Category Archives: Writing

How Key Sentences Work

Key sentences define the structure of a case for support and ensure that every reader gets the same picture.

A crucial challenge in writing the case for support in a grant application is that the finished document will be discussed by a group of people who have read it at different levels. For example:-

  • The referees will have read and analysed every last detail, in order to write a report for the grants committee.
  • The presenters will have read it very carefully and will have created their own summary of it, which they will present orally to the committee.
  • Most of the committee will only have read the summary but many of them will glance through the case for support when the committee are discussing it.
  • Members of the committee who find the case for support interesting will also read it in detail.

If the discussion is to be fruitful, all these people should get exactly the same picture. Detailed reading of the case for support should produce exactly the same picture as riffling through it at high speed, which should produce the same picture as reading the first page and stopping when it gets boring, which should produce the same picture as reading the summary and ignoring the case for support completely. All these different ways of reading should produce the same picture. The only difference should be in the level of detail.

To solve this problem, you build the case for support from a skeleton of key sentences. In the full case for support, you flesh out each key statement with a few paragraphs of text to create a subsection. The key statement summarises the subsection that fleshes it out. In this way the case for support consists of a number of subsections, each of which begins with a key statement. If you string the key statements together on their own, without the subsections that flesh them out, you get the same story as the full case for support, but with less detail.

The full case for support fleshes out the key sentences with supporting detail, whereas the summary consists of the key sentences on their own. This ensures that people who read the full case for support  get the same story as those who only read the summary. It also means that a reader who attempts to create their own summary from careful reading of the case for support is likely to create a very similar summary to the one you supply.

You can use the first sentences of paragraphs in the same way, to create a summary of a piece of text. This blog post has been written using the key sentence approach at the paragraph level. Each key statement is fleshed out with a few sentences to create a paragraph. You can see how the approach works by taking the first sentence from each paragraph in this section and stringing them together. It should make a good summary. Check the key sentence summary below to see how this works.

A second benefit of this assert-justify approach is that the key sentences act like signposts to tell the referees where to find the information they want. The referees will read the summary before they read the case for support and, as they read the summary, a series of questions and doubts will arise in their minds about whether the summary is backed up by detail. The key sentences in the body of the case for support will show them where to look for the detail.

In sum, the key sentence approach gives a summary that tells the same story as the extended version and makes it very easy for referees to find the information that they want. In the bullet points that follow you can see the summary of this blog post created in this way.


  • A crucial challenge in writing the case for support is that the finished document will be discussed by a group of people who have read it at different levels.
  • If the discussion is to be fruitful, all these people should get exactly the same picture.
  • To solve this problem, the case for support is built from a skeleton of key sentences.
  • The full case for support fleshes out the key sentences with supporting detail, whereas the summary  consists of the key sentences on their own.
  • You can use the first sentences of paragraphs in the same way, to create a summary of a piece of text.
  • A second benefit of this assert-justify approach is that the key sentences act like signposts to tell the referees where to find the information they want.
  • In sum, the key sentence approach gives a summary that tells the same story as the extended version and makes it very easy for referees to find the information they want.

The Case for Support: Structure Solves its Problem.

Birdy folding bicycle front fork.

The front fork of a Birdy folding bicycle has a distinctive structure that smooths out bumps in the road and solves the bicycle’s main problem, how to fold quickly into a compact space.

This post explains how you can structure the case for support in a research grant application in a way that solves its main problem and enables it to do its tasks efficiently.

A case for support has two main tasks. It has to convince the committee that your research project is important. And it has to convince referees that your project will be successful. However, these tasks are not the case for support’s main problem.

The case for support also has to do several minor tasks. It has to make the grants committee think that they understand your project. It has to convince referees that you are competent to carry out the project. And it has to convince them that the resources you will buy with the grant are necessary and sufficient to carry out the project. These tasks are not the case for support’s main problem either.

The case for support’s main problem is this: most members of the grants committee will not read it, and those who do read it will probably not understand it.  Despite this, the case for support has to convince them that your research project is important. It has to convince them that your project will be successful. And it has to tell them what your project aims to achieve, and how the project will achieve it and how competent you are.

