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The Craft of Grant Writing. Phyllis McBride, Ph.D. Assistant Director Office of Proposal Development [email protected] Writing for reviewers. Think about your reviewers . Remember that while your application will be submitted to an agency, it will be read by people

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The Craft of Grant Writing

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The craft of grant writing l.jpg

The Craft of Grant Writing

Phyllis McBride, Ph.D.

Assistant Director

Office of Proposal Development

[email protected]

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Writing for reviewers

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Think about your reviewers

  • Remember that while your application will be submitted to an agency, it will be read by people

  • Prepare your application with your reviewers in mind

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Think about your reviewers

  • Smart

  • Accomplished

  • Dedicated

  • Fair

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Think about your reviewers

  • Busy

  • Overworked

  • Tired

  • Skeptical

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Think about your reviewers

  • “Distinguishing between innovations that emerge from empirical testing of concepts and pre-existing notions and practices currently embraced by businesses to distinguish themselves from competitors in a given local consumer market illustrates the extent to which competitive incentives to offer new and potentially innovative products may encourage such businesses to adopt practices from other markets, thereby avoiding costs associated with research and development of those new products.”

    – Example from GWSW

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Think about your reviewers

  • “We will use the previously designed data collection instrument, described in section B.3.1 on page 16, and the statistical analysis, similar to that which is in the methods section of the reprint attached as appendix VI, to measure the extent to which our healthcare assessments approaches will be reflective of the community standards described in Section B.2.1 on page 5.”

    – Example from GWSW

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Write for your reviewers

  • “In language, clarity is everything.”

    – Confucius

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Write for your reviewers

  • Make sure that all of your reviewers – no matter what kind or level of expertise they may have – will be able to follow your argument

    • You want your reviewers to be your advocate

    • For reviewers to be your advocate, they must be able to understand your proposed research project well enough to explain it to other reviewers

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Write for your reviewers

  • Remember that the proposal is the only reality

    • Assume nothing

    • Include everything the reviewers will need to evaluate your proposed research and your qualifications to conduct that research

  • Remember that you are telling a story

    • Synthesize all key concepts for the reviewers

      • Clearly articulate the links between the overall goal, the individual objectives, the hypotheses, the rationale, the expected outcomes, and the significance and impact

      • Don’t count on the reviewers to make leaps of logic for you

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Create a reviewer-friendly application

  • Prepare reviewer-friendly text

  • Develop reviewer-friendly formatting

  • Incorporate reviewer-friendly graphics

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Create reviewer-friendly text

  • Divide the proposal into the required sections

  • Place the sections in the required order

  • Use parallel structure at the section level

  • Incorporate logical paragraph breaks

  • Open paragraphs with clear topic sentences

  • Avoid the use of inflated language

  • Use declarative sentences

  • Define potentially unfamiliar terms

  • Spell out acronyms and abbreviations

  • Employ appropriate style and usage

  • Use correct grammar, punctuation, spelling

  • Run a spell check and proofread the application

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Create a reviewer-friendly format

  • Observe page limitations

    • For whole proposal

    • For individual proposal sections

  • Observe margin requirements

  • Observe font and point size requirements

  • Incorporate headings and subheadings

  • Incorporate ample white space

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Create reviewer-friendly graphics

  • Make graphics large enough to be useful

  • Place graphics as close to the text they are meant to illustrate as possible

  • Refer to graphics in the text

  • Number and title all graphics

  • Prepare a caption for all graphics

  • Label axes and data points, as needed

  • Provide a legend, as needed

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Reading the proposal solicitation

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Read the instructions

  • Read the instructions!

  • Read all of the instructions!

  • Read all of the instructions carefully!

  • Read all of the instructions carefully again!

    • Agency’s proposal preparation guide

    • Program’s proposal solicitation

    • Solicitation’s supplemental instructions

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Analyze the solicitation

  • The proposal solicitation is not:

    • A list of suggestions

    • A menu or smorgasbord from which you can choose what to address

  • The proposal solicitation is:

    • A non-negotiable list of proposal requirements

    • A treasure map

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Analyze the solicitation

  • Use information presented in the announcement to help you develop a competitive proposal strategy

    • Remember that a proposal is a persuasive “sales” document

      • Emphasize hot buttons

      • Echo language of announcement

    • Address the review criteria

  • Call your program manager with questions

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Preparing the application

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Cover sheet



Executive summary



Project description

Project schedule

Biographical sketch


Grant support


Budget justification

Supplementary materials

Prepare the application

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Cover Sheet

  • Requires that you provide basic information

    • Program name and number

    • Principal investigator information

    • Administrative official information

    • Organization name and type

    • Requested award amount

    • Proposed project period

    • Human and animal subjects assurance numbers

    • Signatures

  • Oftentimes offers you the opportunity to indicate if you are a “new investigator”

