Words Worth Their Weight in Cash

April 08, 2005

The heart of any grant proposal is the narrative. It is essential to do a good job on that section, because it can make or break whether you get your money.

The narrative, also called a project description or research plan, is a different animal from a scholarly paper, which persuades the reader to accept your results through a clear and precise demonstration of the soundness of your research. A grant proposal needs to contain the same methodological rigor, but it must be presented in a framework that makes your reader enthusiastic enough to write you a check.

In my first column, I offered some general tips for newcomers to grant-proposal writing. In this column, I'll share some specific suggestions for preparing a traditional single-investigator grant with limited collaboration and a simple work plan.

Ask the Expert

Read successful grant narratives that have been submitted to your target agency. It's tough to write one if you have never seen a good example.

Proposals that are approved are public documents, and there are several ways to obtain them. The easiest are to simply ask a colleague who has been successful with that agency or to check its Web site for examples. The posting of successful proposals has become increasingly common as agencies try to offer online help to prospective applicants.

Alternatively, if you have read the abstracts of some relevant proposals at an agency's Web site, you might e-mail the author and ask for an electronic copy. People will sometimes reciprocate because e-mail has made it much less burdensome to help you out than it was during the days of photocopying and snail mail. If all else fails, you can request a copy from the agency under the Freedom of Information Act.

I have successfully used all of those methods. View the successful proposal not as a boilerplate for your own but as an example of what a quality finished product looks like. Pay attention to the proposal's workmanship: the writing, the scope of the project, the level of detail used to describe it. Figure out what it takes to play in that league.

Show That You Are Made for Each Other

It may be true that you are writing your proposal because you want tenure and a raise. However, it is not wise to use either as a justification for the grant you want. It is an old saw in the grant world that agencies don't give you money because you need it, they give you money because you are helping them carry out their missions.

Thus a scientific agency gives you a grant because you have proposed methodologically sound, theory-building basic science in the discipline that it supports. A human-services agency gives you a grant because you have presented a plan to deliver the services it promotes -- say, reading readiness -- to the population it strives to assist -- perhaps preschoolers in disadvantaged urban areas.

Use your narrative to show the agency how your work will help it reach its goals. The overall tone is important in terms of both word choice and presentation strategy. You want to leave the reader with the impression that you have an exciting project planned, that you are the best person to do the job, and that the time is right for doing it.

Agencies typically receive far more quality proposals than they can possibly support. To make the cut, show your passion. Start by using assertive language, such as, "For the first experiment, I will ..." rather than "I would." Don't use words that suggest you are tentative.

Then answer the "so what" question: Why is your project important? How does it contribute to theory building in your discipline? What significant question will it answer for your field?

Do your best to make your proposal an offer the agency can't refuse. If you can, impart a sense of urgency. Perhaps you are studying the dwarf squid of the Coral Sea, which can sound esoteric and of dubious value to the public. But suppose you explain that you are studying changes in that squid population over time because you have evidence that pollution is reducing its numbers and causing mutations in individuals. Moreover, that squid is an important part of the food chain, and its demise could have a major impact on the ecosystem as well as the fishing industry. The longer you wait to do the study, the more the squid population dwindles. Waiting too long could result in the disappearance of the squid, along with any chance to remedy the pollution.

Showing the value of your work to society is important, especially when you are applying to an agency that awards tax dollars. By sharing your passion for the project, you may also spark it in reviewers. A reviewer who is excited about your work can be influential in persuading other panel members to recommend that you get your money.

Have Savoir-Faire with the Standard Fare

Most scientific proposals include some type of literature review. In preparing yours, take your cue from the successful proposals you have read. Don't simply count the number of references cited. Note of how sparse or extensive they are.

The literature review is not a mere formality or a pro forma recitation of names and titles. You can impress reviewers with your command of your discipline by judiciously making key citations that show how your work fits into the rest of your field and builds upon it.

The methodology section is another crucial part of the proposal narrative and can be the bête noire of many an investigator. If your project involves a complex research design and data analysis, consider having a colleague who specializes in methodology take a look at it.

Scientific projects are becoming more of a group effort than a lone wolf outing. As science becomes more interdisciplinary, one person simply cannot know it all. There is a good chance that your proposal will be read by at least one reviewer who specializes in methodology. It's better to learn of any flaws in the design before you send it in, rather than in the rejection letter.

You might also consider budgeting a small amount of money to hire a methodologist who will serve as a consultant for the project. Sometimes the people in your academic computer center are willing to take on that task. Doing so will not be viewed as ignorance on your part; rather, reviewers may very well commend you for including people with appropriate expertise on your research team.

A single-investigator grant of a few years' duration does not need the kind of complex work plan required for a longer multi-institutional grant. However, it is important to show reviewers that you can accomplish what you're promising in the proposal during the grant period and within the budget you have requested. You can include a simple timeline or chart that illustrates which tasks will be accomplished during which months of each year.

Beware of trying to impress reviewers with an overly ambitious plan. If you promise to accomplish a large amount of work in a short period of time, reviewers won't think you're offering a scientific bargain. They will think you are naïve.

Take the Hint

If the program announcement suggests an outline, or if it lists a series of topics to deal with in your proposal, be sure to provide them.

For example, the National Institutes of Health grant application recommends that your narrative have sections discussing specific aims, background and significance, preliminary studies, and research design and methods. It also provides suggested page lengths for each section. That is a clear indication of what the agency expects.

Following the content outline can be critical in some programs, such as those sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice. Their program announcements often list selection criteria along with the number of points associated with each.

When reviewers score your proposal, they likely will use a form that lists the selection criteria in the same order as the program announcement. Follow that outline so reviewers can easily find your discussion of all relevant issues. Remember, when all the forms are included, the finished proposal package can exceed 50 pages. Don't risk losing precious points by making a harried reviewer flip through dozens of pages to find your answers.

The selection criteria offer a good organizing framework but can make for dry subheadings when you want to cultivate a sense of excitement. Instead, accompany each selection-criterion subheading with a phrase that states how your project satisfies the program goals. For example, instead of simply writing "Need for project," try something like: "Need for Project: Math Test Scores Fall for a Decade."

Hit your reader over the head when conveying how your project meets the goals of the program and the grant agency. This is not the time to be subtle.

Adhere to any formatting requirements specified in the program announcement, petty as they may sound. There are usually rules about minimum type size and margin size, as well as page limits. I have seen proposals returned without review for failing to follow such requirements.

Seek Professional Help

Check with a program officer at the grant-awarding agendy to see whether he or she will read and comment on a draft of your proposal before you submit it. Some will read a full-length draft; others will read a mini-proposal or "white paper" early in the process to help you determine whether your project fits the program objectives.

If you can't get a program officer to read it, ask a colleague with expertise in your discipline to do so, or ask someone in your university's sponsored-projects office to read it for proper grammar and spelling.

Finally, don't miss the submission deadline. Don't think you can wait until the last minute if you're submitting electronically rather than by express delivery service. Agency computers can and do get overwhelmed in those last minutes before the deadline.

Proposal selection is really a process of elimination. Don't make your proposal easy to eliminate. Follow the rules and make it hard for the agency to turn you down.

Karen M. Markin is director of research development at the University of Rhode Island's research office.