Introduction to Grant Writing
Professional grant writers use clear, specific language to focus the reader’s attention, and to persuade the reader to fund their proposal. Learning to write successful grant proposals is no small task, but the writing process can become easier with practice and awareness of a few common missteps.
No doubt, the first step of successful grant writing is to plan the project, but the second step is following the directions of the granting organization (called, the grantmaker). In most cases, grantmakers require a(n): cover letter, executive summary, problem statements/need description, work schedule, budget, qualifications, conclusions, and appendices (or, supporting materials). Each section will have specific requirements and while keeping to a word limit is straightforward, being specific is less easy.
A Note on Following the Grantmaker’s Rules
Following directions helps the grantmaker read applications efficiently. Specificity of content will not only vary by grantmaker, but also by proposal sections. For example, a grantmaker may limit your application in general terms for background information on the contexts of your proposal:
“Please tell the grant committee in 2 to 3 pages about the support your institution or community will provide for your project if your proposal is granted the requested funds.”
Likewise, a grantmaker may explicitly limit your response to a section on the grant applicant’s qualifications by stating:
“In no more than 350 words, please summarize the grant applicant’s specific qualifications to manage the finances of the proposal. Discuss any financial experience (for example, certifications in accounting services), or other relevant office managerial duties that will help the applicant distribute funds and write regular quarterly financial reports.”
Keep in mind that many grantmakers will not read past the point of your departure from the application rules, no matter how worthy the project is or how neat and well designed the application package looks. So, while there is no guaranteed way to win a grantmaker’s funds, not following directions is a sure fire way of losing your chances at getting any funds. Ultimately, not following directions indicates carelessness—which is not a characteristic of a promising proposal.
Specificity in Writing: Say Exactly What You Mean
Some authors struggle with specificity because they do not want to claim an absolute. Claiming an absolute usually has to do with using “absolute terms,” such as: all, none, every, never, always, and the like. For example, “All school buses are yellow behemoths that take up every inch of the road.” This statement is false. There are school buses that are not yellow and not large. Additionally, buses cannot “take up every inch of the road” because they would crash into oncoming vehicles and they could not maneuver street corners. This language might artistically portray attributes such the physical size and color of a school bus—but grant writing is not usually the best place for such imagery.
Alternatively, absolute language creeps into writing by way of generalizations. Generalizations can come from statements that do not use absolute language such as “all” but include terms that categorize people, places, things, or actions. For example, “Today’s music is loud and obnoxious, unlike the classic sounds of Mozart.” This sentence generalizes all current music by stating, “Today’s music” which includes the more tranquil modern compositions of classical orchestras around the globe. Not all music composed in modern times is “loud and obnoxious” so using the general term “today’s music” is stating an absolute through a generalization. Besides, what do “loud” and “obnoxious” mean? Here is another, “Americans eat too much meat.” This is also false, as some Americans are vegetarian. For ways to work around such absolute language, see the handout on hedging.
Writing specifically does not have to be dry, but it needs to be clear. And a clearly written proposal is no accident. Grantmakers read many applications so they will embrace and appreciate your getting to the point. This means your proposal must specifically state your issue, and how you will employ the requested funds. Consider the following examples:
More specific term
Very specific term
Middle school students
Students aged twelve to fifteen
After 7 PM
Between 7PM and 10PM central time
Corn farmers with less than 50 square acres of farm land
High school algebra teachers with more than 15 years of teaching experience
Never been married
Consider the following question: “How will you use the purchased equipment?”
More specific response:
The non-specific response offers colorful descriptions of the high school’s location and the stars, but it does not give useful information. First, summer time is not the same time of year around the globe. Second, the non-specific response does not designate which students will use the purchased equipment, nor does it mention what they will do with the equipment—which is the thrust of the original question. Specificity of the population, however, is directly related to the goals of the proposal. If there are broadly defined goals, a more general description may be appropriate for your proposal. The point here is, as an author you will have to decide the degree of specificity your proposal needs according to the grantmaker’s requirements.
