Avoiding Proposal Pitfalls
By Robert Porter
1. Before starting, verify the project's match with the agency's funding priorities.
Faculty are understandably hesitant to contact busy program directors at major agencies. In their job seeking and scholarly activities, academics are accustomed to relying on the written word to convey quality. In these circumstances informal, personal contacts are suspect, even verboten. But grant-seeking is a different milieu altogether. A brief letter, e-mail or phone call to a contact person or program director is actually a time saver and will often elicit quick feedback as to the proposed project's fit with the agency's research priorities. It also opens up a line of communication and the beginnings of personal acquaintance, which can be invaluable as the proposal is developed.
2. Begin by proving the importance of the proposed project.
Constructing a strong proposal is not like writing for a professional journal, where one must carefully build the case before asserting even the most cautious conclusions. As noted by Molfese, Karp and Siegel (2002), grantseeking is basically an exercise in persuasive writing, where the object is to get and hold the attention of the reader with a compelling argument. In many ways, it is more like writing for the Op Ed page of a good newspaper. The importance of the topic must be stated at the outset, augmented by a brief citation from an authoritative source or two. The need for the study or the proposed line of research must be clear from the beginning, expressed simply and with passion. A reviewer forced to wade through paragraph after paragraph of dense academic prose, written in the passive voice and filled with subjunctive clauses, will mentally toss the document into a circular file long before the writer gets around to showing why scarce funds should be expended on the project.
3. Assume reviewers are uninformed but quick to learn.
From force of habit, academics tend to write for their peers, for other specialists in the same field. But reviewers may not be readily familiar with current issues or theories in a given field. The project narrative must be written in a way that permits a perceptive reader to grasp quickly what he or she needs to know about the project and how it fits into a larger field of inquiry. (NIH recommends the writer begin by teaching the reviewer about the project, using a kind of Scientific American style.) Familiar catch phrases, technical jargon and insider acronyms may be acceptable at professional meetings, but they can quickly lose a reviewer who might otherwise be supportive.
4. Develop a detailed research plan and illustrate it visually.
Once the reviewer has accepted the need for a particular line of research, he or she wants to know how the applicant proposes to go about it. Here again, old habits die hard, as academic writers tend to be long on theory and short on procedural detail. But the reviewer seeks reassurance that the research plan has been thought through, and, if funded, specific activities will be launched immediately and proceed in an orderly fashion toward stated goals and outcomes. The applicant must help the reviewer see the project; pictures actually do have great power to make general concepts seem concrete and the abstract become real. The more project activities and timelines are visualized with charts and illustrations, the better. Even with academic discourse, showing is better than telling.
5. Do not deviate from any application instructions, even by a nanobit.
Faculty berate their students for failing to follow directions, yet often commit the same error themselves. Enthralled with their subject, grant writers can assume that application requirements are mere guidelines and are surely open to some degree of reasonable flexibility. Fonts are reduced and margins squeezed, narratives drone on beyond the limit, budget items are left unjustified, and so on, as if to deliberately provoke the wrath of a frazzled, bleary-eyed reviewer.
6. Pay attention to all proposal review criteria.
As the NSF example shows, it is not enough to demonstrate the importance of a project's research goals; the narrative must also support other objectives that are important to the funding agency, such as the broader impacts of the project. Enhancing diversity, societal benefits, integrating research with education, and an effective project management plan are some of the criteria reviewers can and will use to winnow out proposals that are insufficiently developed.
7. Be sure the abstract describes the entire scope of the project.
Abstracts are often tacked on to a proposal as an afterthought, quickly appended in the final stages of packaging with the deadline hovering near. Some writers make the killer mistake of extracting verbatim only the first two paragraphs of the project narrative, forgetting that for some reviewers (financial officers, for example) the abstract may be the only descriptive material they read. To accomplish its purpose the abstract must encapsulate, in very concise fashion, the overall purpose and structure of the entire project. At minimum, it must convey what the researcher intends to do, why it is important, how it will contribute to what has already been done, and how the work will be accomplished. If the abstract does not stand firmly on its own, many reviewers will go no further.
8. Proposals should be reviewed by seasoned writers before submission.
For the same reason that refereed journals are the standard of quality for scholarly writing, most grant proposals will benefit from objective, knowledgeable scrutiny before they are submitted. Researchers know that constructive feedback from colleagues can mean extra points in the final rounds of a competitive review but ego and pride of authorship can be significant barriers (as well as waiting too close to the deadline to work on suggested revisions). Yet it is a hard truth that the PI and co-investigators are simply too close to the project to be truly objective, and editorial help is usually called for.
9. Before submitting, engage proofreaders who are not involved with the project.
Innocuous typos and inconsistencies between the project narrative and the budget, no matter how minor, can doom a proposal at the outset. Sharp readers who are not part of the project team can ferret out mistakes much more consistently than the investigators can.
10. Allow time to write, rewrite, and rewrite.
James Michener once remarked that he certainly wasn't the world's best writer, but his phenomenal record of bestsellers showed he was among the world's best re-writers. Pushing completion of the full application too close to deadline is among the deadliest sins of proposal writing, as too little time is left for critical Steps 8 and 9. Proposal writers should adhere to a strict completed draft deadline at least two weeks prior to submission. In the final rounds of an intensely competitive review, the extra points gained by a well polished document can and often do make a critical difference.