The Most Important Advice for New Grant Writers

Several million dollars in funding, heaps of grant proposals that have been implemented, numerous partnerships, and many interdisciplinary successes have taught me that grant writing is a process. Like any other skill, it takes passion, preparation, credibility, and perseverance. If you are writing your first grant proposal, it is extremely important you remember the following key factors.


Superior grants are well-prepared and demonstrate strong attention to detail. Inferior ones are often written last-minute “in hopes” of being funded and will almost always be rejected. It takes time to complete an excellent literature review, develop preliminary data, assemble a credible team, speak with program officers, and write clearly and logically.

In my own grant writing experience, I made every word count. I had my colleagues criticize my grant, asked naïve readers to tell me what they did not understand, and brought in editors and graphic designers for the final touches. I have always viewed proposals as business plans that should be at the same time works of art. I look at things this way because when it comes to the donor’s evaluation, there’s the good, the excellent, and the outstanding. Only the outstanding get funded.


I believe that perseverance is a key component of success. Your focus should not be on the difficulty, but on the achievement. Not knowing how to write a proposal is a common problem for all beginners. Initially, as a “young investigator” you may have trouble being funded simply because you do not know how to go about it. Training on how to put a good proposal together can be a first and very helpful step. Preparing a proposal as part of an experienced team can be a second helpful strategy. Ultimately, submitting the proposal to the best of your ability will be a third. Failing at that first submission should then lead to a better understanding of how to repair your mistakes. It might take several tries, but perseverance will ultimately pay off.


Grants require competence, strength of the ideas, and proven track records. One of the key evaluation components for all grant submissions is the credibility of the requester. If you don’t have a good track record, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be funded. You might have to demonstrate previous success in less competitive grants such as those offered internally by your institution or through foundation support. A strong publication record in top journals and superior recommendations from deans and department chairs are also extremely important.


You need to write your proposal with passion and communicate that excitement. Excellent grant writers know how to tell a great story that is both passionate and pragmatic. Your story should convey the overall impact of resolving difficult problems for your constituents, or the importance of the science for which you are filling a research gap. You must make it obvious that your proposal matters by addressing the impact, the “so what question”, and the paradigm shift you will make in the field. It is this passion that you want to convey to the reviewers.

At the end of the day, superior grants are a product of preparation, preparation, and more preparation. Once you are prepared, credibility, attention to detail, passion, and conviction will enthuse, and ultimately convince your donors. Finally, learning from your mistakes and persevering in spite of difficulties will eventually pay dividends and set you on a path to become a successful independent investigator.

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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