The case for support has to do all those things without them actually reading it. That is the main problem.

My recommended structure for the case for support solves this problem.  All the committee will skim the case for support while your grant application is being discussed, but they will all have read the summary beforehand. So if you give the case for support a structure that gives the right information to someone who skims it, and if you create a perfectly matched summary that ‘primes’ them by giving them the same information in the same words, that solves the problem.

So what kind of structure allows someone who only skims the case for support to pick up all the right information?

A three-layered structure.

As I said, the case for support has two main tasks. First it has to convince the reader that your project is important. Then it has to convince them it will be successful. The ideal structure has three layers, a main structure, a local structure and a fine structure.

Main Structure: Introduction, Background and Methodology.

The most efficient way to convince the reader your project is important and will be successful is to divide the case for support into three main sections.

  • Two of the sections do the main tasks:
    • the background section convinces readers that the intended outcomes of the project are important, and
    • the methodology section describes the project and convinces the reader that it will achieve its intended outcomes.
  • The third section, the introduction, increases the effectiveness of the background and methodology sections by telling the reader the points that will be made in those sections. You write the introduction last but the reader reads it first.

The names that I have given to the three main sections are not fixed. They will vary, depending on the funders’ instructions for the case for support. Whatever those instructions, it is always possible to write the case for support so that it has a background section that describes the state of the art in such a way that it is completely clear that the intended outcomes of your project will be important to the funder, a methodology section that makes it clear that your project will succeed in delivering its intended outcomes, and an introduction. The local structure of these sections, which we discuss next, gives the reader the bigger picture of what makes your project important.

Local Structure: three aims in background delivered by three objectives in methodology.

A good way to help the reader to assess the value of your project is to describe it as consisting of three components, each of which will deliver a clear outcome. If it suits you, or if the funder asks you to state aims and objectives, you can call these three outcomes the aims, and the sub-projects that will deliver them, the objectives.

Breaking the overall research outcome into components like this makes it much easier for the committee to discuss it and analyse it, and it also makes it much easier for you to write the background in a way that makes it clear that your project is really important. If the background convinces the reader that the aims are really important then the project will automatically become important if your description of it convinces them that it will achieve the aims.

Three aims and three objectives is the perfect number. If you have too few aims or objectives it becomes hard to describe them concisely. If you have too many, it becomes hard to remember them. And if you have different numbers of aims and objectives then the aims and objectives will not give the reader a clear picture of what the project will achieve and why it is important.

Because each objective delivers exactly one aim it is easy to write the background so that it convinces the reader that each aim is really important. It also makes it easy for the reader to remember the list of aims and to see that by carrying out the objectives you will achieve the aims.

The background and methodology sections have five subsections each. Three of each set of five are used to link the two sections together, so that the background convinces the reader that every component of the project is important. The remaining subsections have different jobs, enticing the reader to read the case for support, explaining the overall importance of the project, introducing the project and describing what will happen after the project is done.

The three pairs of subsections that link the background to the methodology section work very simply.

  • The background has three subsections, each of which explains the importance of one of the aims. Usually this is where literature is cited to support the case that the project will achieve important aims.
  • Each of the subsections in the background is paired with one in the methodology section, which describes the sub-project (the part of the project) that delivers the corresponding aim.

The background starts with two subsections that entice the reader to read the case for support, and explain the overall importance of the project.

  • The first subsection states the overall project outcome and explains it. If not much explanation is needed, this subsection can be expanded into an introduction for the whole project (see below). For that reason I would always write this subsection last.
  • The second subsection gives the evidence that the project outcome is important. These two subsections are essential preparation for the core subsections that explain how important the aims are. The aims are usually important mainly because they deliver the overall project outcome.

The methodology section starts with a subsection that introduces the project. It also leads into the three subsections that describe the objectives. The methodology section finishes with a fifth subsection that describes what will happen after the project is done. This could be be dissemination, impact, or even a new project.

