The art and science of successful grant writing
Winning funding has become a very important component of ‘success’ for researchers; academics are usually measured by universities and research institutes on the basis of their publications and grant income (to a greater or lesser extent depending on country). Most working academics write one or two funding applications each year, many of which will get rejected. We’ve dealt with strategies to manage rejection in some of our other Charlesworth Author Services blog posts and content.
Academics usually write grant applications to win funding in order to support:
- targeted research projects;
- a research team and funding of students;
- themselves, most often at early career ‘postdoctoral’ stages.
Grant support is usually for a finite period of time, and unlike paper writing, applications are usually focussed on specific projects that have not yet been completed.
Grant Writing top tip
You’ll want to have something in hand when writing an application to show that the project you’re applying for funding to support can work (usually some initial data or results to build on), even though the vast majority of the research remains to be done. Completely ‘blue sky’ projects that are unsupported by some preliminary data are often much harder to secure funding for. In contrast, academic papers often report completed projects: Testing questions or hypotheses with data already collected, analysed, and then discussed.
There are nevertheless a number of important similarities between paper and grant writing: In both cases, you need a clear message and you need to understand your audience.
The audience for grant applications are reviewers
A much smaller pool of people are going to read your next funding application compared to your next academic paper, usually just the reviewers. It’s therefore very important to understand your audience and just how your proposal will be reviewed before you start to write: Is this a national funding agency that reviews proposals inside the country or will your application end up getting sent to international colleagues? Will the reviewers be subject-area specialists or, as is the case with European Union proposals (for example), colleagues from broad-brush areas (e.g. science or humanities)? These differences are important because your readers, your reviewers, influence how you should write your proposal, and how much information to include.
Look at the website of your prospective funding agency: how do they manage proposals? An international board of pre-arranged reviewers? Open international review (like a peer-reviewed article)? A closed in-house board of local specialists? Perhaps winning funding just depends on who you know (it can happen)!
Irrespective of research area, there are a number of key things to bear in mind when writing a grant application that will significantly increase your chances of successfully securing funding. In particular, you should make sure that your proposal:
- Has a key message that is repeated often throughout the text
- Has clear aims and objectives that are attainable over the lifespan of the proposal
- Is actually testable
- Includes very clearly stated methods
- Has a reasonable and clearly explained budget
- Follows the structure asked for by your funding agency, including the word count
In some ways, writing a grant proposal is not really all that different from writing an academic paper or presenting a conference talk: Tell your audience (reviewers) what you are going to be talking about at the start, then provide the content (following the proposal guidelines, of course), and then finish by repeating your key message. What does your research project seek to address and how will this be done?
Above all, and in spite of everything we’ve already said, there is one key never-to-be-forgotten grant writing tip that is sure to stand you in good stead when writing your next application:
Seek out and have a look at some recently funded proposals submitted to your agency.
This is absolutely critical: Save yourself time, energy, and stress. Never ‘fly blind’ when writing a funding application. Almost all agencies publish the names of researchers and project titles they’ve funded recently. You’ll be able to search these online and directly contact funded researchers: perhaps one or two are even based at your home institution? Academics are often very happy to be contacted in this way (after all, this is one way to build a mentorship network as an early career researcher) and will often be happy to either share their proposals with you or pass on some tricks and tips of their own. Reach out and ask for information before sitting down to write that next grant application.
If you can get to see more than one previously successful funding application submitted to your agency, more the better. This will enable you to gauge the style, shape, and content of a successful application much more easily; other people’s proposals (and papers) are packed with tricks you can borrow and adapt into your own work! Don’t plagiarise of course, but getting to see how other successful researchers structure their proposals can be hugely useful: Many universities will have funding officers or offices, even researcher developers, who can help and advise. Seek them and other senior colleagues out for advice, again before sitting down to write.
What are the top tips for successful grant writing?
We recently asked a number of internationally successful researchers to share their top tips for successful grant writing: The number one comment they came back with was ‘use clear, easy-to-understand pictures in your proposals’. This is important: Why use words to explain a message, hypothesis, experiment, or set of data when you can use a picture instead? This also comes back to audience: Keep in mind that very often grant application reviewers are
not going to be subject area specialists and may have several proposals to work over in a finite amount of time.
Reviewers therefore need to be told: (i) what’s the research question?; (ii) how can it be tested over the lifespan of this proposal? And; (iii) why is your team the right one to do the work? A picture is worth a thousand words: Save yourself time and energy and keep your proposal down under the funding agency’s specified word count.
How can we help?
We offer a broad range of services that are tailored to help with grant proposal writing and editing. We can polish your English, make sure your proposal marries with funding agency guidelines (including the word counts for different sections), help with effective figure creation, and provide pre-peer review of your applications. Bullet-proof your work with our services before submitting your next proposal. Depending on the agency and scheme, you’re going to have a relatively low chance of success in any case: Why not avail yourself of our services to make your proposal as effective as possible and increase its chances of success?
Charlesworth Author Services also provide a range of training courses and workshops (booked via institutions), many of which deal specifically with grant writing. Our education team can help you understand how to message your proposals effectively and tailor them to funding agencies to maximise your chances of success.
Find out more by listening to our free webinar on Writing an effective grant application
Maximise your grant writing and publication success with Charlesworth Author Services.