Many sources such as books, Web sites, and workshops provide advice on writing grants. When you sit down to work on your grant, though, the advice may not propel you from theory to application. The trouble is, most sources supply generic help, written for anonymous grant writers. Here, you'll learn how to find personalized help that is often nearby.

Before getting specific, let's consider four general suggestions. First, look to your institution's grants office. Grants specialists can help you find funding opportunities and get feedback on drafts of your application. Second, contact funding agencies. Program officers can help frame your research to match the agency's priorities. They can also help you interpret reviewers' comments should a revision be in order. Third, consider a private consultant. For a fee, a consultant gives your work full attention, from first draft to last, applying grants-manship know-how to create a clearly written proposal. Just...

A 12-Step Program for Grant-Writers Anonymous

1. Focus your idea

2. Find a funding agency

Steps 1 and 2, focusing and finding a funder, go hand in hand, says grants specialist Phillip Grosshans of Duke University. University offices of sponsored research have expertise in finding sources of funding, from the obvious (NIH and NSF) to the less common (foundations and corporations). "We talk to people early on in the process," says Grosshans. He provides guidance on approaching a particular agency and targeting ideas. "In the process of looking for funding," he says, "we're teaching that part of the proposal-writing process at the same time."

Once you've identified a potential funding source, pick up the phone and call a program officer in your area. Program officers are typically former researchers and can talk science. They can also convey the priorities of the agency. The most important reason to call, says Cora Lee Wetherington, women and gender research coordinator for the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), is to get personalized advice on integrating your research with the agency's interests. "If it's an area where I know some of the literature, I'll talk with them about it," says Wetherington. "Have you thought about this? Have you considered doing it that way? Are you familiar with research that's done by so-and-so?" Sometimes she'll introduce a related area, just as stress or adolescence, current hot topics at NIDA. "I'll see how that can be brought to bear on what they're doing," she says.

Wetherington also talks to researchers about finding the right study section. "That is really the first audience that you have to convince," she says. For NIH study sections, visit the Web site for the Center of Scientific Review (see Resources) for detailed descriptions of research.

3. Write your specific aims

4. Rewrite your specific aims

For steps 3 and 4, writing and rewriting your aims, grant consultant David Morrison says, "This first page has got to be so carefully crafted that it really does capture the attention of the reviewer." He asks clients to write "an executive summary," which he critiques in detail. "For an NIH grant it's your specific-aims page. For NSF, it's your overview and objectives section." Morrison's service covers writing, science, strategy, and even the importance of the first sentence. "Intensive energy goes into creating this first page so that it reads well and encompasses all of the ideas that the applicant is eventually going to expand upon in the actual proposal," says Morrison. "If you can't get this right, then you're not ready to write the actual proposal."

5. Write the body of your grant

Step 5 brings you to writing the grant. You're on your own here.

6. Get a writing critique

With your grant written, it's time for a writing critique. Grosshans refers researchers to the writing labs at Duke. Writing labs can be found in the English department at most universities, and Grosshans thinks that everyone can benefit from a critique. A grant consultant can also evaluate the writing; Morrison reviews the entire proposal on "issues of grantsmanship." He also attends to grammar and, when he can, comments on the science, although he emphasizes he can't have expertise in all areas.

7. Get a scientific critique

After the writing review, get a scientific critique. For this step, call on your colleagues. "We advise that three people review a proposal," says Grosshans. This includes a colleague who can review the science, a scientist from another field for a different perspective, and a third person to, once more, review the writing.

8. Rewrite as necessary

Combine the critiques and go to the next step, rewriting. Here, again, as in step 5, you're on your own.

9. Complete supporting regulatory paperwork

10. Complete budget workup

11. Get signatures

For help with steps 9, 10, and 11 – the regulatory paperwork, budget workup, and signatures – you can turn to your office of sponsored research. Go there to find forms, deadlines, examples, and advice.

12. Submit

Finally, take the last step and submit.

Jill U. Adams juadams@verizon.net is a freelance writer in Albany, NY.


Getting Started http://www.nsf.gov/home/programs/guide.htmA step-by-step guide from NIH

Hints for Writing Successful NIH Grants http://chroma.med.miami.edu/research/Ellens_how_to.htmlTips on each section, as well as how to make revisions

How to Write a Grant Application http://www.niaid.nih.gov/ncn/grants/write/index.htmFrom the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

NIH Center for Scientific Review http://www.csr.nih.govA list of study sections

David Morrison's Web site http://www.grantcentral.com/Content/FSmorrison.htmlBackground on a grant consultants and services

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