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  • Create a good first impression

    • Must be informative

    • Must be interesting

  • Conform to restrictions on length

    • Know if restrictions apply to characters only, or to characters and spaces

  • Conduct market research

    • Ask colleagues to help you select the most compelling title

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  • Provides a concise overview of the proposed project

  • Requires that you provide a great deal of information within a tightly prescribed format

    • Who, what, when, where, why, and how

    • Additional agency-specific information

      • NIH – Relevance of the research to public health

      • NSF – Intellectual merit and broader impacts

  • Frequently becomes public record if the project is funded

    • Should be written in third person

    • Should not include confidential or proprietary information

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Introduction / executive summary

  • Critically important

    • Often the only part of the proposal that all reviewers will have an opportunity to read

    • Must be able to stand alone

  • Must be clearly written

    • Must provide a conceptual overview

    • Must generate enthusiasm

  • Serves as a roadmap to the application

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First paragraph

  • Introduce the project

    • Relate the project to the agency’s mission

  • Educate the reviewer

    • Summarize the important knowns

  • Identify the gap in the knowledge and/or state the critical need

    • Explain why the gap or need presents a problem

      • Remember: You must present a way to solve the problem or fill the need

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Second paragraph

  • Describe your long-term research goal

    • Should support the agency’s mission

  • State the objective of the proposed research project

    • Should represent a step toward reaching your long-term goal

  • Present your central hypothesis or statement of need

    • If presenting a central hypothesis

      • Make sure it is a real hypothesis, not a predetermined conclusion, i.e., make sure it can be objectively tested to determine its validity

  • Explain your rationale

    • Explain what it will be possible to accomplish when your research is complete

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Third paragraph

  • Describe your qualifications

    • Special training, and/or expertise

    • Quantity and quality of preliminary data

    • Unique approach, technology

  • Describe your research environment

    • Access to unique equipment and resources

    • Access to research subjects

    • Collaborations and partnerships

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Fourth paragraph

  • Delineate your objectives / specific aims

    • Provide a reasonable number of objectives

      • Don’t be under- or over-ambitious

    • Present objectives in a logical order

    • Make sure each objective can stand alone

      • Make sure no objective is dependent on the successful completion of another objective

    • Provide conceptual objectives that focus on your idea rather than descriptive objectives that focus on tasks

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Fifth paragraph

  • Describe the project’s innovation

  • Delineate the project’s expected outcomes

    • List specific deliverables

  • Summarize the project’s significance / impact

    • Fill a gap in the knowledge

    • Advance the field

    • Meet a need

    • Provide an application

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  • Demonstrate your familiarity with the field

  • Provide a context for the proposed project

    • Literature review

    • Preliminary studies

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Literature Review

  • Cite only literature relevant to the proposed project

    • Don’t try to be comprehensive

  • Provide a critical review of the relevant literature

    • Don’t simply summarize contributions

  • Situate your proposed research project in the field

    • Explain how your proposed research project will contribute to and/or advance the field; don’t expect reviewers to make this leap for you

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Preliminary Studies

  • Provide an account only of the preliminary studies relevant to the proposed research project

  • Determine how much preliminary data to include

    • Published studies

      • Summarize the results and provide offprints in the appendix

    • Unpublished studies

      • Describe the results in more detail to assure reviewers of the reliability of the results

  • Present the results in a logical order

  • Illustrate the results with graphics

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Project Description

  • Organize the project description around the objectives

  • Try to devote an equal number of pages to each of the objectives

  • Use parallel structure to describe each of the objectives

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Project Description

  • Title of objective

  • Introduction to objective

    • Hypothesis or statement of need

    • Strategy

    • Rationale

  • Project / experimental design for objective

    • Emphasize concept

    • Be specific when describing approach / methodology

    • Refer to your previous work, if appropriate

  • Expected outcomes for objective

    • Express confidence

  • Anticipated problems for objective

    • Provide solutions and/or alternative strategies

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Project schedule

  • Indicate anticipated start date

    • Obtain this date from the proposal solicitation

  • Delineate key milestones

    • Base milestones on the objectives

  • Incorporate agency and program requirements

    • Include dates for reports and other deliverables

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Project Schedule

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Biographical Sketch

  • Highlight accomplishments that demonstrate your capacity to conduct and manage the project

  • Adhere to agency’s formatting requirements

    • Use the required form (if applicable)

    • Follow the prescribed page limits

    • Include the required headings

    • Place information in the required order

    • If you are collaborating

      • Format your colleagues’ resumes like your own

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Biographical Sketch

  • Name

  • Title

  • Institutional affiliation

  • Education

    • Field of study, degrees, years degrees were earned

  • Professional appointments

    • Department, institutional affiliation, term of appointment

  • Publications

    • Full bibliographic citations

      • Verify if inclusion of publications in press or submitted is allowed

  • Grant awards

    • Completed, ongoing, and pending support

  • Collaborators

    • Co-authors, co-editors, advisors, advisees

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  • Demonstrate that it is feasible to conduct the proposed research project at your institution