Fine Structure: Key sentence followed by justification.

Each of the ten subsections described above has the same structure. It begins with a single sentence that summarises the subsection. These are the ‘key sentences’ that are the skeleton of the case for support. The rest of the subsection fleshes out the key sentence, supporting it and increasing its impact. For key sentences in the background, the ‘flesh’ will consist mainly of evidence from the literature. For key sentences in the methodology section the ‘flesh’ consists mainly of details about what will be done in the project.

Within each of these sections, the punch-line of each paragraph is on the first line, and the remainder of the paragraph explains or justifies the punchline. This post explains the advantages of this assert-justify structure. The most important advantage is that if you leave space between your paragraphs, someone who skims your text will read the first line of every paragraph.

You can read more about the key sentences in these three blog posts.

The Introduction

The first draft of the introduction can be done by copying and pasting the key sentences. You may find it necessary to add some linking and signposting, so that they form a coherent narrative. When you write the main sections of the case for support you will edit the key sentences so that they link smoothly with the sections they introduce, so it will be better to leave the introduction until after you have written the background and methodology sections. This post describes the introduction.

The perfectly matched summary

The summary should be perfectly matched to the case for support. This will cause anyone who reads the summary and then skims the case for support (most of the committee) to feel that they understand the case for support completely. If you use the key sentences as a skeleton for the case for support in the way that I recommend, they will make a perfectly matched summary. This post discusses the summary.

I hope this post convinces you that my recommended structure equips the case for support to solve its main problem. In a future post I will discuss my recipe for producing a case for support that has this structure.


Life After Academia

More enjoyable work and less of it!

More enjoyable work and less of it!

It is almost exactly 2 years since Parker Derrington Ltd opened for business and over a year since I  changed career definitively and gave up my university job to become a full-time businessman.

The change of career was a leap in the dark but 3 key facts convince me that I have landed on my feet:-

  • I enjoy my work more.
  • I do less work.
  • I earn more money.

Of course, things could be even better and I want to use this blog to improve them. This post is a review of my career change and an outline of what I want to do better. It follows one of the good practices I developed as an academic manager – annual planning and target setting.

When I changed career,  the target I set myself was to develop enough paid work to replace my salary before the end of 2015.  I had a 3-point strategy:-

  • Start a blog;
  • Build a website;
  • Offer free workshops to people I knew and generous discounts to people that I didn’t.

My plan was that the blog would bring people to the website; the website would bring clients; and free workshops would turn friends into clients. I thought that any client that had a free or half-price workshop would very quickly order a full-price workshop once they knew how good they are.

I was wrong both about free work and about discounts. Clients act as if workshops are only worth what they pay. They act as if my workshops are worth nothing. The workshops are very good but the attendees seem to expect them to be bad. And, they don’t lead to more work: clients act as if they  are reluctant to pay full price for something they have had free or half-price. So now I charge the full price and I offer new clients a BOGOF (buy one get one free – two days for the price of one). For many clients the BOGOF clinches the deal. I am careful to make sure that my invoice states the full price and applies the discount so that the client sees the full price even if they don’t pay it. Since I changed my approach, a good proportion of clients have asked for follow-on work at full price.

The website and blog, which I promote through Twitter, have also been very useful. Of the 30 different clients or organisations that have hired me, about 20 found me through the web site or through Twitter.

I met the target I set myself with a healthy safety margin. I earned more last year through the company than I would have done if I had stayed in my job. However, although my income is higher than it was when I was an academic, it is a lot less predictable. I never know when I will get offered work and the delays between working and getting paid are variable and huge. The fastest payer so far was the University of Exeter, which paid within 3 days of my invoice. I won’t name the slowest payer because, even though they took over 4 months to pay, they will probably be replaced by someone even slower quite soon. Almost all my business is with universities and  almost all universities are apallingly slow to pay their bills.