As you plan your proposal, remember that it is important to:
Specifically state the desired outcomes of your project. This is can be done by stating clear, measurable objectives, for example,
More specific response:
The non-specific response does not give useful information on what tests will be used; “end-of-the year” is when the test will be not which test will be used (remember to avoid jargon in your application). The more specific response includes when and which test will be used, and it clarifies the ambiguous word “improve” to a quantifiable amount. Not all learning measures are captured in percentage points, but the point here is vague terms such as, “improve, raise, lower, decease” indicate a direction not an amount. How much impact will the grantmaker get for their investment? Showing this is an important consideration for grant applications that seek a change in condition.
Specifically describe the methods you will implement to attain your objectives, for example,
More specific response:
The non-specific response does not give specific information about what the students will learn, who will teach the students, nor does it provide a way to know if the proposal is making progress. This is an important element for some grantmakers as they may require a detailed mid-term progress report.
Specifically state how you will know whether the proposal’s objectives have been achieved.
More specific response:
While the non-specific response seems to give specific information, there is a disparity in the quality of information in the specific response. This whole story description available in the specific response gives the grantmakers useful information and provides evidence that your project is well planned and organized.
Additional OWL resources you may find useful:
Imprecision in writing can result from ambiguous pronouns or poorly constructed relative pronouns in non-defining clauses, so a sentence level approach to editing is also needed.
Clarity in Writing: Avoiding the Department of Redundancy Department
The last tip on writing grants is to conserve words that are doing double duty. For example:
“better improvements” Improvements are by definition “better”, use “improvements”.
“Both teachers and students” This is the equivalent to saying, “teachers and students”. Some authors will argue that using “both” is a way of emphasizing “teachers and students,” but this could be done with italics, which is what italics were designed for—emphasis: “teachers and students”.
It is important to edit word-level redundancies like “unique, one-of-a-kind opportunity,” but it is also important to turn attention to longer phrases, such as:
“The entire math department, including the department head and new teachers, will fully participate in the support tutoring sessions” The phrase, “the entire math department” implies the whole department (new teachers and the department head, alike), “support tutoring sessions” is redundant because “tutoring sessions” are “support sessions”. Further reduction might yield the sentence, “All math department teachers will conduct the tutoring sessions.”
Here is another example:
Additional OWL resources you may find useful:
Some authors have found help with sentence clarity by using the paramedic method and by not over using hedging. Plagiarism is a concern of many authors, and help with quoting, paraphrasing and summarizing is also available on the OWL. Information on how to personalize and getting started with editing and proofreading can be found here.
Making the Request
After your opening, you should make your request. This is arguably the most important part of your letter and should be the most informative. Your recipient should be able to make an informed decision about whether to donate, and including the following in your request will help them do so:
Describe and Justify the Need
Be specific and clear about what your need is. If you want your audience to contribute, they must first believe that there is a need. This explanation should go beyond the obvious – the need for a donation. For example, if your college organization needs money to attend a conference, explain why your organization needs to attend the conference, not just why they are in need of monetary donations.
Consider how to best convince your audience that there is a need. What information will they be more likely to respond to? Generally, relevant quantifiable data such as statistics and other numerical data should be included, if available, to help describe and justify a need. You may choose, however, to describe the need using a brief story or by quoting those who have been involved in your particular program or event in the past.
It may be the case that meeting the need you described will be or can be seen as difficult. For example, if there is a tight time constraint. If there are possible obstacles to your success that are easily identifiable, don’t ignore them. Instead, mention and then counter them – briefly. Minimize them by showing the competency of the group on whose behalf you write.
Your audience should know exactly what it is you are asking of them. For example, if you are requesting a contribution in the form of product, your audience should know how much product – a particular monetary amount’s worth? A particular number of items? Even if you are willing to take any amount, state your goal amount. Being unspecific may come across as unorganized, unprofessional, and makes your audience less likely to contribute.
Remember that you can (and often should) ask for different contributions from different recipients, based on their resources and your relationship with them. Remember that the other aspects of your request should be modified to fit the type of contribution you are requesting. You may also choose to provide several donation options for your recipient to choose from.
Be sure to ask more than once. It is customary to ask once near the beginning of your letter, and once again before closing. Never apologize for asking or for imposing on your recipient’s time. Your request should be reasonable and mutually beneficial, so there is never anything to apologize for.
Ultimately, the contribution should clearly benefit not only your cause, but your audience as well. Make sure that you state clearly and in concrete terms what the donation you are requesting will do for both parties, particularly if you are writing to a business or other formal organization.
