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Grant Writing in the Sciences: Writing

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Writing Your Grant Proposal

After you have located a funding opportunity, planned your project, and outlined your grant proposal, it’s time to start writing. You may want to first read a few sample grants to better understand the content, tone, and style of successful proposals. Sample grants are often available on the funder’s site and include annotations about the proposals’ strengths and weaknesses.

Remember these key guidelines as you develop your proposal:

Address Experts and Non-Experts

Each of the reviewers should understand your project on a first read, even if they lack expertise in your sub-field. Because funding agencies consider many applications and have a limited amount of grant money, they give preference to projects that have clear aims and methods. Therefore, explain terms that might be unfamiliar to an educated but non-expert audience and avoid excessive use of jargon. The most successful proposals “are written for readers who are scientists but are unfamiliar with the particular article. The prose is kept simple, specialized words and abbreviations are avoided, and every page has at least one diagram or figure. A well-written proposal is written to communicate with all the reviewers, not just those with expertise in the field” (Ogden and Goldberg 21).

While you will likely need to employ specialized terminology in the research methods section in order to provide adequate detail, tailor your other sections to a wider audience. This ensures that all reviewers understand the significance of your proposed study.

Emphasize Actions and Major Steps

The steps involved in the research, and who will be completing them, need to be clear to your reviewers on a first read. To accomplish this, use active voice, which emphasizes who or what is doing the important action in the sentence. To turn passive voice into active voice, ask “What (or what) is doing the action in the sentence?” For more information see our OWL resources on active and passive voice.

Below is a passage from a successful NIH grant application that makes appropriate use of active voice (bold) and passive voice (italics).

In the next funding period we will further dissect the mechanism of protein import and initially focus on the apicoplast ERAD system. We hypothesize that Cdc48AP and more specifically its ATPase activity serves as the driving force of the translocation machine. This hypothesis predicts Cdc48AP to be essential for apicoplast protein import. To test this we will construct a conditional mutant […] Unfortunately however, Cdc48AP is not covered in our cosmid collection and initial attempts with small plasmid-based constructs were unsuccessful.

In this passage, active voice clarifies the researchers’ actions and the hypothesis’ functions. Note, however, that this author does use passive voice sparingly in order to highlight Cd48AP as the subject of the final sentence.

Another barrier to clarity is overuse of nominalization, or turning verbs (actions) into nouns. Nominalization, like passive voice, can add wordiness and often hides the most important actions from the reader.

For example:

Action Nominalization
to analyze analysis
to investigate investigation
to understand understanding

In the sample grant discussed above, for example, the phrase “We hypothesize that” would be “Our hypothesis is that,” consequently adding unnecessary verbiage to the sentence.

Use Diagrams or Other Visuals

Diagrams are useful to cut down on length and reduce verbiage, as well as illustrate complex relationships that may be difficult to clarify in writing alone. The most effective ones are understandable without the reviewer having to refer to the corresponding caption/legend. When incorporating diagrams, remember to follow the funder’s formatting requirements.

The Writing Process: Successfully Submitting your Grant

Grant writing requires a significant investment of time for planning, writing, and revising. Below are a few suggestions to help you submit your grant on deadline, many of which apply to other types of academic writing.

  • Schedule adequate time for writing and revision, asking multiple readers to review your work.
  • Make a grid or a spreadsheet with key deadlines for yourself and/or your team, and hold each other accountable to them.
  • Develop a style sheet for your team that outlines agreed upon usage of terminology, acronyms, hyphenated compound adjectives, or other frequently used words or phrases.
  • Write faithfully for at least 30 minutes a day.
  • Schedule writing time for yourself and show up to it like a job; resist scheduling meetings or other commitments during this time.
  • Ask a mentor who is knowledgeable about the field to review your writing.
  • Submit your application early to avoid last-minute delays or technical problems with the online submission.

What Happens Next?

Unfortunately, very few proposals are funded initially (some NIH institutes, for example, fund less than 10% of submissions). Those proposals rejected in the first round are often revised and resubmitted. When researchers find themselves in this situation, the most important thing they can do is read the reviews carefully and revise their application accordingly and as quickly as possible. At this point, it is generally helpful to show the reviews to a colleague who is well-versed in grant writing.

Works Cited

Levenson, Robert W. “Mistakes that Grant Proposers Make.” Writing Successful Grant

Proposals from the Top Down and Bottom Up. Ed. Robert J. Steinberg. Los Angeles,

CA: Sage, 2014. 37-48. Print.

Ogden, Thomas E. and Israel A. Goldberg. Research Proposals: A guide to Success 3rd ed.

Oxford: Academic Press, 2002. Print.

Reif-Lehrer, Liane. Grant Application Writer’s Handbook. 4th ed. Sudsbury, MA: Jones and

Bartlett Publisher, 2005. Print.

Sternberg, Robert J. “Securing a Research Grant.” Writing Successful Grant Proposals from

the Top Down and Bottom Up. Ed. Robert J. Steinberg. Los Angeles, CA: Sage,

2014. 3-24. Print.

Striepen, Boris. “Biology of the Apicomplexan Plastid.” National Institute of Allergies and

Diseases Sample Grant Application. 5 Mar 2010. Web. 14 Dec 2014.