Tag Archives: Key sentences

Writing a research grant application: the quick way and the easy way.

There are two ways of writing a grant application, the quick way and the easy way.

The Quick Way

The quick way is to start by writing a set of key sentences. Each key sentence states one of the points that you will need to make in the case for support. These points include the main research goal, what makes the goal important, the sub-goals, the lines of research that will deliver the sub-goals, and so on. 

Writing the key sentences is hard work, but it only takes a couple of hours. If you can’t draft a set of key sentences in a couple of hours then you know you are not ready to write a grant application. On the other hand, when you write a set of key sentences you get more than the knowledge that you are ready to write. You get a short-cut to the finished case for support.  The key sentences enable you to write the full case for support in a couple of weeks.

The key sentences give you a short cut because the full case for support is simply an expanded version of the key sentences. It consists of a series of sections, each of which begins with a key sentence. Each of the sections should also have a heading that uses phrases from the key sentence. The remainder of each section consists of a few paragraphs that expand and justify the point made by the key sentence. 

Not only is it easy to write the case for support with the key sentences, it is easy to keep it short. And if it gets too long it is easy to shorten it. Every section starts by saying what is most important. If you write too much in any section you can trim the unimportant stuff from the end.

The Easy Way

It’s only a grant application. Why make it difficult?

Despite these advantages of the key sentence approach, most writers prefer to write a grant the easy way. They just start writing. If you write the easy way you won’t have the key sentences to guide your writing but you will have saved yourself two hours of dull work, so as long as you can work out what to write you will  surely finish sooner if you start the easy way.

It’s obviously best to discuss the most important issues first. Describe your research question and what makes it important to your chosen funder. Pretty soon you will have several pages of text. There’s lots of helpful advice on the web about what you should include. A google search  on writing a good research grant application give 37.6 million hits. Some of the top hits in the google search are written by the funders themselves.  The funders tell you exactly what to do, in detail. This page on content and presentation on ESRC’s website lists 37 points you should include and 5 questions you should answer. Following this advice will make it very easy to write a lot of text very quickly.

Unfortunately, there is no advice about how to write clearly. The most likely outcome is that the document you write will be a misshapen monster, far too long and completely unreadable. Editing a badly structured document of any kind is futile and utterly miserable. The excellent @thesiswhisperer blog likens the process to fighting a jungle war. If you are unlucky, you will have supportive colleagues who will encourage you to persevere in this miserable task. In fact you should quit and start again.

You should quit because because line-by-line edits do not fix the real problem, the poor structure. The more you edit, the worse it gets. You will work for months and when you finish you will know in your heart of hearts that your case for support is a mess.

Foolishly, you will nurture a vain hope that maybe you are being overly critical because you have been working so hard. You will reach out to your supportive colleagues for reassurance. They will know how hard you have worked and will want to support your morale, rather than help you write a good case for support. When you ask them for comments, they will lie, to protect your morale. They will see that the case for support is a mess, but they want to be supportive, so they will tell you to dot a couple of i’s and cross a couple of t’s and you will breathe a sigh of relief and submit your grant application.

The point at which you discover the truth about your grant application is when you get the results of peer review, nine months after submitting. At this point you will probably no longer be pleased that you saved the two hours it would have taken to write the key sentences.

If you are lucky, when you find yourself with a misshapen monster grant application, you will engage a consultant like me who will tell you some really good news. Your misshapen monster of a grant application can be salvaged. There is an easy way to restructure the case for support that only takes a day or so. You start by writing a set of key sentences……..

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What’s the Point?

I want to explain why I think it’s better to produce a well-written grant application than a poorly written one. Obviously, given the nature of my business, I have to make this case, but it is not as simple as you might think, not least because most successful grant applications are very poorly written. In fact, if you think carefully about the quality of grant applications, it becomes clear that, in this particular domain, quality is completely subjective. So I will start by saying what I think makes a good grant application.

The quality of a grant application is not the same as the quality of the research project it describes. A grant application is essentially a marketing document for a research project and you can have a first-rate application that markets a tenth-rate project. And vice versa. Indeed  poorly-written grant applications are very often successful precisely because grants committees are trying to judge the quality of the project, not the quality of the application. Judging the quality of a project can be very difficult if the application is poorly written. So what makes a good grant application?

The essence of a good grant application is that it makes it easy to judge the project. The application contains all the detail that an expert will look for. The detail should be set out so that it can be read at very high speed and understood by a non-expert. As a rule of thumb, it should take less than two minutes to understand the main points of what you will do and why it is worth doing.

Those main points should be expressed and justified in such a way that a non-expert ‘gets’ what you are going to do and why. An expert should also be able to drill down and find the detail that they need in order to judge whether your project is likely to succeed and achieve those main points. I have already explained how the ‘key sentence’ structure enables a grant application to fulfil these requirements.

