Effective grant proposals, Part 4: Yes, do sweat the small stuff

Today, the fifth part in my series on writing effective grant proposals. The first three parts dealt with the content of a grant proposal: the important information a grant needs to convey about the importance of the work you’re proposing, its feasibility, and your ability to do it. (Part four, about your reader, comes up below). You certainly need the right content to have a chance at funding, but that’s not all you need – so today, a pitch for presentation.

I know, we’re scientists, and we sometimes tell each other that what matters is the objectively measured quality of our ideas, not the style in which we present them. I hope it’s obvious that that’s both tempting and wrong: our literature is bulging with tediously and cryptically written papers with poorly designed graphics (the results of that temptation) – and the result is reader irritation and low impact.*

So presentation matters, and I’m going to argue that it matters more for grant proposals than for manuscripts and other written products. That’s because of an asymmetry that happens in the review of proposals. When you write a grant proposal, you’ll have (I hope) a reader in mind. You’ll picture your proposal in the hands of that reader, and you’ll write (I hope) in ways that will be effective for that reader. But: what I’ve just described has the wrong picture in your mind. Your reader doesn’t have your proposal in their hands; instead, your reader has your proposal and a lot more. For the panels I’ve been on, I’ve been assigned anywhere from 20 to 45 proposals, all of which I have to read and digest in a few weeks. There’s the asymmetry: as a grant writer, you deal with one proposal; but as a grant reader, you deal with dozens.

The fact that review panels deal with grants in large numbers explains a lot of the proposal requirements that irritate us as grant writers. Are you annoyed that you have to rework your curriculum vitae to comply with a bunch of organizational and style requirements that are idiosyncratic to each granting agency? That’s because panelists need to efficiently and fairly extract the same information from two or three dozen CVs. Are you tempted to cheat just a little on the length requirement, because how big a deal could an extra hundred words be? Now imagine everyone in the competition similarly tempted. Acknowledging the load on those who review grants should suggest two simple rules for those who write them. First, read and follow the presentation rules for the agency you’re submitting to. Second, find ways to be kind to those who are reviewing.

On those presentation rules: all agencies have them. They may include things like page, word, or character-count limits, required fonts and font sizes, referent cing styles, margin widths, and more. It is tedious and annoying to read all these rules carefully and comply with them, when they change each time you write for a new granting organization? Yes, it is. Should you do it anyway? Yes, you should. A grant that plays fast and loose with these rules – usually for the purpose of packing in a little more information**might be disqualified before it even sees reviewers. More likely, it will see reviewers; and if could read body language, it would see them irritated. And irritated, of course, is not how you want your reviewers to be.

And that brings me to the second rule: be kind to those reviewing. As a grant writer, you’ll probably have an urge to pack your proposal with as much information as you can. After all (you might reason), reviewers always want to know more: more methods details, more literature context, more of everything that I covered in the first three parts of this series. And there are always ways to pack in more, while still respecting all the presentation rules. Acronyms reduce word count. Hyphenation reduces line and page count. Cutting one more word so the paragraph ends at the end of a line is admirable efficiency. Adjusting the kerning to pack two more characters on each line is boss-level efficiency. And I could go on, and in the past, I have. I’ve been very (but incorrectly) proud of how much I could pack into a proposal without breaking any of the rules. (The header image for this post is an example of the wall of text that resulted.)

Please don’t do that. Instead, use a little white space to separate figures from text, section from section. Use generous indenting and let paragraphs end mid-line, so your paragraph structure is easily parsed. Make your figures big enough to be read without squinting. Will this “cost” you some content? Yes, a little bit, if what you assay is the content you put in. Probably not, if what you assay instead is the content your reviewers absorb. Guess which one matters?

So in your next grant, have great content – but present it with kindness. Your reviewers will be grateful; and that’s the mood you want them in when they’re decided whether or not to recommend your proposal for funding.

 © Stephen Heard  July 19, 2022

 Image: a wall of text from a past NSERC Discovery Grant of mine. Yes, this grant was funded; but no, I shouldn’t have done it like that. 

*^If you’re paying attention (which you are, since you came here) you probably noticed that that last bit is an empirical claim for which I haven’t provided any evidence. Do badly written papers have less impact – less citation, for instance?  There are some attempts out there to answer that question with data, although it’s challenging. Let’s leave it for a future post.

**^If the font size limit is 12 point, surely they won’t notice if you use 11.9?  What about 11.8? With 0.95” margins all around? Aren’t you clever? (As perhaps those who know me might suspect, the “you” in that last snarky bit is actually me.)



5 thoughts on “Effective grant proposals, Part 4: Yes, do sweat the small stuff

  1. benjaminsalisbury

    Well said, Steve. Here’s a trick a grant co-author used once that seriously irritated at least one reviewer: Replace every “and” with “&”. Your short post above has 47 ands, about one per line. So, we saved a lot of space, but it was (1) obnoxiously obvious, (2) harder to read, & (3) meant we were packing even more stuff into the proposal, distracting from the main points. We were not funded.


  2. jeffollerton

    Nice post! And I completely agree. Regarding font and point sizes, I once worked for months on a large grant proposal that was summarily rejected in less than 24 hours because my CV was in Arial 10pt and it was supposed to be in Arial 12pt. In the UK Research Council funding system there is absolutely no wriggle room.


  3. Pingback: Carta de intenções: passaporte acadêmico – Sobrevivendo na Ciência

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