Tag Archives: Key sentences

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 simply by cutting and pasting the first sentence of every paragraph.

KEY SENTENCE SUMMARY

  • 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.
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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.

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Catalogue

I have now written enough posts in this blog that it needs a catalogue. I have organised the posts into 8 themes:-

  1. How to write a Grant Application
  2. Strategy for writing grant applications
  3. Writing Style for Grant Applications
  4. Giving and Receiving Feedback on Grant Applications
  5. Dealing with referees reports and with rejection
  6. Interviews and Talks
  7. Software
  8. Academic Life and Afterlife

How to Write a Grant Application

Strategy for Grant Applications

Writing Style for Grant Applications

Friendly fire: Giving and receiving feedback

Dealing with referees reports and with rejection

Interviews and talks

Software for Writing Grant Applications

Academic life & Afterlife

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Scrivener for Grant Writing

Scrivener is designed for assembling a long document from a large number of components.

Scrivener is designed for assembling a long document from a large number of components.

This post is about using Scrivener to write a grant application. I have wanted to write the post for a long time but I was held back by the fact that it is about an idea that, until last week-end, hadn’t come to fruition. The idea is that Scrivener is the ideal tool for writing a grant application.

Scrivener’s strength is that it is designed for the task of assembling short sections of text into a larger document and for editing and rearranging the segments until they work together. This is exactly the problem with a grant application. You have to assemble the background information about your research problem and the description of your research project and then edit and rearrange them until they work together as a coherent sales pitch for the project.

For the sales pitch to work, reading the background information about the research problem must make the reader want that research project and no other.  This requires the content of the background to be exactly tuned to the content of the project. This kind of fine tuning is much easier if you draft the corresponding subsections of the background and the description of the project,  which will end up several pages apart in the final document, side by side.

Scrivener was designed to do exactly this.  It is a program designed for writing novels. I discovered it through Twitter. Someone I follow, whose writing I admire, said they found it invaluable, so I wanted to find it invaluable too. But the sad truth is that I never have.  My problem is that Scrivener isn’t very easy to use. In fact it’s pretty difficult. Everything I have ever tried to do with Scrivener is much easier to do with a different program. Last week end, this changed.

Last week-end I had the grant-writing assignment from hell. I had four days to assemble a case for support. The raw material I had was patchy, to say the least. I had about 30 pages of text provided by eight academics scattered across four continents. 95% of the text was about research but the grant was about building research capacity. Important components of the research project were still being written, whereas the source of text on building capacity and capability had run dry. The least of my problems was that the grant was a kind I had never written before, requiring the case for support to have a unique structure and a limit of 10 pages.

The first thing I had to do – fortunately I had done this the week-end before – was to overcome Scrivener’s two great weaknesses.

  • It isn’t very good at producing Microsoft Word, which is pretty much the only medium in which the academics I work with can collaborate on a text.
  • Its approach to references and bibliographies is extremely limited.

I needed to find a way that I could convert Scrivener text into Microsoft Office, completely reliably and with very little effort. I needed to get Scrivener to interface with a good referencing software package so that I could combine the citations provided by all the different contributors into a single bibliography, in a compact format.

Fortunately I had discovered an excellent blog post  by David Smith explaining how to use a program called pandoc together with the excellent reference software Zotero to produce Microsoft word output from Scrivener. Pandoc converts a text file produced by Scrivener into a Word document, which uses styles defined in a document of your choice, and Zotero inserts and updates and formats citations and a bibliography, which has a style determined by a csl file, thousands of which are available on Zotero’s website.  I had never used Pandoc or Zotero, so it took me about a day and a half to become proficient enough with them to get the process working reliably. While I was getting pandoc to work I also found this csl file, which makes pandoc produce bibliograpies in the style of an obscure Italian law journal that does not require the titles of journal papers.

I was slightly apprehensive that Pandoc, which is a 1970’s style unix command-line application, requires you to type a monstrously long command into a terminal app. This is the command I used.

$ pandoc --filter pandoc-citeproc --reference-docx=/Users/amd/Dropbox/02Andrew/11-Scrivener/pandoc/reference.docx -s -S --normalize  -f markdown -t docx -o CaseForSupport.docx -i CaseForSupport

This command specifies the citation process, the path to the Word document with the correct styles, the format and the name of the input file,  that the output should be  a standalone file, that repeated white space should be stripped out of the input, the format to convert to and the name of the output file and the name of the input file. Other details, such as the datafile and format specification for the bibliography were specified in the input file but they could also have been specified in the command.  It takes a few tries to get the command right but once you have got it right you can repeat it whenever you need to by pressing the up-arrow  key.

