers? How many and where? What has been the bang for the buck? We are all stewards of the the tax payers money, yours and mine included. It is important for us to remember who is paying the freight.

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