20 Ways to Fail at Grant Proposal Writing

I have seen numerous proposals fail during my grant reviewing career. The reasons for this vary greatly. Some grantees fail due to a lack of understanding of the purpose of the grant, others due to time constraints. Although the following directions are of course meant ironically, it is not uncommon to see them in practice. Below are 20 grant writing practices that will ensure your proposal is rejected:

Before You Begin

  • Assume that it does not take long to write the proposal, and that you can quickly gather what is needed to submit the grant in a few days.
  • The Request for Application (RFA) is not meant for you to review carefully. It is just gibberish that some office at your institution will figure out and just let you know what is important for you to follow. This is secretarial work, and you received your doctorate, which makes you above all of these beside-the-point particulars.
  • Don’t bother to ask the opinions of your colleagues about your project. They may steal your good idea and then you will not be able to be promoted and get tenure. Be certain to keep your ideas to yourself. The more you share, the more vulnerable you will be.

Writing the Proposal

  • Don’t bother stating a goal, hypotheses and objectives. Just assume that the reviewers are smart enough to understand what these are via your methodology.
  • Remember to use specific aims and objectives that are all dependent on each other. This way you can use the experiments over and over again.
  • It is important to speak about innovation and transformative ideas, especially if you are writing to the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Just tell the reviewers that your proposal is transformative and that it constitutes “out of the box” thinking. If you say it enough times, they will understand and believe that it is transformative. After all, if you say so, it must be so. It would be good if you bold and underline these words because the reviewers want them to stand out.
  • Since you have done this research so many times, why not cut and paste from other grants, so you can prove that you have worked on your proposal before? Really, do not be concerned about formatting. Reviewers will understand that busy people do not have time to pay attention to such irrelevant details. They will know you are too important to be bothered by such immaterial minutiae.
  • Don’t forget to use lots of jargon and acronyms and don’t bother to define them. If, on the other hand, you want to help the reviewers, who in your opinion should know what you are talking about, just define your jargon somewhere in the middle of the proposal. Be certain to write in long paragraphs, and include your definitions somewhere in that narrative. After all, the reviewers need to work for the money they receive to review your proposal. Serving as a reviewer is not a vacation, and your proposal will give them something to do.
  • It is important that you talk about things that all good scholars talk about, such as publications and conference presentations. Just let the reviewers know that when the time comes, you will publish in important journals and give many presentations.
  • Don’t bother with such miniscule fine points as discussing what you will do if your data does not turn out the way you expect. After all, things always go as planned.
  • If your project involves work that you have done before, don’t bother to mention your preliminary data because you will just be repeating yourself. Everyone should assume that the difficult design you are presenting is justified.
  • Impress upon reviewers your concern for global warming by using all the space on each page. Leaving white space on a page is just wasteful. If you are a good steward of the environment, you should abide by this rule at all times.
  • Don’t bother with grammar, spelling, transitions, and uniformity. A good idea is a good idea, and a nice informal writing style will make reviewers feel like they are reading an email from an old friend.


  • Using illustrations and graphs is a waste of good space. Use them as little as possible, and just include them on some pages without references. After all, the reviewers can get some good exercise by moving their fingers from page to page.
  • In your illustrations use as many extra boxes and arrows as you can to demonstrate how well you can draw complex ideas. Try to stay clear of narratives that explain these visuals. The more complex a visual is, the more it will impress the reviewers.

Second Submissions

  • If your proposal is a second submission, tell the reviewers off. They just did not get the point, and this will be your chance to let them know that they do not know what they are doing, especially since they have turned down a proposal that you said was transformative.


  • Since panelists want to prove how smart they are, don’t bother speaking about experiments and tests. The smart ones will figure these out and tell the group, so they can shine with their remarks.
  • Use interesting subheadings and label your objectives. Then label your methodology in a way that does not relate to the objectives. This will be an important challenge for reviewers. It will even further confirm their intelligence.
  • When it comes to citations from your literature, use them from as many sources as possible, whether they pertain to your project or not. You want to demonstrate that you are a well-read scholar and can use citations from everyone. Your reviewers will be impressed by the Renaissance researcher that you are.

Submitting the Proposal

  • When submitting through, wait until everyone else has submitted, so that you have an easy time with the process that others think is so difficult. A good time to start this is somewhere between 3:30 to 4:00 p.m., the day that it is due.

One would not think that the above offenses are routinely committed by proposal writers. It is however a given that grantees are often rushed, not quite prepared, overestimate their abilities and underestimate the complexity of the process. The above 20 faulty approaches will guarantee the rejection of your proposal.

Mathilda Harris

Over the past 18 years, she has written grants, conducted capital campaigns, developed strategic plans for grant procurement, and assisted individuals and institutions to write winning proposals for various donors.

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