My next target is to change the  mix of work. At present it is about 60% teaching people how to write, 25% writing and editing, 10% consultancy and 5% coaching.  I’d like to do more writing because that’s what I enjoy most. It’s probably also where I add most value. Very few clients trust me to co-write their grant applications and papers but those few are delighted with the results: better papers and grant-applications with less effort.

My target for 2016 is to  shift the balance of business towards writing and consultancy. My strategy will be to use the blog, the website and direct contacts to promote writing and consultancy.

So do get in touch if you don’t know what to write, if you don’t know how to write it, or if you know what to write and how, but don’t have time.


Seven Deadly Sins of Grant-Writing: Sins of Omission

3WiseMonkeysA couple of weeks ago I described deadly sins that grant-writers commit deliberately. This week I am dealing with sins that are just as deadly but much harder to avoid. The sins of omission just creep into your writing without you noticing and  you have to make special efforts to remove them.

The sins I want to deal with are Complex Sentences, Long Paragraphs, Poor Flow and failing to match the background to the project. They all meet  the definition of sin that I coined last week: “Anything that makes it hard for a committee member to pick up a clear understanding of the rationale of your research project, what it will discover and why that is important,  is a sin. So is anything that makes it hard for a referee to get a clear picture of the detailed reasoning in your argument and the detailed description of your intended research activities. Referees and committee both work under time pressure, so anything that slows them down is also a sin.”

Complex sentences are really difficult to avoid. They appear spontaneously in your draft. Most people can’t avoid writing them whenever they are trying to write something difficult – like a grant application.

That’s OK. Writing complex sentences isn’t the end of the world. Not unless your first draft is the end of your writing process. You must expect your first draft to be full of sins and you need to cast them out. You need to hunt through your draft and convert all the long, complex sentences into short, clear simple sentences. As a rule of thumb, you should redraft any sentence longer than 30 words or containing more than 1 verb or beginning with a digression – a phrase that is introduced by a word like “although”. And if it’s the first sentence of a paragraph you also need to make sure that the main message of the sentence fits on the first line.

It’s OK for complex sentences to appear in your first draft because that is usually the easiest way for you to write it.  But it’s not OK to leave them there. You have to replace them with simple sentences. This may involve breaking them up, or turning them round and it will take time, but you will get quicker with practice. Your final draft must be easy to read, and to speed read. Most of the people voting on your grant application will speed-read, or skim it. So if what you send them is full of complex sentences that have to be decoded carefully then they will not get your message, and you will have less chance of getting funded.

Long paragraphs are bad for two reasons.

  • I pointed out in my last post that most of the people scoring your grant will speed-read your case for support. Speed-readers read the first line of every paragraph provided there is white space between them. The longer your paragraphs, the less you communicate with speed readers.
  • Long paragraphs are usually very hard to digest. They are usually a sign that what you are writing is either very complex, or just a bit disorganised. The few readers who really want to read the detail in your case for support will find it hard.

If your paragraphs are longer than about 5 lines, try to break them up. If they are not too disorganised it will be fairly straightforward but if they are disorganised it may be easier to attend to the flow first.

Flow refers to the sequence of ideas that you present, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph. Within paragraphs, good flow occurs when each sentence connects naturally to its successor. There are several ways of achieving this. If you have never thought hard about it (and I hadn’t until a few months ago), Google will find you countless sources of advice. I recommend that you read the Using English for Academic Purposes Blog, which has a section on paragraphs and flow.  The basic approach is that  you should always start the paragraph with the topic sentence, the one sentence that sums up the paragraph. Then, to  get good flow within the paragraph you make sure that the first sentence leads naturally to the start of the second sentence, which leads naturally to the subject of the third sentence and so on. This makes it easy for the reader to read through the paragraph without having to pause and analyse the wording to work out what you mean, or having to keep several ideas in mind in order to follow what you are saying.

Flow between paragraphs is also important and again Google throws up hundreds of ways to help you make it smoother. I think that the best approach here is to reverse outline, as suggested on the Explorations of Style blog, which is full of good advice on how to make your writing more readable.

