Signposting and Front-Loading

December 05, 2008

Writing, I always thought, was best done alone. Writers crafted in secret. I imagined them at night devoted to their words in quiet fits of creativity. In high school, I mimicked what I imagined, inscribing self-important verse into small steno pads. I rediscovered those corner-curled artifacts last year. Embarrassed, I reinterred them in their shoebox in the basement.

I didn't know then what it meant to be a writer. I still don't. But as a writing teacher, I regularly encourage my students to think about the multiple audiences, occasions, and motives for writing. Because I will be taking a junior-research leave a year from now, I decided to dedicate part of this year to applying for fellowships and grants (The Chronicle, October 3). Since my project argues that the modern concept of poetic voice came into being during the 18th century, my thoughts about writing were fitting. And my motive for writing in this situation seemed clear: money.

No, that's not exactly right; rather, I was seeking "support." While it's easy to see "support" as a euphemism we use in academe to make our money grubbing more palatable, my interests were far greater than money. As the only member in my specialty at my college, I was keenly interested in expanding my network. With the demands of teaching, I was afraid of losing touch with my field, so I wanted to rejuvenate my sense of it and meet new people. "My god," I thought, "it's like I'm dating."

I was also feeling the pressure of keeping up in this early stage of my faculty career. I felt as though I was in competition with scholars within my discipline from other institutions who were colleagues and friends. I wanted my career to advance like theirs, while still not being sure what "advancement" meant.

All those emotions motivated my grant applications. But I wasn't yet sure what I was supposed to write in my application statement. I had won a number of fellowships before, but this task seemed different, more difficult. What did a successful grant proposal look like? How could I persuade readers that my specialized research was more important than anyone else's?

My first step was comparative. I collected as many grant proposals as I could. Their variety was daunting. Some proposals were systematic and theoretical; others narrated and told stories; many tried to do both. One proposal from a friend in history worked almost exclusively through narrative. He laid out a fascinating tale of family interactions between late medieval Spain and Morocco. It was a compelling tale that kept me intrigued about the fates of the participants. But I wondered if storytelling was a dangerous strategy for a grant proposal. Were argumentative styles accepted in some disciplines and not in others? How would I make clear what was new in my thinking about literature?

My mentor understood my concerns but suggested that storytelling would be the most successful strategy. As we relaxed in the late summer light of her backyard, she noted that my proposal readers probably would not be specialists in my field, so they would find any bits of fascinating and unusual evidence all the more persuasive. Stories and anecdotes, she insisted, were the best way to grab the widest range of readers.

After meeting with her, I read an article by Christina Gillis, a former program officer for the American Council of Learned Societies. Her insights about the ACLS fellowship seemed applicable to most humanities competitions. While she admitted there was no "one size fits all formula," her ideal proposal emphasized the importance of announcing a "voice," establishing central questions, and advancing significant claims.

Voice. Stakes. Claims. Those are the same terms I use to talk about my students' writing. My friend the historian echoed Gillis's advice when he told me to lay out my project directly and matter-of-factly. They both made me remember the best piece of advice I had heard: A successful grant application convinces readers that they have learned at least one interesting, memorable thing from reading it.

All those comments seemed to solidify the conventional wisdom about grant writing. But something still nagged at me: How would I know when I was being direct? What was the best way to show command over my argument and convince readers that something serious was at stake? What was the most compelling evidence for nonspecialist readers?

I struggled with those questions as I began to compose my statement. I started by searching for that single anecdote or quotation that would grab readers' attention from the outset and yet encompass the breadth of my project. My search took me back to the beginning: I arrayed before me in my office all the project materials I had collected since graduate school.

In those years, I had collected numerous articles and snippets, all of which went into computer files or into folders that were tucked away in a bookcase or a filing cabinet. Some of the papers had yellowed slightly, making me aware of just how long I'd been working at this. Starting my grant proposal was like opening up that old shoebox in the basement, except this time I wasn't too embarrassed by what I found.