When requesting a donation from your audience, make it clear what their donation will do. After all, you have just convinced them of the need for their donation, and now you must show how their donation can and will meet that need. It is important to provide concrete, specific details to help your audience imagine the impact of their donation and to support your professional ethos as an organized individual or group.
For instance, if you are requesting donations in increments of $5 for an after-school Thanksgiving dinner, tell your audience how far $5 will go with detail: “A donation of $5 will provide a hungry middle-school child with a home cooked turkey dinner”. Don’t forget to include details about the benefits of the different options available, if there are any.
For most formal or professional organizations, donating is ultimately a business transaction. They may have a specific budget set aside for donations, and you certainly won’t be the only one vying for their resources. Therefore, it is important that your audience sees how their donation will benefit them directly. The benefit for the audience should be clearly identified and should meet their particular values and needs. Possible benefits are:
- Providing publicity at your event or through your company or organization
- A tax-deduction for their donation, if your organization is so certified
- Formal recognition, perhaps at an appreciation banquet or in the form of a displayable token of appreciation
Whatever you promise your audience, be sure that you can deliver, and make sure to show your audience that you can deliver. For instance, if you promise publicity at an event, provide statistics related to how many individuals, businesses, etc. have attended your events in the past. You need to be able to not only provide these benefits, but to convince your audience that you can provide them.
Provide a Path of Action
Now that your audience knows what you need, why you need it, and what their donation will accomplish, tell them exactly how to proceed. What is the next step? Do they mail in an enclosed envelope? Do they call the sender? Do they go online and fill out a form? However you want your recipient to proceed, make sure that it is clear and simple. Making their next move as easy as possible will increase the chance that they will complete it. For instance, you could include a pre-addressed and stamped envelope with your letter, if it is in your budget.
If you are requesting monetary donation, your audience should know how to send their money. By check? Money order? Online? In person?
It is also important that you include a time frame. When do you need to know if they will contribute? Is there a formal deadline? Is the need urgent or ongoing? Can they still contribute to you or your organization after the event has passed?
Language Considerations When Writing Donation Request Letters
Successful donation request letters are specific, conversational, and concise.
The tone you use will depend on your audience, but a general rule when writing donation request letters is that using informal language will help you to connect with your audience. When describing your cause, your needs, and your request, choose language that is approachable rather than stiff and technical.
Use “you” to address the recipient directly and personally. Although your letter needs to introduce the sender and the sender’s cause, focus more on the recipient, how they can donate, and what their donation will accomplish. Rephrasing statements about you or your cause to focus on the recipient and using “you” language helps do this. Similarly, referring to the body you represent as “we” will help make the letter sound more personal.
Being clear and specific is a good practice in writing in general, but it becomes especially important when you are stating a need and suggesting a path of action to your reader. The more specific your writing is, the more clearly audience will be able to imagine the situation and the impact they could have by donating to your cause. For more infomation on specificity in writing, see the resource located here.
It is important to be concise when writing a donation request letter. You want to include only as much information and as many details as are necessary to accomplish all the things your request must. Because your audience is preoccupied and your medium is limited (one or two pages), you want to make the best use of your space by being concise and efficient. For more information on writing concisely, click here.
Be strategic when editing your letter for conciseness. For instance, your description and justification of your need should be the most substantial, though still concise. This section of your letter must convince your audience to donate, while the introduction to your company or organization may not need to be more than a line or two, especially if you’ve included supplemental materials.
Grant Writing in the Sciences: Introduction
Researchers apply for grants for several reasons: grants provide funds to conduct research; they help support graduate students and postdoctoral fellows; they can allow researchers to delegate responsibilities to others (e.g., testing participants, coding data); they can provide researchers with a summer salary; and, importantly, they can be critical for promotion and tenure decisions (Sternberg 4-5).
To be competitive for funding, researchers must demonstrate that their project will make significant contributions to the field and has a high likelihood of success. Grant proposals typically describe in detail how the grant funds will be used, what the funds will allow the researcher to accomplish, and who will undertake the research activities. They are generally written in the following stages:
- Plan your project
- Locate funding opportunities
- Determine funder's fequirements
- Write your grant proposal
Grant Writing in the Sciences: Planning
Plan Your Project
Before writing, plan your project timeline and objectives. Questions to ask include: 1) What do you seek to achieve through your research?; 2) What are the unique contributions this project is making to your field?; 3) What are the major steps to project completion?; and 4) Who will be involved in the project?
