Writing the Proposal

A good proposal is readable, well-organized, and grammatically correct. You should address: (1) What you intend to do, (2) Why the work is important, (3) What has already been done, (4) How your work adds to the knowledge base, and (5) How you are going to do the work.

You must be explicit about how the program will make an improvement. Provide enough details to give the reviewers a clear idea of exactly what you plan to do and why your plan is a good one. Demonstrate broad knowledge of your field. Include a time frame. Your proposal needs to address who, what, why, how, where, and when. You need to be clear, organized, and detailed. The more effort a reviewer takes to figure out your message the less effort they have to review your proposal.

Your chances of getting a favorable proposal review increase when reviewers perceive precisely what you want to convey about your research. If your writing is problematical and complex structurally, reviewers may not only misinterpret your research, but they may give up entirely on reading your proposal.

Reader interpretation is influenced more by writing structure than by the meanings of individual words, according to the authors of “The Science of Scientific Writing.” Clarity in scientific writing can be achieved without simplifying or “watering down” research. Improving the quality of writing actually improves the quality of thought, say authors George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan.  Their article, which originally appeared in 1990 in the Sigma Xi publication American Scientist, provides practical, step-by-step applications of their structural principles applied to technical writing examples.

Tips to better structure and clarify your writing, selected from Gopen and Swan:

  • Follow a grammatical subject as soon as possible with its verb.
  • Use verbs that articulate the action of a sentence.
  • Have each sentence serve a single function or make a single point.
  • Provide context for the reader before introducing anything new.
  • Place new information you want readers to emphasize at the end of a sentence – the “stress position.”

Where to Start:

  • Create an outline based on proposal requirements presented in the guidelines.
  • Use the same headings for your outline as used in the Request for Proposal.
  • Clearly state your overall goal and objectives, evaluation, and expected outcomes.
  • Be sure you anticipate problems and consider alternative approaches.
  • Use a Logic Model.  Resources are available from W. K. Kellogg Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Extension Service.
  • Know the scope of the program so your proposal is appropriate. This is a question you could ask of the program officer. Have you proposed an unrealistic amount of work to be accomplished? Have you balanced the research and education components according to importance? Avoid weakening your proposal by trying to do too much.
  • Contact the program officer to present your proposed idea. Formulate and ask a list of questions! Does this align with the program and division to which you plan to submit? Most program officers willingly provide information and insight which enables you to produce a better proposal.

The Writing Process:

Try to put goals on the first page. Proposals must be convincing and should not be written with the same style as a dissertation. Your message should be clear,  persuasive and well prepared.

Write clearly, concisely, and accurately. Define your acronyms and avoid abbreviations. Don’’t make it hard for readers to understand or follow. Guide your reviewers through your proposal. Unclear and vague narratives do not score well. Make sure the underlying science and experiments/methods behind your plan are sound, feasible, and complete.

Be sure to include how your project will be evaluated. There is a climate of accountability today. How will you measure progress and outcomes/impacts of the project? What is the difference between evaluation and assessment? Will your evaluations be internal and/or external? Formative and summative? Quantitative and qualitative? Learn more about this topic through the Evaluation workshop slides.

WOW vs. So What? Wows win. Remember you have to sell your idea. Convey your enthusiasm throughout the text. It should be credible and have appropriate endorsements.

Start with an interesting title;– it’’s the reviewers’ first impression. And titles can determine where a proposal is assigned for review. Be sure your title fits the appropriate review panel so it isn’’t steered to another.

What Reviewers Want:

The Purpose and Significance of your Idea. This is the ““So-What?”” Factor. You don’t want a reviewer to say that after reading your grant proposal. Does this address an important problem? How will scientific knowledge be advanced? What is the significance of your work in the larger context of science knowledge?

Your Approach. Are the conceptual framework, design, methods, and analyses adequately developed and well-integrated? Do you identify potential problem areas and consider alternative tactics? Whether your ideas and talent are worth funding hinges upon your ability to write a research plan that clearly and simply gives the reviewers everything they need to know. Reviewers want to understand the rationale behind your proposed idea. Address the questions reviewers will have about your project and methods.

 Innovation. Do you employ novel concepts, approaches, or methods? Are your objectives or aims original and innovative? Does the challenge existing paradigms or develop new methodologies or technologies? Do you have inherent weaknesses in the project design, and what are your alternative plans? How will this fit with the “Big Picture”?

Investigator and Team Qualifications. What is the quality of the PI and teams’ background, training, and accomplishments as they pertain to this project? Are you appropriately trained and capable to carry out the work? Is the work proposed an appropriate level for the PI and researchers’ experience? Are established scientists on the project?

Finally, Detail the Environment. Does the scientific environment in which the work will be done promote the likelihood of success? Are there unique aspects of the environment such as equipment, labs, or collaborative arrangements? What evidence exists of institutional support? Is space or time or equipment provided to support the success of the project?

The Finishing Touches:

Once you have a near-final draft which should be several weeks before the proposal is due, have a person outside of your field read your proposal for clarity and flow. This will allow you time to re-write and polish your proposal -– an important competitive step. Write a clear proposal that is not so technical you woul’d need a doctorate in your field to understand it. Not all reviewers will be experts in your particular areas – yet all of them vote!

Make sure figures and graphs are all labeled and readable and you have followed the required font size and margins and line spacing. Increased competition has resulted in more submissions and proposals that have not followed the guidelines are less likely to be reviewed. Put yourself in the reviewer’s’ place! What can you improve?

So you are over the page limit? DON’’T reduce the font size; edit your text to get down to the page limit. A too-small font is less readable and, frankly, irritating to reviewers, and therefore, it is not in your favor. Less is best. Stick to 1-inch” margins, 12 pt font, and keep clear spaces between paragraphs. Use bold and italicized text judiciously. Use clear headings and subheadings. Avoid awkward or run-on sentences. Read aloud what you write. Drive home your message by repeating words or concepts in the title throughout the text.

The proposal summary is the single most important item you will write. It must tell who, what, and why in a manner that creates interest from the reviewers. If it is a proposal to NSF, it must include separate paragraphs on intellectual merit and broader impacts.

Seek letters of endorsement that clearly state the person/organization/institution commitment to the project, if permitted.

Submitting Your Proposal:

If submitting electronically via FastLane, LOAD EARLY AND OFTEN! Get vitas, cover sheets, references, current and pending, etc., completed as early as possible and get it out of the way. Also, waiting until the last day to load is a mistake. Internet traffic and equipment/network problems can affect your ability to meet that deadline.