It had been years since I had articulated my scholarly project in an extended fashion; instead, it had been evolving in fragments — part of a chapter published as an article, a new author added after a research trip in Scotland. My strategy now was to write a lengthy "master" statement, which I would revise to fit each individual fellowship or grant.

Beginning was painful. I had to revisit the widest scope of my work and coordinate the many different articulations I had written about it over the past few years. I looked at my job-market materials, abstracts from past articles, brief e-mail messages I'd sent to faculty members, napkin notes I'd made while chatting with friends. Some of those formulations seemed oddly prophetic — I was following through on leads I had noted years ago. Others, however, felt stale and old-fashioned. I tried to take in the flood of paper scattered around me. My project felt enormous and unwieldy.

So I focused instead on the title.

I was frustrated with it and needed a new one, I decided, to reflect the progress of my thinking. I searched through the recent catalogs of a prestigious university press looking for inspiration. All of its titles bespoke action and dynamism — verbs, not nouns, were in fashion.

A month later, after I had devised a new title and composed a draft of my statement, my project felt entirely new. I had discarded half of my dissertation, a decision I had actually made years ago and clearly recognized now. I described the global elements I had added to my project since graduate school, including strange, relatively unknown poems that few people even knew existed. I forced myself to organize elements and inquiries that until then hadn't felt coherent.

But concerns about how to structure a grant proposal still preoccupied me. Every fellowship or grant asks applicants to answer roughly similar questions: What is your project? What does it contribute to the field? What is your work plan? How will our money help you? I had composed my statement as a single answer, producing what I thought were deft connections between those different demands.

When I asked friends and colleagues to evaluate my statement, their comments made me realize how much work I still needed to do. I may have rejuvenated the energy of my project, but that didn't mean it made sense yet. Most respondents felt my insights were intriguing. But they also thought the proposal could be better organized and explained more clearly. I protested that I was trying to convey the "complexity of my project." I suggested that the dense details, broad theoretical scope, and long paragraphs signaled my seriousness.

Their critiques persisted. One friend warned that I had become too enamored with my sentences and unwilling to make changes. Another e-mailed that she had learned from her senior colleagues — in other words, from the potential readers of my proposal — how much they appreciated direct, declarative sentences. Reading 50 proposals was hard, she reminded me, and nothing relieves a weary reader like a clear sentence. Complex ideas were fantastic; complex wording in a grant proposal might not be.

Eventually I realized that my critics were right. I was clinging to the notion of "complexity" as a way to convince myself that my proposal was finished. After a week of resistance and denial, I finally took their advice and revised my statement again.

I subdivided it into separate sections. I wrote shorter sentences and deleted many quotes that I had mistakenly thought provided richness. I "front-loaded" my proposal so that hurried readers would have no difficulty seeing immediately what I was doing. I "signposted" it so that they could easily find the answers they needed to their questions.

I soon realized how much more usable my proposal was. Section headings that once disrupted the narrative now seemed to offer crucial information. Sentences suddenly felt clear, forceful, direct. I reorganized my paragraphs, using an introductory anecdote to grab readers' attention before turning to a discussion of what was at stake.

Perhaps most important, I wrote in generalities. I had always told my students that their writing achieved its goal when they could make confident generalizations about their evidence. I was following my own advice.

With my grant proposal I had developed something that provided me with a renewed sense of the project's goals. So much of the work I'd done in pieces since defending my dissertation now made sense again as a whole.

In the process, I had made my project new. I redefined what interested me and integrated new topics and questions that had, until then, only existed on a scrap of paper or in a stray notebook. That's exactly what my friends who had gone through the same process said would happen. Applying for grants and fellowships had already paid off, even though I hadn't won a cent.

James Mulholland is an assistant professor of English at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. He is writing a series of columns this year about the challenges of balancing research and teaching at a liberal-arts college.