It is common to conduct a preliminary, or pilot, study to establish the feasibility of their project. A preliminary study is generally a smaller-scale version of the experiment that 1) provides the opportunity to test methods, equipment, and other aspects of a project before beginning it officially, 2) allows researchers to address errors and adjust research methods in a lower-stakes environment, and 3) provides a basis from which to extrapolate logistical and financial estimates. Importantly, these preliminary results can persuade funders of the viability of the project, as they demonstrate that the researcher can conduct the study and has already identified and addressed possible shortcomings of the proposed research.
Locate Funding Opportunities
Research grants come from a range of organizations, including universities, private foundations, corporations, and, especially common in the sciences, government agencies. In this last category, common sources of funding are the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) (for detailed suggestions on the application processes for NIH and NSF, see pp. 49-281 of Writing Successful Grant Proposals from the Top down and Bottom Up). Meanwhile, universities often provide funds for their own faculty members, especially early-career researchers (Sternberg 6).
To locate additional funding opportunities, consult with an experienced colleague for suggestions, as well as refer to www.grants.gov and its searchable database of government grants.
As you research grant opportunities, consider the following:
- Can you meet all of the application requirements, including the deadlines?
- What specific information do the reviewers require?
- What are the most important things to include about yourself/your research team and your project?
- If you are an assistant faculty member, have you taken advantage of opportunities specifically targeted at young/early researchers?
Determine Funder’s Requirements
Read and follow the instructions closely and create a checklist of the funder’s requirements. These may include the following; however, funding agency requirements vary widely so always follow the agency’s instructions carefully, as violations of instructions can lead funders to reject applications without reviewing them further (Levenson 38).
Some agencies ask for a cover letter in which the investigator can request that reviewers with specific expertise evaluate the application. These letters can help the agency board or distribution committee know how your application would be best evaluated. The cover letter should be concise and professional. Note: Some granting agencies first require a Letter of Inquiry (LOI) before inviting a full proposal. Others welcome phone calls or e-mails.
The biosketch should describe the investigator(s)’ relevant credentials, including training and recent publications. This section provides evidence of the qualifications needed to successfully complete the proposed research and publish on the results.
The Specific Aims section covers the major points of the project. It also can serve as a framework for developing the rest of the proposal, and as a project summary that will refresh the reviewers’ memory before they score the proposal. Specific Aims are sometimes organized in four parts: (1) general goal/significance, (2) theoretical framework/model, (3) hypotheses and (4) tests of the hypotheses.
A common weakness of grant proposals is the failure to identify a hypothesis, a new idea that can be tested experimentally and results in a rigorous and focused project. As Ogden and Goldberg explain, “to set a goal of ‘understanding the function of the vitronectin receptor on a retinal pigment epithelial cell” is much weaker than to hypothesize specific functions for the receptor (mechanisms) and then to suggest experiments to test the hypotheses” (26). The latter example states a specific goal and shows that the investigator has a clear concept of what he or she is looking for in their data, which the former, according to Ogden and Goldberg, sounds like a “fishing expedition” (26).
Research Design and Methods
In short, the research design is the “what” of the study, while the methods are the “how.” In other words, the research design describes the logical sequence of procedures and the methods section describes those procedures with as much detail as possible. The research design and methods sections should be carefully separated so that the reviewer has the option of scanning the research design without having to read through the more minute details of the experiment.
Grant Writing in the Sciences: Writing
Writing Your Grant Proposal
After you have located a funding opportunity, planned your project, and outlined your grant proposal, it’s time to start writing. You may want to first read a few sample grants to better understand the content, tone, and style of successful proposals. Sample grants are often available on the funder’s site and include annotations about the proposals’ strengths and weaknesses.
Remember these key guidelines as you develop your proposal:
Address Experts and Non-Experts
Each of the reviewers should understand your project on a first read, even if they lack expertise in your sub-field. Because funding agencies consider many applications and have a limited amount of grant money, they give preference to projects that have clear aims and methods. Therefore, explain terms that might be unfamiliar to an educated but non-expert audience and avoid excessive use of jargon. The most successful proposals “are written for readers who are scientists but are unfamiliar with the particular article. The prose is kept simple, specialized words and abbreviations are avoided, and every page has at least one diagram or figure. A well-written proposal is written to communicate with all the reviewers, not just those with expertise in the field” (Ogden and Goldberg 21).
