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Best practices for grant writers

An expert offers her top 10 tips to improve your grant writing skills


Grant writing is not as easy as it looks. First-time applicants rarely experience immediate success and even experienced applicants get rejected and have to re-apply. There is little formal instruction in proposal writing, although successful research teams will now often include specific training on proposal development for their trainees. With competition fierce and success rates limited, applicants must do everything they can to improve this crucial measure of an application’s merit.

While there can be a basic pattern to a successful proposal, there is no all encompassing template. Grant reviewers point to several recurring problems, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, most of these weaknesses can be eliminated with a dose of common sense, an editor and obedience to the application instructions. Here are 10 straightforward, practical tips every grant writer should follow to ensure the strongest possible application is put forward.

1. Know the funder

Each agency has its own “language” and you cannot use the same proposal for different agency competitions. We have three national funding bodies and you need to know which one is best suited for your request. Serge Villemure, director of the research grants and scholarships directorate at NSERC, says, “First time applicants need to carefully review the purpose of the program’s funding. If your request for funding is for research program support you must describe your long-term program goals as well as the short-term accomplishments you hope to obtain during the award period.”

2. Understand the competition process

There is much less money available than deserving candidates. Reviewers would like to approve funding for all applicants who merit support but that’s not possible. There may be no one on the review committee in your specific area of expertise. You must write differently for a generalist than a specialist who knows you.

The reviewers are volunteers as well as experienced researchers and have full calendars of teaching, marking, paper writing and journal editing. Don’t for a moment forget that when they agree to review, it is because they are good citizens and not because there is a large payback for their efforts. There are not enough hours in the day to easily fit in the review of the mass of competition applications. Empathize with these volunteers and don’t make their work harder.

3. Read the application form requirements and follow them

Otherwise you could annoy the reader who you wish to convince that your proposal should get funding. The application has been developed to allow for as fair an assessment as possible. Everyone gets the same amount of space to present their case and the reviewers expect to find information provided in the order specified in the application. Font, font size, margins and page length must be respected. Use headings.

4. Choose your reviewers wisely

For some competitions, including some fellowship applications, you may be able to suggest reviewers. If you have that option, “choose your referees carefully. The most persuasive letters are from scholars familiar with your work as well as your field, and can speak with some authority on both of them within the context of work you have done at a senior level,” says Douglas Peers, dean of graduate studies at York University.

5. Don’t think that you can throw the proposal together at the last minute

You really do need to take time to make a strong submission. After all, it’s only three to six pages. But the few pages in an application are packed with details to be presented in a tight, clear format. Jay Doering, dean of graduate studies at the University of Manitoba, advises, “It is very easy to spot an application that has been hastily put together over days, versus an application that has been groomed and vetted over weeks. Applicants need to ensure that they understand the criteria that will be used to assess their application, which means carefully reading the instructions. Successful applications are innovative, well-written, clear, succinct and compliant with the instructions.”

6. Be honest

The information you provide is what exists at the time of submission. Hoping a paper will be accepted by the time the reviewers consider your application doesn’t allow you to record a paper as “accepted.” If journal personnel are on the committee and know it hasn’t been accepted, you throw suspicion on all other statements you’ve made. Also look for gaps in information you are providing. You must address interruptions or delays to your research career but do it briefly.

7. Learn how to write proposals

Proposal writing is a unique style of communication. In proposals, start by telling the reader what is important or significant or exciting. Dr. Peers points out, “You need to remember that you are not writing for your family or your supervisor. … You have to convince a more skeptical reader that your topic is important and original and that you are the one to do it.” Above all, be succinct and express your ideas clearly.

8. Use resources available to you

It is always a good idea to speak to each of the following: the agency program officer who is a font of knowledge and the first one to know if there will be program changes; your more experienced colleagues, particularly those who have recently been successful in submissions to the agency you’re interested in; and your institutional support system, including making use of the pre-submission review processes established at most universities (these may be department-based, faculty-based or institutionally administered at your university).

9. Have others help you improve your communication style

You understand what you mean but will others if the information is only implied? Unfortunately, the committee members rarely can give you the benefit of the doubt and have to assume you don’t know something if you haven’t explicitly stated it. Notes Mr. Villemure, “As a result, any recognized potential of the applicant may be lost because their proposal is not as clear as it could be.”

10. Plan to edit your proposal many times

Few people can write clearly and concisely without editing, including professional writers. Your proposal will need rewriting. To assist the reader, avoid the use of jargon. The proposal is an indicator of how you work. If there are spelling errors and poor grammar, the reader might decide that the sloppy presentation mirrors how you will do your research. As an exercise, put someone else in the position of the reviewer. This is often the best way to clarify your communication.

In closing: Success rates are low. Do not get discouraged when you are not immediately successful. Even top applicants are not successful 100 percent of the time. Every grant application is a learning experience. Make note of what it taught you and then re-apply.

Barbara Crutchley is the director of research grant and contract services at the University of Manitoba.

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  1. Professional Writing / October 11, 2010 at 1:43 am

    This article focuses on the 9 key elements of grant writing as identified by the Grant Professionals Certification Institute core competencies. These elements are key for beginning, intermediate and advanced grant writers to increase their success rates and improve their career opportunities as grant writing “generalists”.

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