Ten Ways to Write a Better Grant

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

Jan 1, 2007
Alison Snyder
<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.