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Tips and Advice for Proposal Writing

General Advice

  • Set a personal deadline of one month before the granting agency's deadline - it always takes longer than you think it will to polish the proposal.
  • Verify the deadline, which will be either a "postmarked by" or "received by" date.
  • Look at the funding agency's recent grant recipients and titles of their projects: do they support the type of work you are proposing?
  • Contact individuals (if needed) for referee letters, letters of support, or letters of commitment as early as possible - give them time to fit it into their schedules.
  • Look at successful past proposals whenever possible (call the program officer or the Office of Grants).
  • Ask colleagues - including some from other fields - to review and critique your proposal. Get feedback on the "grantsmanship" of the proposal as well as the scholarship. Staff in the Grants Office are more than happy to give you feedback from the granting agency's point of view.
  • When in doubt, contact the program officer for answers to your questions.
  • Do not give up if your proposal is not funded on your first try; request reviewer comments and apply them to your second attempt.

Writing Tips

  • Grant writing is utilitarian, not creative (the creativity is in the conceptualization of the project).
  • Limit the use of quotations - they take up valuable space that should be used to describe the project.
  • Strive for clarity - your proposal must be understood by educated laypeople, but also be accurate for any specialist who might be on the review panel.
  • Never assume that reviewers will be experts in your sub-specialty - define your terms, use acronyms sparingly, and avoid jargon.
  • Thoroughly read every word of the program announcement or request for proposals (RFP), highlight key points, then re-read it.

Writing Goals

  • Establish the need for your research (particularly if it is in an area already well researched).
  • Discuss your proposed research in the context of your overall project.
  • Prove the significance of your project (that it has not been done before is not compelling enough).
  • Keep in mind that reviewers want to see an "orderly mind" at work in your proposal.
  • Address every bullet or criterion in the guidelines.
  • Demonstrate your familiarity with the current literature related to your project.
  • Include a timeline for your work; you want to demonstrate that the research you are proposing is feasible within the proposed project period.
  • Set a positive tone by using the active rather than the passive voice; your writing should reflect confidence in your project and in the forthcoming funding.
  • At least one panelist has to be enthusiastic about your proposal - 50% of proposals are never discussed.

Titles

  • Straightforward, descriptive titles are preferred.
  • Avoid gimmicks or attempts at humor as these may backfire or offend the reviewers.
  • Consider adding descriptions (such as dates or locations) that will help to clarify your project.

Budgets

  • Make certain that the budgeted costs meet the trends/giving potential of the donor.
  • Avoid exaggerating costs and tacking on frills.
  • Be as specific as possible.
  • Work with the Office of Grants.

Referee Letters

  • Choose your referees very carefully and be sure they are supportive of both you and your work.
  • No more than one referee should be from HWS, no more than one should be a PhD mentor, and, if possible, at least one should have stature in your field.
  • A good letter can overcome a weak letterhead; a strong letterhead cannot overcome a weak letter.
  • Letters should address your project and your unique qualifications to carry it out; a discussion of your teaching ability is generally not very helpful.
  • Keep in mind that these letters can help address potential weaknesses of your proposal such as the lack of a track record, relevance of research, or feasibility of the project.