Tips for writing successful grants

written by: Liran Carmel
based on: D.C. Morrison & S.W. Russell, the grant application writer's workbook

last modified:

Summary of tips:
Before you begin to write:
  1. Each funding agency has a mission. They fund ideas that help them fulfill their mission.
  2. Develop an idea.
    • Define the problem or need that you want to address or field that you want to contribute to.
    • Collect and critically analyze relevant background information.
    • Generate a preliminary idea of acticity that is pertinent to the problem or critical need that you have identified.
    • Assess your idea's potential for success (within the framework of the mission of the potential funding agency), and modify it, if necessary.
    • Seek constructive criticism of your idea from knowledgeable colleagues.
    • Refine the idea or activity to maximize its potential for impact on your field.
  3. Find potential funding agencies. Contact their program officers.
  4. The reviewers are prominent in their field - thus overworked, busy, and tired. Make it easy on them. They are not necessarily experts in your specific field. They read your grant because they have to. The reviewer will look in you application for:
    • Significance. Does the study address an important problem or critical need, and if the aims of the proposal are achieved, how will knowledge in the field be advanced or why will the world be a better place?
    • Approach and plan of work. Whether the conceptual framework, design, methods, analyses, and evaluations have been adequately developed.
    • Applicant and co-applicants.
    • Environment and institution.
    • Novelty and innovation. Whether or not there is anything in your ideas or project that can easily distinguish your proposal from all others that reviewers will be assigned to evaluation.
  5. Read the instructions. Make the grant visually readable, and grammatically easy.
    • Left/right margins: 1/4-1 inch.
    • Arial 11-12.
    • Non-justified right-hand margins.
    • three to four medium-length paragraphs per page.
    • Avoid over emphasizing text.
    • Sentences should not exceed 35-40 words.
    • Be specific. Avoid empty generalizations.
    • Avoid the use of nouns as adjectives. NO: lower respiratory tract iron burden. YES: burden of iron in the lower respiratory tract.
    • Avoid acronyms and abbreviations.
    • Avoid associating action verbs with inanimate objects. NO: This project will enhance the mission. YES: The new knowledge that is gained from the successful completion of this project will contribute to the mission.
    • Avoid the use of weak words. Examples for weak words: if we are able to do X, we will try to overcome, we hope to obtain, we believe, we might be able to, we could obtain, we may be able to extend. Recommended replacement is expect.
    • Be careful of the word "whether". Whenever it is in the meaning of "whether or not".
    • Choose your words carefully. Always be certain that you use the correct word.
  6. Be specific, avoid empty generalizations.
  7. Make enough time. Continuous investment is better. They recommend 1-2 hours/day for at least 3 days/week.
The overview / executive summary:
This is among the most critical sections of the grant, and serve as a blueprint for the full application. This is the first section to write, and the first that the reviewers will read. It should not include specific detail, nor literature citations. With all likelihood, by the time the reviewers have finished reading this part, they will have made an executive decision about whether or not this is an interesting or novel idea, as well as whether this is a proposal that will be enjoyable or painful to read.
It is suggested to write a 1-1.25 page document, splitted to four paragraph, and comprising 12 major elements.
  1. Introductory paragraph.
    • Opening sentence(s) (1-2). It must provide sufficient information such that the reviewers will be able to understand what the proposal will be about. Furthermore, this sentence alone must convey why it should be possible for the reviewers to have a strong sense of why this project would be of potential interest to the funding agency. It is optional to add an amplifying sentence that would further emphasize some specific point or issue identified in this opening sentence.
    • Important knowns (3-4). Desigend to bring the reviewers up to speed in your specific field, and distill the most important knowns related to the proposal.
    • Gap in knowledge or critical need. The driving force of the proposal.
  2. "What is going to be done by whom" paragraph.
    • Your long-term goal. The time required to attain it should span at least several grant proposals. The problem identified in the previous paragraph must be clearly encompassed within the long-term goal. There must be a link between your long-term goal and the mission of the funding agency.
    • Objectives. What the objective of this proposal is. Must be a step along the continuum defined by your long-term goal. The objective would normally be filling the gap in the knowledge base, or solving the problem identified in the previous paragraph.
    • Hypothesis-driven or statement-of-need-driven proposals. It must logically flow from the objective of the proposal. It must be objectively testable. Add a sentence that tells your reviewers exactly how you have formulated this central hypothesis - why you chose this starting point from among others as the best bet.
    • Statement of rationale. Describe exactly why you want to carry out the activities that you have proposed in this grant proposal. It should inform the reviewers what will become possible after the proposed studies are completed that is not possible now. It must be formulated with the mission of the funding agency in mind.
    • The applicant and the environment. Your opportunity to promote your qualifications. Should be limited to those facts that truly give you a competitive edge.
  3. "Specific aims, goals, and objectives" paragraph. Delineate what are the specific steps that you will take to achieve the overall objective, and address the important problem or critical need that you identified in the opening paragraph. Break down the project into 2-4 specific aims. They should be written as exciting, brief, conceptual headlines, and not long technically detailed description. They should inform the reviewers why you want to do what you are proposing, not waht you propose to do.
  4. Payoff paragraph.
    • Innovation. Anything that makes you project special or single it out from all other grant proposals as different. This is not a mandatory sentence, don't include it if your project isn't innovative.
    • Expected outcomes. Wnat you will have accomplished once your project is completed. In gerenal, there should be one important expected outcome for each of your specific aims. This part describes the return on the investment of the funding agency.
    • Impact (1-2). How successful completion of the proposal will positively affect the mission of the funding agency and ultimately the field or discipline. Keep it general. Details and substantiation will be done in the Significance paragraph of the proposal.