Once I had taken care of its weaknesses, I could start exploiting Scrivener’s great strength, its facilities for assembling a large text document from a series of snippets of text that have to be organised in different ways. Text came to me as Word documents, which I converted to raw text, marked up with formatting instructions in ‘Pandoc-flavoured Multimarkdown’. These instructions are very simple, and they cover the bare minimum – six levels of heading, numbered and bullet lists, bold and italic –  so it only takes a few minutes to mark up a whole case for support and it is very easy to keep the mark-up consistent. It reminded me of writing my thesis in the 1970s, using runoff on a minicomputer, which was a machine the size of a wardrobe with 0.05 Mb of memory, 0.25 Mb of disk that cost £25,000 (£140,000 in today’s money).

Exchanging edits and comments with colleagues was easy. I would send them the draft case for support as a word file and they would send back the same file edited with track changes, send me comments, or send me more text. I had to convert their edited text back to raw text, mark it up, and put it into Scrivener. This was quick and easy because I kept each contribution as a separate file, and it avoided the formatting errors that frequently happen when you merge Microsoft Word files.

Adding references was very easy. As long as the writer could identify the paper I would be able to find it and add it to my Zotero database. This was easiest if the writer used the DOI or the Pubmed ID but in several cases I  succeeded with nothing more than a google search for the author names, year, and journal title.

The funder’s instructions for writing the case for support required seven different sections so I created a folder for each section and sub-divided the contributions from different writers between the sections. Scrivener makes it very easy to split a file at any point. You can also select text in the file to use as the filename. This makes it easy to create separate files for each little subsection and to give them names that tell you what is in them. By the time I finished editing the case for support it comprised about 30 files.

Scrivener's Corkboard makes it easy to rearrange the sections of a document.

Scrivener’s Corkboard makes it easy to rearrange the sections of a document.

Using separate files makes it very easy to reorganise the text if you decide the structure is wrong, as I did reluctantly when one of the contributors pointed out that the case for support looked as if the main point of the grant was research, whereas the funding call was for building research capacity and capability. Completely restructuring the case for support involved splitting one file into six or seven pieces to be distributed throughout the document and reorganising the other files so that I now had a two level structure, with folders and files. Scrivener has a very flexible view of folders and files, you can convert one into the other, but the advantage of a folder is that it allows you to move a group of subsections at the same time, without changing their relationships with each other, in a single drag and drop.  The whole restructure, which felt as if I was turning the case for support inside out, took me a couple of hours.

Without Scrivener I couldn’t have written the case for support before the deadline. Two features were crucial: the ease of restructuring, and the rock-solid reliability with which I could create a perfectly formatted Word file after every edit.

  • Restructuring a case for support in Word is possible: you can use the outliner to move subsections around, but it is very hard to keep track of what is where, and I have never tried anything as complicated as this.
  • Preserving the format of lists and the styles of headings through an exercise like this may be possible in Word, but I have never managed to do it. I spend huge amounts of time renumbering numbered lists and at least once in an exercise like this I will have to recreate all the heading styles from scratch.

Scrivener has a couple of other features that make it useful, but not uniquely so.

  • It allows you to assemble all the background information you need and keep it together with the text in a file called the project. You can do this by using the folder structure of the file system.
  • It allows you to tag files in different ways so that it can produce several different output files from the same project. I used this to produce other documents, like the pathways to impact, the summary and the objectives.

Finally, there is one thing I would like Scrivener to do that I haven’t yet managed to do. I would like it to insert boilerplate text several times in a document. Followers of this blog will know that I like to repeat myself and that I will re-use a key sentence several times. If I could do this by referring repeatedly to a single sentence, so that all the instances would change if I edited any of them, that would be perfect. Then I would be able to write a whole case for support by numbers!

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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?

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

By Pieter Brueghel (http://gnozis.info/?q=node/2792) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The_Seven_Deadly_Sins_-_Pieter_Brueghel

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.

