How to gain a competitive edge in grant writing

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Applying for a scholarship takes time and effort, but there are ways to make your application stand out.Photo credit: Getty

Writing a research proposal is a time-consuming but priceless opportunity to generate research ideas, build critical thinking skills, and develop communication strategies — not to mention raising funds. As research and development strategists, we coach both clinical and basic researchers in the art of writing persuasive proposals. Grant recipients often ask if we have examples of successful proposals to share. Yet few early-career grantees know how to turn their access to these proposals into a competitive advantage.

Proposal libraries are collections of proposals, both funded and unfunded, previously submitted for consideration by funding agencies. We have developed such a library of proposals submitted to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other foundations, including applications for major project grants, research grants, career development awards, and fellowships. Our suggestions are not anonymous; Instead, we encourage grant writers to provide only what they are comfortable sharing. We have examples of one-page documents on specific goals and research strategies, as well as sample documents and full proposals. In some cases, the reviewers’ comments are included and provide an indication of how the application was received.

Suggestions in our library are accessed through a cloud-based content management platform and are available read-only, meaning they cannot be downloaded. We also direct grant authors to a repository called Open Grants. To build your own suggestion library, ask your peers or mentors if they would be willing to share their suggestions with you. Many funders post lists of people who have received grants, so reaching out to past winners is a good place to start. Ask for a 20-minute meeting to talk about their application experience, and then ask if they’re willing to share their suggestion.

But how to turn such a library into a useful writing aid for scholarship? Our three-step approach can help.

assess structure

Start with a broad consideration of the proposal. Scan each page, but don’t read the text (yet). Consider margins, font size, image placement, and more. Is it filled to the brim with text, or does it have room to breathe? Is the organization well defined? Do the authors use typographical emphasis, such as underlining, boldface, or italics, to emphasize key elements?

Note that while proposals already submitted may provide important guidance, requirements are subject to change. Therefore, be sure to read the most up-to-date instructions when preparing your own applications.

rate content

Next, read the proposal briefly to examine the placement of ideas in the sections or subsections of the proposal. Since this step involves annotations, it’s best to have a hard copy or digital copy that you can mark up.

Grant authors typically present core issues in an expected and strategic order. For example, consider the specific goals from an NIH application, see the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and US National Cancer Institute websites for examples. The most persuasive documents on specific goals convey to reviewers that the proposed research is important and necessary, that the goals are appropriate for the principal investigator or team, that they address specific questions, and that the expected return on investment is high. As you look at the suggestions in your library, pay attention to where these ideas are raised. Examine how much space the authors devote to each idea.

Now drill further down. Review a goal in Specific Goals. Although these are discipline-specific, each goal is likely to have a title, highlighted in bold or italics, and beginning with a verb (e.g., “evaluate,” “determine,” or “define”). The text of the goal can include background information, a hypothesis, preliminary data, approaches, and expected results. This structure is likely to be repeated for all targets.

See if you can identify patterns for sections that have similar structures across multiple proposals. Although different funders have specific requirements, you will find that proposals are often similar at this elementary level, and you should try to emulate this in your own proposals.

assess word choice

Finally, read the text again more carefully. Keep in mind that top-class grant authors can explain complex ideas to non-experts as well. So if you’re having trouble understanding the proposal, it’s probably more because of its quality than your scientific understanding. You should review several suggestions to identify some that you find compelling and others that you find more difficult to read. Ask yourself: Why is one easier to understand than others?

Pay close attention to the choice of words, such as B. Authors’ use of jargon and subject-specific acronyms: both of which can make applications unapproachable and difficult to read. Do the authors use active verbs to convey their research goals, such as “determine,” “identify,” “define,” or “discover”? Active verbs convey accuracy and action, which is important in science. Also, notice how much more persuasive “I will” is over “I plan” or “I hope.” In addition, fewer words are used. For any data included in the proposals in your library, do the authors clearly explain how that data supports their hypothesis or show that an approach is feasible? Effective scholarship writing provides the reader with clear takeaway messages.

For some funding opportunities such as scholarships and awards, it is crucial that you use “I/my” instead of “we/our” so that the reviewers clearly understand your contributions in the context of the overall project. Do the suggestions you read make these distinctions clear?

Our experience shows that following these steps results in improved grant delivery and more compelling — and more often funded — grants. They should work for you too. Much luck!

Competing Interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

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