Tag Archives: Objectives

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 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.

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.



Build the Project, Then Fit the Question

Was your question clearly linked to your project?

Is your question important to the funder?

The first thing you must do in a grant application is convince the reader that you are going to address a question that is important to the funder. In chapter  7 of The Research Funding Toolkit, we refer to this as the ‘Importance Proposition‘.

The importance proposition is fundamental: your grant will definitely not get funded unless you convince the reader that your research question is important to the funder. Even so,  you should take a project first approach. Generate your project and then fit the question to it. Do not try to pick an important question and then design a project to solve it. The project first approach is quicker – often by several months – and it reduces the risk of writing a zombie grant.

The project first approach is easier if you take a modular approach to project design and start by generating a catalogue of sub-projects.  As you generate each sub-project, you should ask  yourself if the outcome will contribute to answering an important question. If it will, keep the sub-project and begin preparing yourself to make that case. Otherwise, discard that sub-project and try  to generate another one with an outcome that will contribute to answering an important question.

Once you have a few sub-projects – ideally at least five or six – it is easy to generate projects. The ideal project has three, or just possibly four, sub-projects.  When you combine sub-projects to generate a project you need to start looking hard for a good research question. You need a question that covers all  of the sub-project outcomes comfortably. It is better to take a question that is too big to answer, and answer it partially, rather than risk picking a question that is too small to be exciting and answer it completely.

An important part of your development as a researcher is to develop the ability to design projects that produce results that help to answer important questions. I absorbed this from the culture of the lab in which I did my PhD and this is part of the approach we recommend in the book. However, it is also possible to search on the web to see if a given funder will fund the kinds of research outcomes you are likely to produce.  Obviously every funder’s website will have a statement of their remit, but this can be hard to interpret because it will be couched in terms of questions rather than outcomes. A better way to get a sense of the outcomes that excite a given funder is to scan their press releases. Best of all, some funders have a database that includes the abstracts of all their funded projects.

The Gateway to Funded Research is a searchable database that covers  all the UK research councils. The Projects and Results page on the European Research Council website is also searchable and allows you to see research outcomes.

How to Write a Research Grant Application in 2 Weeks


The key to writing anything quickly is knowing what you have to write.

One of the things that puts people off writing research grants is that writing a grant can be a never-ending nightmare. However, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Last month I helped a client, let’s call him Dr B, to write a research council grant application in 2 weeks. It was interesting for me because it was a model of how to write with the minimum of effort – by either of us. Dr B tells me that he spent only about half of the working day on the application during the 2 week period when he wrote it.  I spent between 2 and 3 hours helping him.

The clock started on September 3rd when Dr B sent me a draft set of 10 key sentences and a  question about whether to follow my advice, to state the  aims and objectives in the introduction, or whether to follow the funder’s guidelines for a case for support which suggests that aims and objectives  form part of the description of the project.

I edited the sentences and sent an email suggesting that Dr B could follow both my advice and the funder’s guidelines. I think that it is essential to state the aims and objectives – and not much else – in the introduction to the case for support and also in the summary, so that the reader knows what to expect. And if the funder recommends that you state the aims and objectives at the start of the description of the research project then its fine to do that although I would suggest that you only format them as Aims and Objectives once. In other places you can use phrases like ‘We need to know’ for the aims and ‘In order to discover X we will do Y’ for the objectives.

I think that editing and drafting my email took less than 20 minutes. It can’t have taken much more because the email logs show my response 31 minutes after Dr B’s query. A few days later Dr B promised to send me a draft on the 15th and we made an appointment to speak about it on the 16th. The draft arrived on time and I spent about an hour and a half reading it and annotating it. Then Dr B phoned and we spent an hour discussing my suggested changes which took him less than a day to implement. We also kicked around some ideas that will be the subject of his next grant proposal.

The key to writing anything quickly is knowing what you have to write. That is why it is so useful to start by writing the key sentences. They define the grant application. Each of them begins a major section of the proposal. These sections justify the bald assertions in the key sentences and make the reader believe that they are true. The key sentences that define the background must be justified with evidence; those that define the project must be justified with descriptive detail.

Writing the key sentences should only take you a couple of hours. If you can’t write the key sentences in a couple of hours then you need to do some more thinking about your project. That can take days, weeks, or months, but until you have done it you are not ready to start writing a grant application.

Dr B is ready. I had an email from him last week. He has been thinking about the ideas we kicked around when we were discussing the edits to his last application. He wants to send me a set of key sentences next week!


The perfect introduction


Henry Stanley introduces himself to Dr Livingstone

If you write your grant application in the way that I recommend, you should leave the introduction until last. The reason is that, by the time you start to write the introduction, you will already have written everything you need to say in it. You just need to copy it and paste it into the right place.

Here’s how it works. There are five things that you need to say in the introduction to a grant application,

  • what you will do,
  • why it is important,
  • your research aims,
  • your research objectives, and
  • what you will do with the results.

