The focus of this blog is effective grant writing. The reviewers of your proposal will be the ultimate judges of your funding success. To assure that they are enthused, you need to address: Whose story is this? What is this about? How does the material link backward and forward? What material warrants my attention?
Let’s begin with Joan Didion, who talked about the “infinite power” of grammar: “To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed.”
She reminded me of Gopen and Swan’s seminal paper, “The Science of Scientific Writing,” which replaced the standard rule-focused approach to writing improvement with an interpretative approach focused on readers’ expectations.
Your readers — the reviewers of your proposal — are looking for answers to specific questions. But more importantly, they expect to find them in particular places. When the answers aren’t where they expect them, they’re more likely to miss your point entirely, or worse, assume that whatever they do find there is the real point.
Their first question is ”whose story is this”, and they look for that answer in the subject of your sentence. Consider these two sentences, which describe the same activity but have different subjects:
- Training in responsible conduct of research will be provided.
- Students will receive training in responsible conduct of research.
For the first sentence, reviewers are more likely to expect details about the curriculum; for the second, details about how many or which students will be trained.
Their second question is “what is this about”, and they look for the answer in a strong and active verb. Too much academic writing converts strong verbs into nouns — a process called nominalization. Usually, this requires adding a weak or auxiliary verb. Consider these sentences:
- The team will meet monthly.
- The team will have a monthly meeting.
Those two extra words seem negligible here… but if you nominalize just half your verbs, you’ll waste a full page in a 20-page proposal.
The reviewers’ third question is “how does the material link backward and forward?” They look for context and perspective at the start of a sentence or paragraph – what Gopen and Swan call the topic position. To maintain your proposal’s logical flow, reserve the topic position for old material and connect it to what follows. If you put new material here, you’ll change the focus of your story and increase the chance readers will follow the wrong trail.
Their final question is ”what material warrants my attention?” They expect to find new and important material at the end of a section, paragraph, sentence, or even a clause. This is the stress position – and Gopen and Swan claim that the misplacement of stress-worthy information is the number one writing/reading problem.
The topic and stress positions are especially important in panel reviews which have a mix of “expert” and “lay” readers. Even a National Institutes of Health (NIH) study section which appears to be populated by experts in your field will include people who are less attenuated to the fine points of your arguments.
The lay readers need context to understand where you’re headed. They’re more likely to parse the topic position closely but defer to the experts’ judgments about their details. The opposite holds for the experts — they’ll skim the topic position but read the stress position closely to evaluate your theory and methods.
You will win more grants if you align your points with reader expectations. This reader-oriented approach echoes Joan Didion’s thoughts about sentence structure. Rhetoric is like real estate: the three most important concerns are location, location, and location.