6 Key Tips for Great Grant Proposal Writing
By Dr. Riad, ScienceDocs Neuroscience Writer
Grant proposal writing is an important part of the research process. Academic scientific research is made possible by federal, private, and philanthropic funding agencies, with the US Federal Government funding the majority of this research. In fact, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) serves as the largest health research funding agency, both domestically and globally.1 With an annual budget of $32 billion,2 the NIH funds over 70 percent of biomedical research.3 A second federal agency, the National Science Foundation (NSF), focuses its resources on basic non-clinical scientific research. The NSF funds about 24 percent of federally funded academic basic research in the US, and has an annual budget of $7.5 billion.4 Around 80-90 percent of these federal agencies’ annual budgets are distributed via scientific grants.2,5
Now, more than ever, there is a substantial competition to receive an NIH or NSF grant. In recent years, the number of grant applications has steadily outpaced the annual budget, resulting in an excess of applications for a relatively steady number of grants.6 It is therefore no surprise that the average success rate in the last five years is low: about 18 percent.7 Given these trends, being able to secure grant funding by producing a well-written proposal is a critical step in a scientist’s career.
Keep these six essentials tips in mind for your grant proposal writing. They can guide you in effectively communicating your proposed research to federal, private, and philanthropic grant funding agencies.
Tip #1: Use correct grammar/spelling
It is essential to have no grammatical/typographical mistakes in your proposal. With the intense competition, even a small mistake could be interpreted as careless, sending your proposal to the rejected category. A reviewer may doubt the quality and attention to detail of your work.8 They may question: “If there are mistakes in their writing, will there be mistakes in their research?” Therefore, be sure to proofread your document thoroughly. You could ask a colleague to do so, particularly someone familiar with your field. This will give you a second set of expert eyes to catch small mistakes. You can also consider going with a professional editor who is skilled in your field, such as those at ScienceDocs.
Tip #2: Be consistent
Besides poor grammar, inconsistency is another factor that can distract a grant reviewer and prevent them from focusing on the ideas presented. It is important to deliver consistent and uniform formatting, terminology, and acronyms throughout the grant proposal. Bordage and Dawson9 explained that “Changing terminology, for example, from groups to programmes when both have the same meaning, will confuse the reviewers.”
Tip #3: Have clear, easy-to-read writing structure
Scientific ideas can be inherently complicated, so it is necessary to explain them clearly. Gopen and Swan10 explained that, in general, readers have certain writing structure expectations. Therefore, authors need to be aware of these expectations in order to help readers accurately understand their ideas. An example of these expectations is ‘subject-verb separation’, in which readers expect to see a subject followed by a verb.10 It is thus important to minimize this subject-verb gap. Details like this improve the sentence flow, making it easier for reviewers to understand your proposal.
Tip #4: Be concise
An important component of a successful grant proposal is the ability to explain information succinctly.11 Being brief and avoiding filler words will help reviewers focus on the substance of the proposal. Given the large number of grant applications submitted, reviewers would like to understand your question and proposed research as quickly and effortlessly as possible. To help them, applications usually have tight space limits, often forcing authors to condense their writing.
Tip #5: Keep it simple (but not too simple)
Reviewers will most likely share a similar scientific background with the grant proposal authors. However, reviewers will not have the same exact expertise as the authors and may be unfamiliar with a particular topic. Therefore, the writing should be simple but elaborate enough to foster and maintain the interest and understanding of the reviewers. As Wiseman and colleagues12 intelligently pointed out, “Make it understandable to a layman, but also sophisticated enough that it is interesting to the research panel.” This can be difficult to accomplish, but is often the hallmark of compelling scientific writing.
Tip #6: Remember the power of figures
A picture says a thousand words… and so will figures on a grant proposal! Figures, diagrams, tables, etc. help explain complex concepts and make the page more aesthetically pleasing.13 It is common to use visuals for describing study designs, methods, and preliminary data, to name a few. Therefore, when writing your proposal, consider if there are data, concepts, techniques, or experimental timelines that could be better explained visually.
The writing tips above will help you efficiently convey the interesting ideas in your grant proposal. Although writing is not the sole factor to focus on in order to get a grant proposal funded, it is often one of the most crucial. Dr. William Raub, past NIH Deputy Director, summarized the importance of eloquent grant writing in this quote: “There is no amount of Grantsmanship that will turn a bad idea into a good one… but there are many ways to disguise a good idea.”14
Dr. Riad is a Neuroscience Writer at ScienceDocs. If you are interested in enhancing your writing structure and need knowledgeable writers, reviewers, or editors , contact us so that we may assign you the perfect writer for your needs!
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- Viergever RF, Hendriks TC. The 10 largest public and philanthropic funders of health research in the world: what they fund and how they distribute their funds. Health research policy and systems. 2016;14(1):1-15. doi: 10.1186/s12961-015-0074-z.
- Budget. National Institutes of Health website https://www.nih.gov/about-nih/what-we-do/budget#note. Updated March 6, 2017. Accessed September 1, 2017.
- Amodeo R. The many faces of research. Mayo Magazine. 2008;Spring:16-19.
- At a Glance. National Science Foundation website https://www.nsf.gov/about/glance.jsp. Accessed September 7, 2017.
- Scott A, Smith T. Agency Budgets: Chapter Five National Science Foundation. National Science Foundation website https://www.aaas.org/fy16budget/national-science-foundation. Updated September 6, 2017. Accessed September 7, 2017.
- Michael Lauer. How Many Researchers? Open Mike Blog. National Institutes of Health website https://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2016/05/31/how-many-researchers/. Updated May 31, 2016. Accessed September 1, 2017.
- Powell K. The best-kept secrets to winning grants. Nature. 2017;545:399-402. doi:10.1038/545399a.
- Write Your Application. National Institutes of Health website https://grants.nih.gov/grants/how-to-apply-application-guide/format-and-write/write-your-application.htm. Updated January 28, 2016. Accessed September 1, 2017.
- Bordage G, Dawson B. Experimental study design and grant writing in eight steps and 28 questions. Medical education. 2003;37(4):376-385.
- Gopen GD, Swan JA. The science of scientific writing. American Scientist. 1990;78(6):550-558.
- Visovsky C. Writing a successful grant: Tips and tools. Journal of the Advanced Practitioner in Oncology. 2015;6(3):279-280.
- Wiseman JT, Alavi K, Milner RJ. Grant writing 101. Clinics in colon and rectal surgery. 2013;26(04):228-231.
- Chung KC, Shauver MJ. Fundamental principles of writing a successful grant proposal. The Journal of hand surgery. 2008;33(4):566-572.
- Milgram SL. Introduction to Grant Writing I: Demystifying the NIH Grant Review Process. National Institutes of Health website https://www.training.nih.gov/_assets/slides_1_-_6_29_2010. Updated June 29, 2010. Accessed August 31, 2017.