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Recipe for a NIH Grant

ManhattanI’ve just spent a very pleasant few days in New York City teaching post-docs at  Mount Sinai my recipe for a NIH grant. We focused on the K99/R00 scheme, which is for applicants less than 4 years from their PhD. K99/R00 applications must  include career-development as well as  research, which makes them more complex than a pure research grant, but the recipe I developed can easily accommodate other grant schemes by adjusting  the formula for their assessment criteria. Before I describe the recipe – how you get the grant written – I need to say something about the formula – what the finished grant consists of.

The Formula

The formula is based on the principle that you should make it as easy as possible for those who carry out the peer review of your grant to do their job. NIH makes it very easy to apply this principle because they take great trouble both to explain their peer review process and to list the review criteria for every kind of grant they offer.

The peer review process is carried out by a study section, a group of about 15 scientists whose expertise covers the area of the grant. Three of them, the reviewers, have to produce a written assessment of the grant and score it against the review criteria before the study section meets. At the study section the reviewers present the grant orally, then it is discussed openly and then scored by secret ballot. All members of the study section join in the discussion and vote on the score even though they may not have read the grant, although they will probably have read the 1 page Specific Aims, or the 30 line Summary. So the formula has two requirements.

  • It must be very easy for the reviewers to understand the grant quickly and to find the detail that shows whether or not it meets the assessment criteria.
  • It must be easy for the other members of the study section to speed read it and understand it.

To make it easy for reviewers, the three versions of the grant – the 12-page Research Strategy, the 1 page Specific Aims and the 30 line Summary should be recognisably the same, so that someone who has read the Summary or the Specific Aims should find the Research Strategy looks familiar. I recommend that you define the grant with a set of about 10 key statements that address the review criteria. The key statements begin major sections of the Research Strategy and are followed by text that justifies them and convinces the reviewer that they are true. The reviewer will be familiar with the key statements because they appear in the same order in the Specific Aims and the Summary, but with less text to justify them.

The repetition of the key statements between the Summary, the Specific Aims and the Research Strategy helps the other members of the study section to feel that they understand the Research Strategy as soon as they glance at it. To make it possible for them to speed-read it, the top line of every paragraph should contain the main message of the paragraph and there should be white space between the paragraphs.

The Recipe

To cook up a grant with this formula you need to start by deciding what key statements you need. NIH assessment criteria are very helpful here.

  • All grants are required to have a number of specific aims – goals that the research hopes to achieve. Three is the ideal number of specific aims – just as it is the ideal number of points to make in an emphatic statement.
  • The Research Strategy document must be divided into three sections, each of which is assessed. They are Significance, how important the research is; Innovation, what is new about the research, and Approach, how you are going to do the research.

Each specific aim needs one key statement to state its significance and one to state the approach to achieving it. Innovation can be stated separately for each aim or in a single staement that covers all three aime. Thus you need between 7 and 9 key statements to cover the basic criteria.

In addition you should have a couple of key statements to introduce the Research Strategy. These make the ‘elevator pitch’. The first needs to say what overall outcome is hoped for, something about how it will be achieved and something about your credentials for carrying out the project. The second needs to say something about the project’s overall importance. You can think of these statements as the opening remarks of the reviewer addressing the study section. They correspond to key sentences 1 and 2.

Finally you probably need an ‘onwards and upwards’ statement to finish off the Research Strategy, something that says how you will take the research forwards at the end of the project.

The K99/R00 grant has a training requirement. The research project must contain a mentored (K99) component and an independent (R00) component. The candidate is also required to submit a training and career development plan. The criteria make it clear that the K99 project must develop the candidate’s skills to prepare them for the independent phase. One or two extra key statements are needed to address this aspect of the project.

Once you have drawn up your list of key statements you draft them. They are the introductory sentences of the main subections of the Research Strategy. Don’t spend too much time perfecting these sentences. Get on with writing the sections that they introduce. As you draft those sections you will naturally polish the key statements until they are as good as you can make them.

Once you have a complete draft of the Research Strategy you can copy the key statements from it into the one-page Specific Aims document. Make that document up to a page by cutting and pasting more text from the Research Strategy or by drafting new text. You should cut and paste wherever possible to maximise the overlap between the two documents.

There are a number of sources that help you with content.

These can help you to modify the formula by choosing different sets of key statements and by varying which key statements appear in the different components of the application. But the best way to minimise the pain of writing is to follow the recipe.

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