A guide to writing grant proposals

To write a successful grant proposal, academics need to focus on the relevant details that will help sell their research idea to the reviewer and this requires a shift of mindset, as Kaycie Butler explains

Kaycie Butler's avatar
Butler Science Communications
27 Jun 2022
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Writing grant proposals is notoriously hard for, well, everyone. It can be especially tough for academics because we are trained to think about writing in terms of research papers, but the mindset for a grant is very different. It’s a little like comparing a long-read, detailed news analysis to a colourful, snappy feature in a glossy magazine.

A research paper is like an in-depth news analysis, presenting lots of facts and context about the study before revealing the findings – it can be very detailed about its topic on the assumption that any reader is likely to be inherently interested.

However, the reviewer of your grant proposal wants only to judge your grant. Thus, a grant proposal is not designed to make the reader an expert in our topic. Rather, we want our grant proposal to be more like the catchy magazine feature, designed to interest the reader, hold their attention, and ultimately sell our proposed work.

This difference is huge. Shifting our mindset for writing grant proposals can make all the difference in the success of an application. Here are several immediate things you can do:

1. Appeal to non-experts

Your grant reviewer is an expert, but probably not in your field. Ensure that they can place your proposal in the appropriate context and understand why research like yours should be funded. To do this, start the cover page and introduction with at least one to two sentences that explain the importance of your research to the field. What gap exists in the world that your field of research seeks to fill? Define it.

2. Remove unnecessary background information

A grant proposal is, essentially, a sales pitch. Since we aren’t aiming to teach a reader everything, there is no need for extraneous details about the field. The only background that should be included is that which indicates: (i) why your entire field of research is worth studying (see above); (ii) why your proposed work is worth studying; and (iii) evidence that your proposed work is feasible. That’s it. Remove any text that doesn’t fit into one of these three categories. Ask yourself: “Does the reader need this piece of information to judge my proposal, or do I just want to tell it?”

3. Simplify terminology

To help the reviewer best judge our grant, we want to remove any barriers to understanding. These will include abbreviations, acronyms, field-specific words and technical descriptions. While abbreviations are helpful, if they are used fewer than five times or there are page-long gaps between the definition and next use, spelling out the phrase can simplify reading. For discipline-specific words and technical descriptions, replace or supplement them with generalised terms that are more accessible to the average reader. Your reviewer will thank you for making the writing as accessible as possible.

4. Make it look appealing to the reader

Nothing is more intimidating than turning the page to a solid block of unformatted text. Think of magazines that use colour, images, formatting, spacing and headings to draw our attention to key points and keep it there. We want to do the same with our grant proposals. Aim for easily digestible figures and try to place one per page. Break up chunks of text and make your proposal readable and skimmable using short paragraphs and white space. Take advantage of subheadings to ensure the reader can find the key points they need to score. For example, to make it impossible for the reviewer to miss your “Broader Impacts”, make it a subheading. Finally, for all key points, take advantage of bold, italics, underlining and even coloured text (I use dark blue) to make those very important points pop.

5. Find the places where attention wanes

When reading your grant, does your mind wander in places? If your mind is wandering, your reviewer’s will, too. Find which parts need work by highlighting places where you start to lose attention when reading and encourage other readers of your grant to do the same. Then go back through it and incorporate the tips above to improve each of your highlighted areas. Perhaps the wording is too complex and can be simplified? Maybe this page needs a figure? Sometimes there is no formatted text to draw your attention, or the problematic text is not sufficiently important and can be removed. Regardless, this little exercise can be gold for identifying and fixing tricky sections.

Nothing can guarantee the success of your grant proposal but a lot of things can guarantee failure, and that is what we are trying to avoid here. Use these tips when you write your next proposal, and give yourself the best possible chances of achieving a funded grant. Good luck.

Kaycie Butler is founder and operator of Butler Scientific Communications.

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