Failing to match the background to the project is a sin against Derrington’s first commandment. You won’t go to hell for the sin but you may enter the purgatory of grant rejection. The commandment requires that before you describe your project and the outcomes it will produce, you use the background section to make the case that we need exactly those outcomes. It’s a pretty basic selling technique. It persuades the customer that they want what you are selling before you describe what you are selling. I have explained before how you use key sentences to create a structure that implements the technique by creating a background section that deals with the outcomes in the same order as the description of the project, and that explains, outcome by outcome, why we need them.

The key sentences also give you the best way to fix a mismatch between background and project. Basically you create the key sentences and then you use them to re-organise your text. And then you use them to write an introduction.

If you read a few successful grant applications you will realise that the sins are not fatal: most successful grant-writers commit them. However, the sins all make it less likely that you will get funded because they make it harder for time-pressed committee members and referees to do their job. Of course you may be lucky enough that the committee sees the merit in your application despite you making it difficult. But why take the chance?


The Importance Proposition

ImportanceIn the Research Funding Toolkit we explain that funding decisions depend on whether the case for support makes four propositions. It has to convince the reader that it is important, that it will be a success, that the team are compentent and that the grant will be value for money. We refer to the four propositions as importance,  success, competence, and value for money. In the next few posts I want to deal with the four propositions in turn.

I begin with the importance proposition because it is where funding agencies begin. If a grant application doesn’t make the importance proposition, nothing else matters. It doesn’t get funded. Period. The other propositions will not even be considered.

As with so many writing problems, addressing the propositions is easier if you consider the reader’s perspective. There are three aspects to this.

  1. You can think of the reader as having questions in their head as they read your grant application. In the case of the importance proposition, the main question is “How important is this?” 
  2. The reader’s definition of terms like “important” is not necessarily the same as your definition.
  3. The reader will want to formulate their own answer to their questions, rather than to accept your answers. They will not be impressed by an assertion that your proposed research is important, rather they will be looking for evidence.

So let’s consider how the readers of your grant application might define importance and how you answer the questions in their heads.

It’s a question of priorities.

Every funding agency has a distinctive mission, from which they derive a set of priorities. Large agencies often have such a complex mission that they will have a range of different schemes, each with a different set of priorities. The priorites are quite carefully defined and usually very well publicised. It’s helpful to separate those related to direct research outcomes from those related to indirect research outcomes.

Direct Research Outcomes

Most agencies set the highest priority on the kind of knowledge the research will produce. Academics tend to emphasise outcomes that contribute to knowledge and understanding. Most research funding agencies also set a high priority on outcomes that advance our understanding of the world from a particular set of subject perspectives. However, this is rarely the only, or even the highest, priority.

Agencies that get their funding from national governments often set a higher priority on outcomes that contribute to health, the economy and society. All the UK Research Councils now require you to list the non-academic beneficiaries of your research. When Amanda served on the BBSRC Animal Sciences Committee the Chair would often ask “How is this going to contribute to UK plc?”

Research charities can be very narrow in their focus. Many medical charities limit their interest to a single disease. This kind of focus can help charities to raise funds from public donations. Clarity about their priorities makes it easy for them to ask for money, as well as dispense it.

Endowed charities often have a very broad mission that reflects the intentions of their original benefactors, see for example the Leverhulme Trust, which supports research across all academic subjects.

As a rule of thumb, evidence about the importance of direct outcomes goes in the background to the case for support. This is the main purpose of the literature review and you should use it as a criterion for whether or not you cite a piece of literature there. You should cite the literature that makes it clear that the outcomes of your proposed project meet the priorities of the funder. When you do this it always helps if you can refer to the priorities in the funder’s own words by quoting from the guidelines for the scheme that you are targeting.

Indirect Research Outcomes

Many agencies have priorities that relate to consequences of doing research, rather than direct research outcomes. Training and career development are common priorities, which sometimes have their own schemes. See for example my post about the NIH K99/R00 scheme. Fellowship schemes  and career development schemes such as Marie Sklodowska-Curie and the European Research Council  prioritise the career development of individuals above direct research outcomes.