Despite the fact that most successful grant applications are poorly written, there are three reasons that it is worth taking trouble to produce a well-written grant application:-

  1. If your project is good, a well-written application will improve your chance of success.
  2. If your project is bad, a well-written application will help you to see that it needs to be improved.
  3. A well-written application can be easier and quicker to write than a badly-written application.

I’ll deal with the first two reasons in this post and I will leave the third for the future.

Well written applications are more likely to be successful.

Well-written applications generate an enthusiasm among committee members that makes them give higher scores. For reasons I’ll explain in a future post, the person leading the discussion is likely to recommend a relatively conservative score, no matter how much they like the application. But if the committee are enthusiastic, they are quite likely to argue that the recommendation should be raised, and to exceed the recommendation when they score.

Poorly written applications can also get high scores, particularly if the referees have given very strong recommendations, but when committee members don’t understand an application they will not argue for a higher score and they may even score slightly below the recommendation. The consequence is that the scores of poorly written applications tend to drift downwards. The effect is small, but if the score is close to the borderline, which is likely to be the case, given the tendency for conservative recommendations, a tiny drift can make the difference between success and failure.

A well written application helps you see that you need to improve your project.

A well-written application explains your project very clearly at two levels.

  • First it explains what makes the project important to the funder.
  • Then it explains what the project consists of, and why each part of the project is important.

If your project needs to be improved, you are likely to find one or both of these explanations unconvincing as you write them. If you do find yourself writing arguments that you find unconvincing, then you need to reexamine your project and work out how to make it more convincing. If your application does not convince you, it is unlikely to convince a committee.

 

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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

The posts discuss 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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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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Say it again Sam. And use the same words.

groundhogRepetition of key sentences and key phrases is extremely important in a grant application. The key sentences that introduce each subsection of the background and the description of the project in the case for support should be repeated in the introduction and also in the summary.  So each key sentence should appear at least three times.

Some key phrases should be repeated more than three times because they occur in more than one key sentence. For example, imagine you are writing a grant in which one of the sub-projects will characterise the relationship between motherhood and apple pie.  The phrase ‘the relationship between motherhood and apple pie’ will be in two of your key sentences.  One will explain why we need to characterise ‘the relationship between motherhood and apple pie’.  The other will introduce  the description of the sub-project that characterises the relationship between motherhood and apple pie.

Most academics accept that it is helpful to repeat key sentences. But most of them reject the idea that the repetition should use  the same words in the same order.  So I want to explain now why it is more effective to use the same words in the same order whenever you repeat a phrase or sentence.

Effectiveness is much more important here than correctness.  Few would disagree with the assertion that exact repetition is a more correct use of English than paraphrasing but it is much more important to think about how you can increase the effectiveness of a grant application by using repetition in the way that I recommend and how you will fail to increase effectiveness in the same way if you change the words you use or their order.

In thinking about the effectiveness of a grant application, we should consider who will read it and how.  Committee members and referees have different needs and derive different benefits  from repetition.

The most important readers are the committee members that make the decision.  All of them will have a vote in deciding whether or not the grant application gets funded. Few, if any,  will understand the details of the research topic. All of them will read the summary and most of them will stop there. Some will try to read the application and understand it. Usually two  members of the committee, the designated members, are tasked with reading the application and leading the committee discussion. They will try hard to understand the application, but they will find it very difficult and they won’t have much time – maybe an hour. Any help you give them will be gratefully received.  Although most of the rest of the committee will not read the application they will probably glance through it during the discussion.

There are three ways that repetition is particularly helpful to committee members:-

  • Repeating the key sentences means that all the committee members will be likely to remember them. Even those who just glance through the application once will read the key sentences three times. This means that there is a very good chance that they will remember them and understand the logic of your case for support – what outcome your project will achieve, why it is important, what things you need to know in order to achieve the outcome and how you will achieve them. If you repeat the key sentences but substantially change the wording then people will be less likely to remember them. Every change in wording is likely to be interpreted as a change in meaning, leading to potential confusion.
  • Repeating key phrases in the sentences that state what we need to know and what the sub-projects will discover makes it very clear that the project will discover exactly what we need to know. In this way the key phrases act like labels for the different parts of the project.
  • Repeating the key phrases enables committee members to learn them and to have a sense of what they mean. Humans learn the meaning of new phrases by encountering them repeated in different contexts. Committee members who read your grant application carefully will get the sense that they know what it means , even if they don’t. If you vary the wording of the key phrases it becomes harder to learn them and  less clear to the reader that you mean the same thing.

