Writing Winning Grant Proposals
About 20 years ago, I wrote a short proposal to the Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) to obtain funding for a dinosaur dig site behind my kids’ Montessori preschool. We were awarded $1,000 under PNM’s Innovation Grant Program to construct a make-believe field site that included plaster-covered dinosaur bones buried in a big sand pit; a large canvas field tent filled with paleontological tools, such as chisels, hand lenses, and brushes; and field notebooks for recording observations. That proposal was PNM’s top-ranked grant application that year, and students and teachers were all smiles when their school made the cover of the local newspaper. That was also one of the most rewarding proposals I have ever written.
Many of you are probably saying big deal right about now. Well, that small proposal taught me several things. First, because there was a strict page limit, I had to get all my information across in the fewest possible words. Second, the proposal had to be engaging because it was one of hundreds of proposals submitted by educators across our state. This required that the proposal be well thought out, logically presented, and clearly address the criteria in the solicitation. I use the same approach to the larger grant proposals I work on today.
Before I get on with what it takes to create a winning proposal, I am going to make some assumptions about you, the reader. First, I will assume you have done your homework and have already evaluated whether your idea is addressing a gap or need identified by your potential funding agency. Second, I will assume you are familiar with current research in your field, and you understand the logical next steps. And third, I will assume you have identified the appropriate funding entity for your pitch, because getting your proposal into the hands of the right people could make the difference between success and failure. For example, you would not send an infrastructure proposal to an agency that only funds experimental science. Some agencies are very narrow in their focus, while others cast a broad net in their solicitations. The point I am trying to make is that before you even put pen to paper, you need to first do a serious evaluation of whether your project could realistically be funded by the organization where you plan on submitting it.
Review other successful proposals
I learn so much by reviewing proposals that have already been successfully funded. I think everyone does this, but I did not want to leave out this step because it is vitally important. Sometimes this information is easy to find and sometimes it is not, but you should put forth the effort. Sometimes only titles and abstracts are readily available online, but you can infer a lot from a little bit of information. If you work with someone who has had past success with certain funding agencies, ask them if you can look at their winning proposals, or consider having them on your proposal team.
Always write for your audience
I cannot be any clearer than that. It is NOT true that you should never use technical jargon. If you are writing a research proposal that will be reviewed by subject matter experts, you better be using the correct terminology. On the other hand, if you are writing a proposal to your local electric utility to fund a dinosaur dig site behind your kids’ preschool, you may want to avoid the technical jargon.
If you are a writer by trade, you already know about writing for your audience. If you are not a writer, take a look around you — an article in Psychology Today does not look like an article in The Journal of Psychology, nor does a children’s book read like an adult novel. If you do not know who your audience is, you better find out. Not knowing who will be reviewing and judging your proposal is about as bad as not following the criteria spelled out in the solicitation.
Address all criteria in the solicitation
While this may seem obvious, many proposal applications do not even make it past the initial screening process. Common mistakes include leaving out requested information and exceeding the word count or page limit. I recently edited a proposal that was originally submitted two years ago but was rejected because it did not include a required table. The absence of this one table excluded the university from consideration, and now here we are updating content, addressing new criteria, and resubmitting a proposal that probably should have been funded two years ago.
Many funding organizations clearly state how your proposal will be evaluated and have guidebooks specifically for that purpose. These guidebooks will describe format, content, and more. Furthermore, many organizations have webinars and workshops on how to create a winning proposal. It is important to devote as much effort to your grant proposals as you do your other work. Never assume you can rest on your laurels and have weak or poorly written proposals funded based solely on your reputation or your institution’s reputation.
The easiest way to ensure you have met the criteria is to prepare a detailed checklist and have one or two individuals systematically check your proposal prior to submittal. Some requirements change little over time, so creating a checklist is well worth the initial time and effort it takes. For example, many organizations have required margins, font size, and formats that have remained relatively static over the years. However, I cannot stress enough how important it is to address all of the requirements, which can include both generic items and those in the specific solicitation. Current events and new paradigms can also affect what you include, so you need to be on top of things.
Well organized, clearly written text is easier to read, easier to understand, and is more likely to engage your reviewer. You should eliminate unnecessary words, like very, just, actually, really, perhaps, and that. I often read my sentences with and without those words to see if they are necessary. I search on the words just and really in my own writing and delete every occurrence because they are the equivalent of saying um and ah in speech. Avoid unnecessary phrases, such as in order to (replace with to), as to whether (replace with whether), due to the fact that (replace with because), and for all intents and purposes (delete). Because proposals usually have a word or page limit, removing these unnecessary words and phrases will help free up valuable real estate you can fill with meatier information to help your reviewer better understand your proposal and justify your funding request.
Do not use the same words repeatedly. I have seen people use the same word upwards of seven or eight times in the same paragraph and two or three times in the same sentence. There are over 170,000 words currently in use in the English language according to the Oxford English Dictionary, so finding different words should not be a problem. If you have a new product or technology you are pitching, you could say it is novel, modern, state-of-the-art, innovative, cutting edge, latest, etc. There are often subtle differences in word meaning and connotation you must consider, but that should not stop you from (cautiously) using a thesaurus as you edit your proposal.