While you will likely need to employ specialized terminology in the research methods section in order to provide adequate detail, tailor your other sections to a wider audience. This ensures that all reviewers understand the significance of your proposed study.
Emphasize Actions and Major Steps
The steps involved in the research, and who will be completing them, need to be clear to your reviewers on a first read. To accomplish this, use active voice, which emphasizes who or what is doing the important action in the sentence. To turn passive voice into active voice, ask “What (or what) is doing the action in the sentence?” For more information see our OWL resources on active and passive voice.
Below is a passage from a successful NIH grant application that makes appropriate use of active voice (bold) and passive voice (italics).
In the next funding period we will further dissect the mechanism of protein import and initially focus on the apicoplast ERAD system. We hypothesize that Cdc48AP and more specifically its ATPase activity serves as the driving force of the translocation machine. This hypothesis predicts Cdc48AP to be essential for apicoplast protein import. To test this we will construct a conditional mutant […] Unfortunately however, Cdc48AP is not covered in our cosmid collection and initial attempts with small plasmid-based constructs were unsuccessful.
In this passage, active voice clarifies the researchers’ actions and the hypothesis’ functions. Note, however, that this author does use passive voice sparingly in order to highlight Cd48AP as the subject of the final sentence.
Another barrier to clarity is overuse of nominalization, or turning verbs (actions) into nouns. Nominalization, like passive voice, can add wordiness and often hides the most important actions from the reader.
to analyze analysis
to investigate investigation
to understand understanding
In the sample grant discussed above, for example, the phrase “We hypothesize that” would be “Our hypothesis is that,” consequently adding unnecessary verbiage to the sentence.
Use Diagrams or Other Visuals
Diagrams are useful to cut down on length and reduce verbiage, as well as illustrate complex relationships that may be difficult to clarify in writing alone. The most effective ones are understandable without the reviewer having to refer to the corresponding caption/legend. When incorporating diagrams, remember to follow the funder’s formatting requirements.
The Writing Process: Successfully Submitting your Grant
Grant writing requires a significant investment of time for planning, writing, and revising. Below are a few suggestions to help you submit your grant on deadline, many of which apply to other types of academic writing.
- Schedule adequate time for writing and revision, asking multiple readers to review your work.
- Make a grid or a spreadsheet with key deadlines for yourself and/or your team, and hold each other accountable to them.
- Develop a style sheet for your team that outlines agreed upon usage of terminology, acronyms, hyphenated compound adjectives, or other frequently used words or phrases.
- Write faithfully for at least 30 minutes a day.
- Schedule writing time for yourself and show up to it like a job; resist scheduling meetings or other commitments during this time.
- Ask a mentor who is knowledgeable about the field to review your writing.
- Submit your application early to avoid last-minute delays or technical problems with the online submission.
What Happens Next?
Unfortunately, very few proposals are funded initially (some NIH institutes, for example, fund less than 10% of submissions). Those proposals rejected in the first round are often revised and resubmitted. When researchers find themselves in this situation, the most important thing they can do is read the reviews carefully and revise their application accordingly and as quickly as possible. At this point, it is generally helpful to show the reviews to a colleague who is well-versed in grant writing.
Levenson, Robert W. “Mistakes that Grant Proposers Make.” Writing Successful Grant
Proposals from the Top Down and Bottom Up. Ed. Robert J. Steinberg. Los Angeles,
CA: Sage, 2014. 37-48. Print.
Ogden, Thomas E. and Israel A. Goldberg. Research Proposals: A guide to Success 3rd ed.
Oxford: Academic Press, 2002. Print.
Reif-Lehrer, Liane. Grant Application Writer’s Handbook. 4th ed. Sudsbury, MA: Jones and
Bartlett Publisher, 2005. Print.
Sternberg, Robert J. “Securing a Research Grant.” Writing Successful Grant Proposals from
the Top Down and Bottom Up. Ed. Robert J. Steinberg. Los Angeles, CA: Sage,
2014. 3-24. Print.
Striepen, Boris. “Biology of the Apicomplexan Plastid.” National Institute of Allergies and
Diseases Sample Grant Application. 5 Mar 2010. Web. 14 Dec 2014.