Grant Writing

Strategies for Writing Successful Grants

In the increasingly competitive funding landscape (see NIH funding success rates here), the difference between success and failure often results not just from the quality of the science, but from the quality of the grant application. It is critical that every aspect of a grant application be as strong, accurate, and “clean” as possible, as well as targeted to the call for proposals and the funding institute’s priorities. Below are strategies to consider in writing and preparing your proposal:

1. Have a Good Idea.

A good idea incorporates the following:

  • Significant - It solves a problem, answers a perplexing question, and expands the knowledge base. It is critical to identify an important, “big” question or gap in our fundamental knowledge; this can be a new question, or an old, unanswered question with a new approach to solve it. The question can’t be so broad and general that it is unanswerable in a funding cycle, nor can it be too narrow or irrelevant to the funding agency.
  • Innovative — It takes a new approach, new method, or puts ideas together in a novel way.
  • Better - than other approaches in this research area.
  • Understandable — Know your audience and make sure the reviewers will understand. Could your parents understand?
  • Has a Payoff — It makes a contribution, provides benefit, and has defined outcomes.
  • Withstands Vetting - Be sure to run by colleagues.

2. A good idea is necessary but not sufficient.

A successful grant application is an exercise in effective communication - you must develop your idea in a clear, attractive, persuasive, and convincing way. While good writing will not turn mediocre science into a fundable grant proposal, poor writing will, and often does, turn very good science into a non-fundable grant proposal. Below are some grantsmanship strategies to incorporate into your proposal:

  • Avoid Jargon
    - Jargon can be especially dangerous in grants, because most readers will not be in your field.
    - Having to decode your acronyms will slow down the reviewers, and potentially frustrate them. Reviewers will have many proposals to read, so ones that are hard to wade through go immediately to the bottom.
  • Brevity and Simplicity
    - Write short sentences and short paragraphs.
    - Include white space as much as possible.
  • Voice
    - Should use first person to denote ownership.
    - Must be accurate (did you do this, or did someone else?)
  • Momentum
    - Pyramid writing and sentence length can set momentum.
    - Put important items first. The order in which something is described often determines the perceived importance/emphasis.
  • Memorable
    - Include a dramatic figure on first page (if possible).
  • Parallel Structures
    - Keep information and structure parallel and consistent.
    - Repeat the same information, ideas or themes in a consistent way throughout the proposal. For example, have a section in the methods for each specific aim, and repeat the aim verbatim at the beginning of that section.
  • Avoid Common Pitfalls:
    There are a number of factors which will disqualify you from funding consideration, including:
    • Poor fit
    • Poor organization
    • Weak argument
    • Too much jargon
    • Obtuse goals and objectives
    • An unclear work plan
    • Deviating from the guidelines
    • Ignoring the review criteria
    • Weak abstract/aims page
    • Ignoring your colleague’s comments
    • Errors like typos and misspellings

3. The System helps those who know The System.

Before you write, do your homework. This includes connecting with the Program Officer, mentors, peers, and colleagues. Understand what the agency or organization wants and needs, what type of projects they fund, paylines and success rates, the review criteria, submission rules, scoring criteria, and the review timeline.

Your project must align within the priorities of the funding agency and the solicitation's scope. Follow Funding Agency’s preparation guidelines explicitly.

4. Think Like a Reviewer

You will get three kinds of reviewers for your proposal drafts: someone very knowledgeable in your field, an intelligent non-expert, and a good scientific editor. Don't ever assume your reader knows what you mean; explain it but do so without insulting his/her intelligence. Keep abbreviations, acronyms, and discipline-specific jargon to an absolute minimum and always define your terms and spell out acronyms in first use.

Some of the questions reviewers will ask as they read your proposal include:

  • Does it match the agency's mission and priorities?
  • Is it interesting/innovative?
  • Is the design well-conceived and described?
  • Is it based on previous work? Is it feasible?
  • Are the applicants qualified to carry out the research?
  • Is the institution supportive?

5. Start Early

The writing and submission process will take longer than you think. Prepare to dedicate a significant amount of time and energy to completing the application, at least 3-6 months. Set aside non-negotiable writing time to work on your proposal.

In addition to the writing, you will need to build in time to generate the budget and have your unit’s grants administrator review/submit the proposal (all departments and units have different timelines of how soon prior to the deadline they will need to review prior to submission – always check with your department on their specific timelines).

If you are working on a grant in which you must have a mentor and/or letters of recommendation, give your sponsors at least one month to write a Letter of Recommendation. You will also need to build in time for editing/polishing.

Recommended Grant Proposal Development and Submission Timeline
Sample timeline for NIH K awards
Sample timeline for NIH NRSA awards

6. Don’t Forget “Facilities, Equipment and other Resources”

In addition to the research design and research team, you will be evaluated based on the capability to execute the proposed project, including the institutional location, sponsors and collaborators (particularly for F31 awards), and other resources. You must demonstrate that you have everything to complete the project.

Remember: “environment” is a NIH review criteria.

7. Don't quit: Revise and re-submit

The majority of proposals are not funded on the first submission: always be prepared to revise. While many grant applications will be rejected without comments, NIH provides a summary statement of reviewer comments and an opportunity to revise and resubmit. Take reviewers' criticisms seriously in subsequent drafts.

Content for these webpages has been curated from numerous sources, including NIH, Johns Hopkins Medicine, Dr. Sin Urban (BCMB), the Human Frontier Science Program, BYU Office of Research & Creative Activities, and Kansas State University Office of Research and Sponsored Programs.