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.