One of the primary reasons for first-rate ideas not being funded is inferior writing style. Unfortunately, this issue is often found even in the proposals of senior researchers. Paying close attention to how the request is presented and the language that is used to make the case for funding can remedy this problem. There are many examples to demonstrate that even the most complicated subjects, such as elaborate scientific research, can be expressed clearly, succinctly and in excellent prose. Oliver Sacks, neurologist, author and physician, spins his science in touching and memorable stories that weave the art of expression in complex terms that, at the same time, seem so simple, broad, and universal. Ernest Hemingway is another master of the story that is told with brevity, strength and careful selection of “the word”. Both of these writers interlace complexity with clarity, and simplicity with strength. So let’s see what we can learn from their styles:
Use short sentences
You have to keep in mind that reviewers normally have 15 to 20 proposals to read and when they come upon the one that makes their lives easier, and is interesting and profound, they pay attention. You do not ever want length and verbosity of your writing to confuse its meaning. If long sentences are not crafted carefully, this can easily happen. Shorter sentences allow the reader to digest a difficult idea quicker. When Hemingway was asked to tell a story in six words, he came up with the following: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Although this is an example of extreme brevity, the proposal writer should strive to write sentences as short and clear as reasonably possible when explaining his or her purpose, selling the idea or describing details.
Use short paragraphs
As with concise and clear sentences, the same rational applies to the paragraph. It should initially capture the importance and meaning of an idea, and then follow with detailed explanations of how the idea will unfold. The NSF effectively achieves this in their definition of interdisciplinarity:
NSF has long recognized the value of interdisciplinary research in pushing fields forward and accelerating scientific discovery. Important research ideas often transcend the scope of a single discipline or program. NSF also understands that the integration of research and education through interdisciplinary training prepares a workforce that undertakes scientific challenges in innovative ways. Thus, NSF gives high priority to promoting interdisciplinary research and supports it through a number of specific solicitations.
The first sentence introduces the topic and is the most general part of the paragraph. The following sentences support the initial idea with precision and detail. The concluding sentence summarizes the ideas and makes the transition to what will follow.
Be positive, not negative
A grant proposal should never use negative writing; it should instead use persuasiveness framed in a positive manner. This positions the reviewer to think positively about your idea, and at the end of the day, recommend it for funding. One rule of thumb is to never complain about shortcomings like lack of resources or support. Instead, speak of the resources you currently have that are helpful in phase one of your work, and how they will be augmented in phase two (by your proposed grant). In terms of language, positivity is important. Thus, rather than saying something is inexpensive, you might say it is economical. Language affects perceptions and shapes how we are interpreted and remembered.
Tell the story with vigor, images and purpose
Vigorous language comes from passion, focus and intention. It is the difference between being bland and being memorable. For example, we can use imagery to imagine that the economy is “ailing” like a sick patient and requires constant and long-term care. Next, consider a city with a high crime rate. We could paint two different vivid pictures by referring to the crime epidemic as either a “beast” or a “virus”. If we choose the word “beast”, the implication is that we need to bring a team of people to fight or eliminate it. If, on the other hand, we use “virus”, the implication is that preventive solutions might diagnose and lessen the problem. Knowing your audience will determine the best approach, so it is important to strategically think of the words that will create the impact and the visual image of the story you want to tell.
Write a masterpiece rather than just words
Hemingway once said: “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of [expletive].” The expletives he committed to the waste basket. This seems to be most difficult to achieve when we are in a hurry, writing a proposal that we understand well in our heads, but which does not easily translate to the page. It is that translation word by word, expression by expression, that will lead to that one page that makes the difference and conveys well articulated, clear, and immediately understood ideas. The NIH Specific Aims Page and the NSF Summary Page are great examples of how one page can be a masterpiece. On these pages every word is made to count and nothing is included that does not move the reader from one important and needed thought to the next, until the complete story is told.
In all grant proposals, writers are telling the donor what they need to achieve and why they should receive the funds to achieve it. Standing apart from the crowd will require what Oliver Sacks was so effectively capable of, using language to put his ideas in terms that his audience could both connect with and understand. Ultimately, good ideas deserve to be, and must be, expressed clearly, succinctly, strongly, passionately, and with conviction.
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