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Grant Writing Tips and References

The grant or fellowship proposal is a persuasive genre of writing that should resemble a plan of action more than an academic paper. Because most sources of funding are highly competitive, reviewers—faced with tall stacks of proposals to assess in a limited time frame—seize any opportunity to narrow the pool of contenders. Your challenge is to ensure that your application ends up in the pile of finalists! You can improve your chances by:


  1. Reading the funder’s web pages in their entirety: Most sites include considerable amounts of useful information about the purpose of the grant/fellowship, previous winners, thematic foci, webinars, writing tips, FAQs, and detailed submission instructions.
  2. Starting to draft the proposal 3–6 months before the submission deadline: The most competitive proposals will have undergone a series of revisions to make them as clear, logically, and persuasive as possible. Ask peers and advisors from both your own and other disciplines to review and comment on your drafts.
  3. Following the instructions/prompts exactly: Some funding organizations make it clear that if certain criteria—ranging from word or page length to font and margin size and number of letters of recommendation—are not adhered to, the proposal will not be reviewed.
  4.  Drafting a checklist of proposal requirements. Using a checklist will help prevent you from inadvertently omitting sections or key issues, missing deadlines, or forgetting to undertake required tasks.
  5.  Informing your recommendation letter writers at least a month before the letters are due. You can save your letter writers time and ensure more targeted content by providing them with an overview of the fellowship/grant, and suggesting which points about you and your work you would like them to emphasize. Some application guidelines include specific information about what should be included in the letters, and/or provide guidance to letter writers.
  6.  Being conscious of your audience. The content and style of your application should differ depending on whether the reviewers will be specialists in your discipline, or generalists.Often, the application website will specify the characteristics of the reviewers, and many funders advise applicants to write proposals that can be understood by someone outside of your discipline .
  7.   Reading the evaluation/selection criteria before you start drafting. Keep the criteria in mind as you draft your proposal to ensure you are supplying the information needed to assess the value and feasibility of your proposed project. Review the criteria again when you have finished to confirm that you have covered the requirements.
  8.  Keeping jargon to a minimum, defining your terms, and translating foreign language terms into English: This is particularly important for proposals that are more likely to be read by generalists rather than specialists in your discipline.  Reviewers who cannot fully understand your topic or what you propose to do are not likely to give your application a high score.
  9.  Convincing your reviewers that your project is feasible: Make it clear that you can accomplish what you are proposing to do in the allotted time period, and that you have the requisite skills to carry out the research/writing.

Suggested key sections or points to include in proposals, organized according to the funder’s specifications or, if none are prescribed, in your own logical sequence:

  • A short overview of your project, similar to an abstract, that describes your central question, hypothesis, or research topic, the theoretical and methodological framework in which it is situated, how, where, and when you plan to carry out your work, the key ways your research will contribute to your discipline and others, and any other characteristics that distinguish your work. Some applicants use a provocative question, problem, or story to engage the reader.
  • A background section that describes the context of your work, why you decided to focus on this topic or question, and why it is significant.
  • A theory section that covers the main conceptual framework and key scholarly works upon which your work is based, or to which it is reacting. How does your proposed research build upon or depart from this body of work? How will your research change how your discipline and other fields of research think about your topic?
  • A methodology section that describes the way you plan to carry out your research. Justify your choice of site(s) and sources, and how you plan to approach your data or materials. If you are using a new or unusual methodology, be sure to mention it, and explain how your choice of methodology represents an optimal way to approach your central question, hypothesis, or focus.
  • A preliminary work section that details any work that has led to this phase of your research/writing, including dates, places, and sources of funding.
  • A skills and preparedness section that describes any expertise that you have acquired that has prepared you to undertake the proposed research: language and technical skills, training, certificates, classes.
  • A work plan that describes the work you plan to achieve in the proposed time frame, where you plan to travel and for how long, and what you plan to achieve and/or produce.
  • Where appropriate, details about individuals with whom you plan to collaborate, key advisors, and institutional affiliations and their associated strengths. Describe how your relationship with these entities will facilitate and strengthen your research.

Some funding organizations include very useful guidance on how to write competitive proposals. Here are links to selected articles on grant-writing strategies:

Gillis, Christina M. “Writing Proposals for ACLS Fellowship Competitions” (American Council of Learned Societies) http://www.acls.org/uploadedfiles/publications/programs/writing_fellowship_proposals.pdf

Porter, Robert. “What Do Grant Reviewers Really Want Anyway?” 2005. Journal of Research Administration 36(2): 5–13.

Porter, Robert. “Why Academics Have a Hard Time Writing Grant Proposals.” 2007. Journal of Research Administration 38(2): 37–43.

Przeworski, Adam, and Frank Salomon. “On the Art of Writing Proposals” (Social Science Research Council): http://www.ssrc.org/publications/view/7A9CB4F4-815F-DE11-BD80-001CC477EC70/

Sword, Helen.  2012. “Inoculating against Jargonitis.” http://chronicle.com/article/Inoculating-Against-Jargonitis/132039/