Five musts to help you write your next winning grant application
Updated: Apr 5
Five tips to help you manage the critical elements of space, time, and feedback.
Grant funding can be one of the biggest boosts for your career. An ERC Starting Grant, for example, can fund up to €1.5 million of research for five years. That fortunate outcome, though, is reserved for only about 10% of applicants. The high competition means that anything that increases your chances of success is well worth it. These concrete steps can help you plan and write a better grant application today.
Tip #1 - Write the abstract or summary first
Most grant applications require a short abstract, merits, or motivation statement. In a very short space, sometimes 2500 characters or fewer, you have to pack in all the essentials of your proposal and convince panelists that you're the right researcher to do it. By design, these limitations force you to exclude. For a client's most-recent application, both the abstract and merits statement took five rounds of writing, revising, and rewriting to get them to the exact character count. Fighting against character limits is not something you want to be doing on the day of the deadline, so write these first. Every change usually puts you over the limit and requires several revisions to pare it down again. Doing this early on will also give you a succinct summary of your proposal, so when people ask you "What is your proposal about?" you'll have a ready answer. You'll also have a core text to help anchor you if you get lost or lose focus when writing the rest of your application.
"I think some proposals fall down when the Project Summary fails to tell the reader what you are going to do to address the project goals. If you finish reading the proposal summary and can’t visualize how the project will proceed if funded, this component of the proposal has failed." — Robert L. Hawley, Earth Sciences, Dartmouth College (as quoted in Friedland, Folt, & Mercer, Writing Successful Science Proposals)
Tip #2 - Start every day with the small stuff
If the portal allows you, enter standard details such as name, address, and birth date well ahead of the deadline and save these sections. Update your CV and make sure it conforms to the funder's requirements (i.e., page limits, formatting). Complete any declarations, organization details, and participant and collaborator information (it's amazing how long it can take to track down accurate and current contact details for a long list of collaborators). Ask for letters of support and references two months before the deadline. All these tasks can easily be done in short pockets of time, and you'll be glad you did them when you're uploading all the documents on the day before the deadline (see Tip #5). Starting with these tasks first every day will also help you warm up to and ease into the other - tougher - writing, revision, and figure-formatting tasks.
"It would be great if there was a grant writer on your staff who handled the grant process so you could focus on the research project or whatever purpose the grant was intended to fund. However, we all know that this is not the reality most of the time." - Rajan & Tomal, Grant Writing : Practical Strategies for Scholars and Professionals
Tip #3 - Shop it around early on in rough form
Once you have the abstract written, put your proposal in the form of a very-rough-draft presentation (limit yourself to five slides), with very-rough-draft figures - even hand-drawn ones. Up until about two weeks before you submit, you want to get feedback from every colleague, peer, or office mate you can, and a 30-minute presentation is much easier for mock reviewers to say yes to than reading through 12 pages of text. The aim of getting feedback is to find out every possible weak point of your proposal, and presenting it in rough form makes it easier for mock reviewers to give honest feedback - and easier for you to accept it: if you spent only half-an-hour on a figure, a serious critique is less likely to deflate you, and you'll be more willing to spend the time you need to afterward to get it right.
Tip #4 - Treat everyone as a potential reviewer
The most important advice for grant writing (as in almost all writing) is to write for your reader. In this case, your reader is a busy grant reviewer who has taken on this important peer-review task on top of other pressing responsibilities. Your job in every line of your application is to keep them reading. Don't give them any reason to put you in the rejection pile. To make sure your proposal does that, ask specific questions of your mock reviewers: instead of "What do you think of this proposal?", ask "What do you think is the weakest part of this proposal?" or "Why would you not fund this proposal?" As your proposal gets closer to submission, ask for feedback on individual written sections (as opposed to the entire draft proposal). Match the sections you share to the expertise of the reviewer and, again, ask pointed questions, such as "Do the methods match the research question/hypothesis? If not, how should they be revised?" For more-general sections like the introduction, abstract, or summary, ask someone who you know writes these sections well and can invest a few hours making revisions.
Tip #5 - Submit one day before the deadline
Even if you can't submit 24 hours before the deadline (and you should, putting this earlier deadline in all your calendars so you believe it), you'll be thanking yourself for those extra 24 hours, because you'll likely need them. The time killers and source of headaches on these applications is in the details: figures, captions, portal glitches or crashes (usually on submission day as the deadline approaches). Not being able to submit because of last-minute problems, or submitting a proposal with errors, after having invested all that time in preparing your proposal, would be devastating. Now imagine that you have an extra 24 hours to do it all.
The three enemies of grant applications
The first: space. Grant applications are intentionally much shorter than you'd like them to be. Getting your proposal down to (or even under) the character, word, and page limits is an enormous challenge, and takes a lot of enemy #2: time. A grant application will absolutely take you more time than you think, so start now and create a list of all the tasks you need to do before submitting. If you get stuck on the abstract, switch to the admin tasks for a while and come back to the abstract later. All tasks count in grant applications, because even if you're missing just one document, you probably won't be able to submit. The final enemy is feedback - or, rather, too little. Don't wait until you think it's "perfect" to start sharing. Do it now, and get it from anyone who can give you advice and recommendations. Treat them all as potential reviewers. The more you can get, the better your proposal will be. And that might be just the thing that tips the scales in your favor.