Seven Deadly Sins of Grant-Writing: the sins of Commission

By Pieter Brueghel ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


The first rule of writing is that you must think about the effect you want to have on your intended reader.  From this perspective,  a research grant is one of the easiest writing tasks imaginable: the effect you want to have is very simple and the readership is well-defined. This makes it very easy to work out that there are some things you should never ever do. Almost all grant-writers do them. These are the deadly sins of grant-writing.

To help you understand how bad these sins are, I will describe the effect you want to have and the readership before I list the sins.

The effect you want to have and the readership.

Obviously the effect you want to have is to get funded. For this to happen, your  main readership, the grants committee, must understand your aims and believe that they are important and that your project will fulfill them. Then they must rank your application high enough to fund it. Typically the committee will read your application in parallel with about 80 others and to get funded you need them to rank it the top  15 or so.

Few if any of the committee will be familiar with your research area. Mostly they will be struggling to understand what you are going to do and why it might be important to do it. They won’t spend long reading your application. A couple of them may spend as much as an hour on it because they will be tasked with explaining your application to the rest of the committee. Most of the others will probably just read the summary and ‘speed read’ (glance through) the case for support during the discussion. At the end of the discussion they will all vote on your score.

Your application will also be read by referees, who tend to be more knowledgeable about your research area and who will probably spend a couple of hours on it but they will not contribute directly to the decision. They will read your application in detail and write an evaluation of its strengths and weaknesses for the committee to consider. They probably will not read any of the applications you are competing against.

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.

It may be helpful to distinguish sins of commission, things that you do deliberately, from sins of omission, things that you do because you just can’t help it. All seven sins make a long post, so  I’ll  leave the sins of omission to next week.

Sins of commission

  1. Elegant variation, using synonyms to avoid repeating yourself, is my top sin. It’s not the worst, but  it is the easiest to avoid. I have heard many reasons why you should say things in different ways when you repeat them. None of them applies to grant-writing.  Elegant variation is bad for two reasons.
    • First, it cuts down on repetition. Repetition is good in a grant application because it helps the reader to remember what you are writing about long enough to join in the discussion. It also helps them become familiar enough with  your technical terms to feel comfortable using them.
    • Second, synonyms are dangerous because members of the committee may not realise that they are synonyms. They will get hopelessly confused.
      People justify elegant variation in a variety of ways. Most of them are wrong and none of them applies to a grant application. Trust me.
  2. Aggressive space-saving is bad in all its forms, shrinking margins, shrinking font size, removing white space between paragraphs, and coining new abbreviations. They all make the reader’s real problem, reading and understanding your text, harder. And the reader will not love you for that. It is better to cut text than to cram it in and make it unreadable. Removing white space and coining abbreviations are particularly bad.
    • Removing white space makes speed-readers (most of the committee) lose the plot. Completely. Normally a speed reader will read the first line of every paragraph: their eyes automatically land on the edges of the white space at the top of the paragraph.  That means that the speed reader understands your proposal and thinks it is very clear because they pick up all the essential messages – you do start every paragraph with the topic sentence don’t you? Without the white space the speed-reader’s eye movements will go all over the place and they will pick up four or five random phrases from each page.
    • Coining abbreviations can’t do any harm can it? Surely it’s ok if you spell out each abbreviation the first time you use it? Well, no. I mean NO. Imagine reading 80 grant applications, all of them with half a dozen sets of abbreviations. Then imagine trying to re-read the difficult parts to try and understand them. What happens with the abbreviation when you start reading half-way through the grant? I can tell you: searching backwards through the text for the point where the abbreviation is spelled out makes a reader grouchy. Grouchy readers give grants low scores. So my advice is that if you have  to spell out an abbreviation you can’t use it.
  3. Over use of the passive voice – or of any convention that breaks up the natural flow just makes it hard to decipher your meaning. Of course sometimes your meaning is made clearer by using the passive. If you would like some helpful ideas about how and when to use the passive have a look at  this excellent post, which gives very clear advice on when it’s bad and when it’s good, including a brilliant sentence made shorter and sharper by using the passive voice 5 times.

It should be easy to avoid all these sins of commission because they are things you decide to do. Next week I will deal with the sins of omission, which are much harder to avoid.