Want to Get a Grant? Change Your Style

Every time I look at a grant proposal that my colleagues in academia give me to review, I am astounded at how difficult it is to read and comprehend. They often use extensive scholarly language that is specific to their field. Their proposals sound like publications in academic journals rather than business plans for grant requests. In addition, they have a very hard time pricing a grant, as they tend to price ideas rather than concrete activities. To succeed at grant writing, most researchers need to learn a new set of writing skills, since academic writing has its own scholarly style, defined by journals and papers, while grant writing should be focused on the donor’s mission and goals.

Below I outline six major differences between the two contrasting styles and clarify how the two approaches require different skills:


Academic writing is:

  • A scholarly pursuit for publication in peer-reviewed journals that is centered on the theory and thesis of the idea. Attention is on the complexity of the subject and the effectiveness of the methodology that was used to prove the hypothesis. Ultimately, it is a scholarly publication that proves the ability and innovation of the individual author.

Grant writing is:

  • Constrained by the Request for Proposal (RFP) and/or the sponsor. It is a plan that is centered on the goal, objectives, activities, evaluation and anticipated outcomes of the project. It becomes a business plan centered around the donor’s mission and goals.


Academic writing is:

  • Expository and informs the reader about what has occurred that resulted in the publication. The text is organized around one topic and developed according to a pattern or combination of patterns.
  • Written in the past tense, since it is research that has been accomplished. This often leads to writing in the passive voice.
  • Not limited by length constraints, and if it is, it is not restricted by the number of spaces or words.
  • Written in an impersonal tone, which is objective and dispassionate.
  • Rewarded when it is written in difficult prose, which utilizes jargon, long paragraphs and numerous acronyms. It is assumed that the difficult prose is meant to be understood by the sophisticated reader.

Grant writing is:

  • Written in persuasive language that it is meant to sell the idea to the sponsor. Innovative and transformative ideas are meant to be convincing through the “so what question”, preliminary data, and literature review.
  • Written in the present and future tenses, since it is work that will be accomplished and proven via the hypothesis, objectives, and outcomes.
  • Strictly constrained by the requirements specified in the RFP.
  • Written in a personal tone that conveys salesmanship, passion, and impact.
  • Encourages easy language that is written in short and precise sentences and paragraphs. Jargon and acronyms are highly discouraged, since those who review the proposal do not have the time to interpret what the prospective grantee is saying.

Ultimately, academic writing is primarily individualistic, whereas grant writing is a team effort that can include colleagues across disciplines. The transition from one set of skills to the other is not an easy one, since most academics have not been trained in the art of selling a product. This certainly does not mean that learning grant writing skills is an insurmountable task. It simply implies that a transition needs to be made in the presentation and description of ideas.

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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