As a general rule, evidence about indirect outcomes is requested explicitly as part of the application. Most fellowship schemes will require statements from the host organisation to reassure them that the prospective Fellow will be supported, mentored and provided with appropriate facilities. The complex application forms for schemes like  Horizon 2020 reflect the fact that European research funding has priorities connected with the development of a European research community that brings together international teams that span industry and academia.

In conclusion, if you want to make the importance proposition you should do two things.

  • First, for every research outcome, ask yourself “Where in the background do I make it clear that this is important and what evidence do I cite?”
  • Second, no matter how bizarre and irrelevant the requirements of the application form might seem to you, follow them to the letter.

How to write (and read) references

I believe he has a perfectly charming wife

DarthI have a very simple approach to writing references, inspired by the story behind the quotation  “I believe he has a perfectly charming wife”. According to a story circulating in Oxford and Cambridge in the 1970s the quotation is a complete reference, written according to the principle that a reference should say all the good things that you can honestly say about its subject.

I used to believe that the principle was sufficient. A reference like the quotation, that says nothing about the candidate, is a dire warning. However, in the real world, where references are commonly leaked to their subjects, it is not enough, so I have added another principle. I include important and relevant facts but I take care to express them a really positive way. I’d say that I use two principles to guide my reference writing.

  • Use facts to tell the story.
  • Express the facts in a really positive and upbeat way.


In addition to these principles I find it helps to use a standard structure. I write a reference in  three parts. The first describes how and how well I know the subject; the second covers things I know directly because of their relationship with or work for me and the third covers what I know indirectly because of their work with or for other people.

Starting the reference with a description of how and how well I know the subject helps the reader to decide how much weight to put on my assessment. Writing brilliant undergraduate essays for me in fortnightly tutorials 10 years ago is less relevant than working under my direct management line last year.  This is also the first part that I write because it helps me to compose the more difficult parts of reference both by allowing me to warm up by writing something easy to write  and by jogging my memory for the really important facts that will follow.

Positive references

Facts improve a positive reference because they allow the reader to make their own judgements. It’s frustrating to read a reference that really only tells you that the writer likes the subject of the reference and thinks they are wonderful. Saying what the subject has done and what were the consequences is much more useful.  Bear in mind that things that are important to you may not matter to the reader and vice versa, so it is much more useful to them to get information about how subject has done their job than to know you think they are wonderful.

References for people you hardly know

Facts are very useful when you have to write a reference for someone you hardly know. Most former undergraduates come into this category. When I was an academic I had 30 or 40 tutees whom I would meet seven or eight times a year, in groups of ten. When they left after three years I could just about remember their names. Fortunately a detailed marks transcript provides an excellent set of facts around which to frame a reference.

Negative References

Facts are pure gold when you have to say something negative in a reference, particularly now that even a confidential reference can be obtained through a Freedom of Information request. My approach is to state facts that give a very clear message but to put a positive spin on them.

I once had to write a reference for someone, let’s call them Dr D*. Dr  D was a delightful person but  never quite learned how to run an experiment in my lab. They had applied for a job in Professor Q’s lab, which was much more complex than mine. I thought they would be a disaster and I thought it was important to say so clearly in my reference. A bad post-doc can cripple a PIs prospects. In my reference I wrote about how difficult Dr D found the complexities of the lab and how hard they worked to learn what they needed. I said that after more than a year in the lab Dr D knew about 90% of what was needed to carry out an experiment.

This statement was defensible if Dr D should ever get to see it. It was arguably a bit generous. There was a catalogue of minor disasters to justify it, each of them excused by the statements like “It’s very complicated to operate that piece of equipment”, or “I keep forgetting that you always have to do Y before Z“, and the like. Although I had stated an uncomfortable truth, it was a truth supported by evidence and I had stated it in a very positive way.

The statement was a clear warning to Professor Q*.  The glass that was 90% full should have been overflowing.  Imagine my surprise when Professor Q gave Dr D a job. I was less surprised a few years later when Professor Q took me to task for writing such a glowing reference for Dr D. She clearly hadn’t read it carefully.

