Lost at Sea: How Not to Kill a Grant Application, Part Four

When Britain's 18th century Board of Longitude offered £20,000 to anyone who could accurately tell the time at sea, plans and proposals flooded in from all over the world--from Royal Astronomers to novice watchmakers. A major problem, however, was that many contenders never considered the actual conditions of the contest, and so not one proposal aroused the board's interest for over 15 years! Unfortunately, today's review boards still face lackluster proposals from researchers who continue to make the same mistakes that doomed their seafaring predecessors: The science is mediocre, sentences ramble, there are no headings, figures are unclear, sections are disorganized, and the writing is uninspired.

"People really underestimate the value of good English," remarks Tim Nilsen, a molecular biologist who reviews applications for the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) Cell Development and Function study section. Nilsen observes that applicants are still "very casual in the way they write"--possibly because they "write grant applications as if they're talking to labmates who already know and understand their projects." Reviewers, however, become frustrated at having to read, reread, and decipher a research plan before understanding a project.

"Say it again, Sam."

So how can applicants be sure they submit a well-written application that doesn't leave the reviewer miserable? One way is to "read aloud to themselves what they write," suggests Nilsen. This way, long-winded text and unclear explanations will quickly become evident. Sentences that begin with "This" or "That" or end in dangling participles are "horrible," says Nilsen: "Many grant applications are underprocessed. The aesthetic qualities of an application are seldom looked at or addressed." To save space for example, "sometimes people don't leave spaces between paragraphs," leaving reviewers with a "blur of words" to digest, says Nilsen.

Bold or italicized text should "help guide the reader's eye through the application to pick up important points," says Klaus Nuesslein, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He also recommends "repeating the words or concepts in the title throughout the application." This way you keep reiterating your overall questions and goals, driving home your message and aims.

Funnels, Paper, and Brainstorms

Nuesslein had some other conceptual and practical grant-writing tips tucked up the sleeve of his lab coat: "Picture two funnels placed on their sides and joined together tip to tip," he begins. At one end, you start off with a well-rounded abstract and introduction. Then as you enter the joined stems, discuss the "heart of the proposal--the actual specific problems you hope to solve and why it is important--in very clear, concise language," says Nuesslein. Enter the second funnel and "open back up again with conclusions, address the 'So, what?' questions, and finally finish with a strong summary and a powerful take-home message."

But how do you write so that your text flows smoothly in through one funnel and out through the other? "Go out and buy a huge sheet of paper, pin it up on a wall, and write headers on it. Brainstorm and write down every idea that comes to mind, in any order," he suggests. "Connect the ideas and words by arrows and develop a visual flow." Once your network is complete, "convert the pathways into typed sentences, following the logic of the arrows." Nuesslein suggests you work in increments: "When you write, write in paragraphs."

Review thermodynamics

"I've discovered over many years of reviewing applications that there is another Law of Thermodynamics," joked Elliot Postow to attendees at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting held in Washington, D.C., this week. Speaking at the Trolling for Dollars grant seminar, the director of NIH's Division of Clinical and Population-Based Studies explained that "the more energy and time a reviewer has to devote to figuring out your application, the less energy a reviewer has to actually review your application!"

Positive and Negative Feedback

Editing is a critical component of writing, but many grant writers are too close to their work to do it properly. Some scientists let professional editors sharpen their text. Others send out drafts to peers or senior colleagues. Circulating your research plan should be seen as the halfway mark of the grant-writing marathon, not the final leg. Gary Gillis, a postdoctoral scientist at Harvard's Concord Field Station, for example, wrote a postdoc fellowship application while finishing up his graduate studies. He then let his entire Ph.D. thesis committee assess it, which resulted in two rewrites. Gillis then sent the draft to senior investigators within his field, incorporated more specific details, and rewrote yet another draft for final comments.

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff--Just Do It!

Nilsen urges applicants to bolster such drafts with data from relatively easy but purposeful experiments. While conceding that perhaps not many researchers will actually attempt this, Nilsen recommends that "people write the proposal one full grant cycle before the intended deadline." Not only do obvious experiments strengthen an application's preliminary data, but they help "make the writing much more crisp." Those experiments may include simple immunoprecipitations, a quick round of DNA amplifications, or simple restriction digests. By completing a proposal months ahead of time, you can do the experiments and amend your text with the actual results. But don't include "excessive amounts of experimental detail," advises Nilsen. "Write with confidence. Unless you're describing a brand-new technique, I don't want to see buffer concentrations. I don't want to see your oligonucleotides either. Tell a story. How is your work going to advance the field?" As a member of the Trolling for Dollars audience put it: "Typically, a reviewer will read your application only once, so you really need that 'Wow!' factor."

John Harrison, the self-made British clockmaker who persevered through a lifetime of trials and tribulations, eventually created a "watch" that could keep accurate time at sea. Harrison's years of determination, superb technical expertise, and meticulous documentation culminated in an invention that forever changed navigation at sea. Likewise, you will need the perseverance, the science, and the "write stuff" to realize your goals. You never know--unlike the majority of proposals received by the Board of Longitude, if prepared well, your next application may arouse everyone's interest. You may even sail away with the coveted prize itself!

Part five of the series: summing up the facts in the case.

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers

Follow Science Careers

A 3D plot from a model of the Ebola risk faced at different West African regions over time.
dancing shoes