The referees are, notionally at least,  experts in the research topic. They will read the application, write an analysis of its strengths and weaknesses and give it a score, which the committee will consider, but not necessarily follow.  The referees are likely to read your application more carefully than the committee members and to have a deeper understanding of the topic. However, they will want to assess whether the detailed content of your case for support actually supports the assertions made in the key sentences. Repetition helps them do this in two stages.

  • Reading the key sentences in the summary and in the introduction allows them to create a mental list of questions to which they want to find answers in the case for support.
  • Repeating the key sentences at the head of each subsection of the case for support guides the referees to the answers. Again, the key phrases act like labels. For example, a referee that has some doubts about whether your research approach really will characterise the relationship between motherhood and apple pie will be guided straight to the place where you describe the relevant part of your research approach by the phrase the relationship between motherhood and apple pie. If you decide to change any of the words in the key phrase, not only does it become less effective as a label, it also introduces the possibility that you are seeking to do a piece of research without having told the reader why it is important to do it.

In sum, repetition of key sentences and key phrases makes a grant application more effective in four different ways, provided that you use the same words in the same order.

 

 

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First you tell them; then you convince them.

Quotative Like; xkcd.com

Some  common writing styles are very bad for grant applications and this post aims to help you to avoid one of the worst.  It is a style of writing that we refer to in the book as “Argue – conclude”.

Argue-conclude writing sets out the argument for a statement before it makes the statement.  Done well, argue-conclude writing can be very convincing for a dedicated reader,  who will follow every twist and turn of  your argument. By the time they get to read a statement that ordinarily they might be inclined to reject, they already know the arguments that support it. Unfortunately, most of the readers who will decide whether your grant application gets funded are less dedicated. They will give up reading before they get to the crucial statement.

To communicate with these readers, you begin each paragraph with its main message. Then use the rest of the paragraph to convince them that the message is true. In the book we refer to this style as “assert-justify“. An easy way to describe about assert-justify style is “Tell them; then convince them”.

As I was writing this I thought of nine reasons you should adopt “Assert-justify” style in research grant applications.  The first four are concerned with meeting the needs of the reader – one of the guiding principles for writing with style. The remaining five are concerned with making the task of writing easier. Naturally I shall assert each reason and then justify it.

  1. Assert-justify style communicates more effectively with speed-readers, tired readers, and lazy readers.
    These readers will skim through your document. The neurology of eye-movements dictates that, provided you put blank lines between the paragraphs, their eyes will skip from paragraph to paragraph. They will read the first line of each paragraph. Thus they will read the assertions and get the headline messages. If they are inclined to disagree with the headline messages, they will dig down into the arguments that justify them.
  2. Assert-justify style makes it easier for diligent readers, such as referees, to examine your arguments in detail.
    Each paragraph starts by stating what the paragraph is about. This makes it very easy for the reader to find the arguments they want to examine. They never face the problem of wading through an argument wondering where it is leading.
  3. Assert-justify style makes it easier for the committee-member who has to present your grant to the rest of the committee.
    They can see at a glance what points you are trying to make. This makes it very easy for them to select the points that are most important and relevant for the committee, even if they don’t entirely understand them.
  4. Assert-justify style is more likely to engage readers who are bored.
    The conclusion is always the most interesting part of the argument. By putting the conclusion first you are more likely to entice them to read.
  5. Assert-justify style makes it easier to write an accurate summary.
    The assertions from each paragraph comprise a draft summary. If you want a shorter summary you may be able to leave some of them out.
  6. Assert-justify style makes it easier to write a good introduction.
    The assertions from each paragraph comprise the core of the introduction. You may need to add some linking text and some signposts.
  7. Assert-justify style makes it easier to write short sentences.
    You can write in simple, clear statements. You don’t need to frame them and qualify them.
  8. Assert-justify style makes it easier to write short paragraphs.
    In argue-conclude writing you have to spend a lot of words preparing the ground for the argument. If you start by asserting the point you want to make, you leap straight into the argument without spending any words.
  9. Assert-justify style makes it easier to write.
    I used to spend a lot of time staring at my screen wondering how to get started on each section. In assert-justify writing you can write the ten key sentences that start each sub-section of a grant proposal in an hour.

There are probably more and better reasons to write in assert-justify style. When I started writing this post a couple of hours ago I only had three!  If you have any doubts about whether assert-justify style is correct, it may help you to read Andy Gillett’s recommendations  on the Use of English for Academic Purposes blog.

Let me finish with an example of what I think you should avoid. This abstract of a funded grant application is short and clearly written but it is in argue-conclude style; consequently the piece of information that the reader most wants to know – what will the research project do – is buried away in the second half of a sentence in the last paragraph. A speed-reader would not see it.

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