A 2015 meta-analysis of more than 1000 articles with advice to proposal writers showed that most of the top 10 recommendations focus on strategic positioning and project design.1 I’ve seen scores of presentations advising faculty how to write more competitive grant proposals and I rarely hear anything besides these. Only one of the top 10 recommendations deals with writing per se. It says to “describe activities and significance persuasively, concisely, and clearly.”
What does that mean in practical terms?
It turns out that professional writers—novelists, essayists, and journalists—have a lot to say about that. If you google “writers on writing” you’ll find hundreds of quotes. Here are five of my favorites and how they apply to proposal writing:
Elmore Leonard: “Leave out the parts the readers tend to skip.”
Simply put, most proposals have too much information. A Pew study showed TV weather reporters actually became more skeptical of climate change as they accumulated knowledge. Articles, book chapters, and books aim to inform; proposals are meant to persuade. To do so, give an expert audience only as much background as it needs to see that you’re grounded in best practice; focus on what you’re doing that’s new. Conversely, give lay readers only what they need to understand the elegance of what you’re proposing and what they’ll get from it.
Practically, this also alleviates the ubiquitous and crippling struggle against page limits.
Steven King: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart”
This can apply in several ways. You might have a profound insight that puts a whole new wrinkle on the field but doesn’t change your work plan in any meaningful way. Discussing it here distracts the reader from other concepts. Save it for a book or article. Or, you want to do something that is really cool and are burning to share it… but there isn’t enough time or treasure in the budget to actually do it right. Leave it out of the proposal and talk about it with friends over a distilled beverage. The most common way this comes up is when you share your document with colleagues and there’s something that no one understands. Maybe that idea isn’t ready for prime time.
Joan Didion: “All I know about grammar is its infinite power. 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.”
Gopen and Swan’s seminal article “The Science of Scientific Writing” cites research showing that readers interpret your writing based on six expectations.2 Among these: they expect to find any new or important information at the end of a discursive unit (i.e., a clause, sentence, paragraph, or section). If it’s elsewhere, they are likely to miss it and interpret what is there as your main point. Conversely, they expect to find context and perspective at the start of the unit. Violating these expectations increases the likelihood that your writing will be misinterpreted.
Kurt Vonnegut: “Give the reader at least one character he can root for.”
The most persuasive arguments use three rhetorical devices: logos (logic), ethos (authority), and pathos (emotion)—but the academic argument shuns pathos. Granted, it isn’t relevant for most single investigator research projects—but it is somewhat relevant for center grant proposals, more so for projects that include trainees, and highly relevant for fellowship applications. Even on single investigator research proposals, you can make an emotional connection with the reader using metaphors to bring your vision into their world. Effective use of pathos to augment strong arguments from logic and authority can provide a competitive edge.
George R.R. Martin: “There are two types of writers: architects and gardeners.”
Architects plan in advance – where will everything go, what each paragraph will say. Gardeners plant a seed but don’t know how the plant will develop. Martin is a proud gardener, but he doesn’t have to address formal review criteria. You, on the other hand, need architectural drawings—storyboards—that lay out the structure and content of each section (and even each paragraph). That’s how to ensure your proposal addresses all the review criteria, mirrors the language in the program announcement, and gives proportional attention to the factors that go into the evaluation.
1 Jennifer Wisdom, Halley Riley, and Neely Myer, “Recommendations for Writing Successful Grant Proposals: An Information Synthesis” Academic Medicine 90(12):1720-25 (2015)
2 George Gopen and Judith Swan, “The Science of Scientific Writing,” American Scientist 78:550-558 (1990)