    • Facilities

      • Office, laboratory, library

      • Equipment and instrumentation

      • Clinical

      • Animal

      • Computer

      • Other

  • Demonstrate that you are part of an intellectually stimulating and supportive research environment

    • Collaborations and partnerships

    • Affinity groups

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Completed, Ongoing, and Pending Grant Support

  • Show that you have a clear research agenda

  • Show that you have been productive on past projects

    • Presented results of research at professional conferences

    • Published papers in peer-reviewed journals

  • Demonstrate that you have sufficient time to conduct and manage the proposed research project

  • Demonstrate that there is no overlap between one of your already funded projects and your proposed research project

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Completed, Ongoing, and Pending Grant Support

  • Contract number

  • Principal investigator’s name

  • Sponsor’s name

  • Project title

  • Project period

  • Project summary

  • Investigator’s role

  • Investigator’s percent effort

  • Annual and/or total direct costs

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  • Adhere to agency and program requirements

    • Include only allowable costs

  • Request what you need to complete the project

    • Make sure the budget reflects the research project’s objectives, scope, and duration

  • Base budget on real costs

    • Remember that reviewers know what things cost

    • Factor in cost escalations for multi-year projects

    • Factor in both direct and indirect costs

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  • Understand typical budget categories

    • Direct costs

      • Personnel

      • Equipment

      • Materials

      • Travel

    • Indirect costs

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Budget Justification

  • Use this section to continue to persuade reviewers that you are a thoughtful investigator

  • Provide a clear and persuasive explanation of why each budget request is needed

    • Include sufficient detail

      • Enables program managers to understand how the budget was calculated so that they can see that the request was reasonable

      • Allows program managers to negotiate the budget in the most appropriate way

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Supplementary Materials

  • Verify that supplementary materials are accepted

  • Avoid using supplementary materials to circumvent page limitations

  • Include only supplementary materials that support the application

    • Offprints or photocopies of publications

    • Samples of curricula

    • Samples of surveys, questionnaires, or data collection instruments

    • Clinical protocols or informed consent documents

    • Photographs, graphics, or other media

    • Letters of support or other endorsements

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Vetting, editing, and proofreading the application

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Vet your application

  • Identify colleagues to review the application

    • Select reviewers carefully

  • Provide reviewers with the information they need

    • Proposal solicitation

    • Complete application

  • Give reviewers ample time

    • You want them to conduct a thorough review

    • You want them to help you catch “fatal flaws”

      • In scholarship and/or science

      • In grantsmanship

  • Review, evaluate, and incorporate feedback

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Revise your application

  • “You will have to write and put away or burn a lot of material before you are comfortable in this medium. You might as well start now and get the necessary work done. For I believe that eventually quantity will make for quality.”

    – Ray Bradbury

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Edit your application

  • Set aside the instructions and application for a few days

  • Re-read the instructions and application

    • Ensure that you have included all required sections

    • Confirm that you have placed sections in the required order

    • Verify that you have addressed all review criteria

  • Ask yourself if you have told the “story” of your proposed research project in the most clear, compelling, and convincing way possible

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Proofread your application

  • Check for errors

    • Facts

    • Spelling

    • Punctuation

    • Grammar

    • Usage

    • Style

  • Run a spell check

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Route and submit your application

  • Remember that your institution will submit your application on your behalf

  • Allocate ample time to route your application for institutional approvals

  • Allow time to finalize application

    • Paper submissions

      • Allow ample time tophotocopy, bind, and mail application

    • Electronic submissions

      • Allow ample time to e-mail and upload application

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Wait for news

  • And wait . . .

    • And wait . . .

      • And wait . . .

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Receive review comments

  • If your proposal is funded, celebrate!

    • Or, if it is not funded, . . .

      • Deal with rejection

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Deal with rejection

  • “We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of lower standard. And as it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition, and to beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity.”

    – Rejection slip from a Chinese economic journal

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Revising and resubmitting the application

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Revise and resubmit your application

  • Respect the views of reviewers

  • Review the reviews

    • Discuss the reviews with senior faculty and with your program manager

  • Decide whether or not you have a viable project

    • If you don’t, revise the idea or come up with a new one

    • If you do, revise and resubmit the application

      • Verify that the targeted program is the best one for the project

      • Respond to reviewer comments

      • Focus on submitting a great proposal

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Revise and resubmit your application

  • “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions or honor and good sense.”

    – Winston Churchill

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