If you are frequently using the same words, check to ensure you are not simply being redundant. I had a colleague several years ago who would write a sentence and then write another sentence stating essentially the same thing, followed by a third and fourth sentence repeating the main idea of his first sentence. That was his first paragraph. Subsequent paragraphs followed essentially the same pattern. I would edit his reports and reduce three of his pages down to one. I am not saying never repeat information in your proposal, but please do not do what my colleague did. Information should only be repeated for emphasis or to logically connect proposed activities and not to create filler.
Create a compelling narrative
There are many ways to create a compelling proposal narrative, and writing beautiful, flowery prose is not one of them. Put yourself in the position of the reviewer. Reviewers are looking for proposals that clearly and convincingly identify a need and how it will be filled. Adjectives are okay, but do not overuse them. As I discuss in the next paragraph, it is the verbs that drive your writing.
Strong verbs and active voice help create a compelling narrative. There is an old saying that verbs move sentences along and nouns slow them down. Use strong verbs, such as champion, establish, detect, deploy, maintain, predict, quantify, and validate. Type strong verbs into your search engine, and it will return a long list of verbs you can experiment with. Much is made of using active voice and for good reason — passive voice is boring and cumbersome. Since we normally speak in an active voice, it is more natural to write that way. Take, for example, the two sentences below.
Passive Voice: The meeting will be attended by Dr. Kelvin.
Active Voice: Dr. Kelvin will attend the meeting.
The second sentence is more direct. Both sentences may seem okay to you, but as you develop longer, more complex sentences, writing in the passive voice quickly becomes incomprehensible and ambiguous. I am not saying to never use passive voice, but a long block of text in passive voice is very cumbersome to read. However, there may be times when you need to use passive voice, such as when you are describing your experimental methods. Here is an example taken from one of my own proposals: Core samples will be delivered to the analytical laboratory within 48 hours. Yes, that is passive voice, and yes, that is okay.
Once you get the hang of writing in the active voice, sentences constructed in passive voice start sticking out like a sore thumb. I was recently in the final review of a proposal, and I kept stumbling over the same sentence. I did not even realize it was in the passive voice until a colleague pointed it out to me. If you find yourself stumbling through text, it needs to be reworded. Maybe it is in passive voice or maybe the sentence is simply too long. Either way, you should strive to make your writing easy to read and comprehend.
Do not ignore pace and tempo
Even though you are writing a proposal and not a novel or short story, it does not hurt to use some of the same techniques employed by creative writers to create more engaging text. Writers use both long and short sentences to make their writing more interesting. Short sentences are great for making a point. If something is important, you do not want it to become lost in a sea of words. After a long sentence, the reader might need to come up for air. Good writing has a rhythm to it, and it usually does not come with the first iteration. Until you review what you have written or read it out loud, you will not know if your writing has rhythm.
Use compelling figures and tables
Well-conceived figures and tables are extremely important because they break up the monotony of large blocks of text, and they support statements made in your proposal. Figures and tables can also be easier to comprehend and deliver more information than words alone because a picture is worth a thousand words. Studies have shown people will spend more time on a page containing graphics, and the more time your reviewer ponders your proposal, the greater your chances of success. However, you may not be the best judge of what makes a good graphic because your proposal becomes too familiar to you. As I discuss in the next section, have someone else review your proposal, and do not be afraid to simplify a graphic to make a point. Do not make the mistake of including a large data dump or an overly complicated figure in your proposal thinking it will impress your reviewer, because it probably will not.
Proofread everything. It is difficult to proofread your own work so consider having an outside reviewer read your proposal. Sometimes (but not always) your technical reviewer can fill this role. If you are the only one available to edit your final product, consider these options: 1. read the text out loud, 2. review the text in reverse, 3. use an online service to proofread your document, and 4. time permitting, wait a few days after finishing writing before proofreading it yourself. However, your best option is almost always to have someone else proofread your writing, because we all have certain words we misuse (e.g., affect vs. effect, principal vs. principle) or misspell (e.g., liaison, unforeseen), and it is difficult to recognize our own mistakes. Whenever someone points out one of my mistakes, I am happy because that is (hopefully) one less mistake I will make in the future.
Proofreading should not be limited to the text. Figures and tables should also be scrutinized to ensure they are legible, visually appealing, and supported by the accompanying text. Principal investigators may think they can save space by using tiny figures and fonts, but this will annoy your reviewer, and some agencies do not allow you to use a smaller font in graphics. Even if it is allowed, you must consider whether the information is still useful at the reduced size.
Save old proposals and rejection letters (if provided)
Treat your rejections as a learning opportunity. Many funding organizations will provide you with a graded assessment of your proposal and why it was not funded. Maybe you were in an extremely competitive pool of applicants or the funding agency simply decided your research was not a priority that year. An urgent need or a timely proposal will certainly capture the attention of reviewers. Regardless, you have not wasted your time, and you likely have other options. You might be able to resubmit your application in the future (be sure to incorporate any suggestions from your reviewers); you may want to submit to a different funding source; or you may want to look internally at your own institution for funding. Sometimes your idea requires more development before it is ready for outside funding, and some organizations provide their staff with a little seed money to get the product or technology to that level.
Many proposals fail in the writing stage, which is unfortunate. Please do not let that happen to you. Proposal-writing is not as daunting as it may appear. Like everything else, all it takes is preparation and practice. Good luck!