Reading a reference

It is essential that you read a reference carefully and look for statements of fact. Sift the facts and decide which of them allow you to draw important conclusions. Usually the conclusions will be run of the mill. They will confirm important but dull facts like employment history, reporting lines, and achievements. For this reason most employers require a reference from the line manager. I always insist on one. I don’t expect to learn much from what it says but I do think it’s important that someone has a good enough relationship with their boss that they can ask them for a reference.

References almost always contain a lot of unimportant stuff about who likes (or is prepared to say that they like) whom.

Just occasionally a reference will contain something really important. It could cripple your lab to employ a post-doc who can’t quite do an experiment after a more than a year of struggling to learn how. Professor Q discovered this the hard way. She could just have read the reference.

*Neither Professor Q nor Dr D exists. I have invented them both to make a point.


Can your grant application stand up on its own?

13550103_sThis is the third in a series of posts explaining how to edit your grant application into the right shape. In order to stand up a grant application should consist of three sections that are shaped to support each other. They are:-

  • An introduction that prepares the reader for the points the other two sections are going to make. It is less than 20% of the total.
  • A background that convinces the reader that the world needs the results that your project will deliver. It is less than 30% of the total.
  • A description of the project that makes it clear that your project will deliver the results that are needed. It is at least 50% of the total.

If you have followed the advice in my last post you will have done the most important part. The second half of your application will be a description of your research project in five or six subsections. The subsections are introduced by matched key sentences that say what your project will produce and what you will do with the results. The sub-section that follows each key sentence adds the detail that will convince the reader that your project will deliver what the key sentence promises. Now you have to write a background section that sells the promises.

The shape and content of the background section are dictated by the description of the project. This follows from the fact that the function of the background is to sell the project. Obviously it should sell everything your project will deliver. Equally obviously it shouldn’t waste time or space by selling anything else.

So if you are editing the background to support such a description, the first thing to do is to create the sub-sections it needs by drafting the key sentences that introduce them. You need the following sub-sections:-

  • A sub-section that states the overall outcome of the project in a way that makes it clear that it is exciting and that stakes your claim to carry it out. This is introduced by the first key sentence, which ideally states the overall outcome of the project, links it to an important research question and to a distinctive claim for competence. The sentence says “This project will do X, which will (partially) solve huge research problem Y, by using technique Z, developed by our group.” For example “This project will develop a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s disease by testing the efficacy of a plaque-dissolving molecule, which our group has discovered, in a mouse model of the disease”. The subsection prepares the reader for the “we need to know” subsections which are preceded by the “importance” subsection.
  • A subsection that discusses the importance of the problem and of the contribution that your project will make to its solution. This subsection is introduced by a key sentence about the importance of the problem and of your project and has two functions. First it is like a funnel for the importance of the question. If you have picked a problem that is big enough to be exciting then it is unlikely that a single project will solve it completely. Everybody knows that. But everybody needs to be convinced that what you will do will be an important step towards a solution. So you need to help the reader to see that the piece of the problem addressed by your project is important. The second function is that it creates the need for whatever you will do to disseminate your results. For example, if your project promises to discover a cure for a disease then the dissemination plan needs to address the question of making the cure available to those afflicted by the disease.
  • A “we need to know” subsection for each of your sub-projects that explains why (and how much) we need the knowledge that sub-project will produce. Drafting key sentences for these sub-projects is very very easy. The first draft is “We need to know XXX” where XXX is the knowledge that the sub-project will produce.

Once you have created these  subsections and introduced them with the key sentences, you can copy over text from your old draft and write new text so that each sub-section explains, with reference to relevant evidence, why the key sentence that introduces it is completely and compellingly true. That makes the background the perfect preparation for the description of the project: it convinces the reader that we desperately need everything that the project will deliver.

All that you need now is an introduction. The perfect introduction is very simple to describe but it takes a bit of time to explain exactly why it should be so simple. I will tell you about it next week.