1. What you will do

Your first sentence should say what the outcome of your research project will be. Ideally it will also say something about how you will go about producing this outcome and give a hint of your credentials for doing it.  If you followed the advice in my last post then you will already have written the perfect sentence to do this, key sentence 1. You can just copy and paste it to the beginning of the introduction.

2. Why it is important

Your next sentence should say why the outcome is important. It will do this with reference to an important research question. My last post described how to write this sentence, key sentence 2, introducing one of the sub-sections of the background section. You should copy it and paste it into the introduction.

3. Your research aims

Next you need to state how the outcome of the project depends on about three things that we need to know.  My last post explained how to state this in 3 sentences (key sentences 3, 4 and 5). You should copy and paste these from their positions in the background section of the case for support into the introduction. At this point you may wish to edit the sentences so that you can run them together as a list of aims. Whatever editing you do you should avoid changing any of the technical phrases for reasons I will explain below.

4. Your research objectives

Then you need to say that the research project will tell us each of the three things that we need to know. If you followed the advice I gave a couple of weeks ago or earlier, you will have put four sentences that do precisely this at strategic points in the description of your research project. They are key sentences 6, 7, 8 and 9; copy them and paste them into the introduction.

5. What you will do with the results

Finally you need to say what you will do with the results. You will already have written key sentence 10, which says exactly this and introduces the last part of the description of the project. Copy  it and paste it into the introduction.

Exact repetition of the key sentences increases your chances of getting funded

When you copy and paste the key sentences you should keep the phrases that refer to your research activities exactly the same. It’s OK to change the structure, as long as you keep the parts that refer to research activities exactly the same. For example you might change three sentences saying “We need to know X.”; “We need to understand  Y”; and “We need to  characterise Z” to a list of aims, such as “Our aims are:- to discover X; to understand Y; and to characterise Z”. But you should not change the phrases X, Y and Z or the verbs discover, understand and characterise. 

One reason that you should not change phrases when you repeat is that to do so would be a stylistic error known as  elegant variation. However, there is an important practical reason that exact repetition is good.

The value of exact repetition comes from the way that a grants committee deals with applications. One or two members of the committee have to read each application and explain it to the rest of the committee. Usually they do this by stating  what you will do, why it is important, your research aims, your research objectives, and what you will do with the results. This is quite a difficult thing to do because they will not have had much time to read the proposal and they will have to present several other grant applications the same day: I once had to present 10 applications in a single meeting.

Anything that you can do to make the job of presenting your grant to the committee easier will be welcome. If you write the introduction the way I have suggested, it will be the perfect set of notes for the presentation. What could be better than that?

I frequently encounter  academics who feel that you should change the words when you repeat a message even though the meaning is exactly the same. I encounter two arguments for this.

  • The first argument is that the reader will get bored if they see the same phrase twice. This is not so. For the most important readers the repetition is a useful and reassuring signal.  The members of the committee that decides whether to fund your grant are unlikely to be familiar with the details of your research area and may not completely understand the phrases. Repeating the phrases exactly helps them to see that you are saying the same thing again. To say the same thing with different words is very risky indeed. The most likely outcome is that they will think you are saying two different things.
  • The second argument – which usually follows immediately I give the explanation in the previous paragraph – is that by using different ways of saying the same thing, you increase the chance that the reader will understand at least once. Even if it’s true, it’s no help for the reader to understand once because they will still think that when you repeat the sentence with different words that you are saying something different. It is far better to use exactly the same words because you increase the chance that the reader will remember the phrase, and even if they don’t understand it they may think that they do.

Reshape Your Draft Grant Application

20005338_sLast week I explained how to tell if your grant application is misshapen. This post is about how to get it into shape.

Let’s start with the most difficult kind of draft to deal with, one in which it’s hard to tell the shape of the proposal because it’s written in such a way that you can’t tell what a paragraph is about until you have analysed its meaning. Last week I described this kind of writing as zombie text.

The first step with zombie text  is to identify the topic of each paragraph. The next step is the same with zombie text and with text where the paragraph starts with the topic. It is to find the best grouping of paragraphs into larger subsections.

Dealing with Zombie Text

The first step with zombie text is to use the reverse outlining  procedure described on @thesiswhisperer’s blog about the zombie thesis to identify the paragraph topics. There is another description of reverse outlining on @explorstlye’s blog, Explorations of Style.

  1. Number the paragraphs in your draft. Open a new document, give it a different title and copy the whole text of your draft into it.
  2. Replace each paragraph in the new document with a single short sentence that states its point. Keep the numbering so that you can copy across the remaining text from the original document when you need to.
    • If you can’t state the point of a paragraph with a single sentence then you probably need to revise your approach to paragraphs. There is good advice in the explorations of style blog and also here. For this exercise just split the paragraphs into smaller chunks that canbe summarised with a single sentence and give them compound numbers (2.1, 2.2 etc).

If your draft is written so that the first sentence of each paragraph states the topic of the paragraph then you simply number the paragraphs and create a new document containing just the first sentence of each paragraph, still numbered.

In the reverse outlining process you rearrange the order of the topic sentences until you find the best structure for your document. With grant applications we already know what the best structure is, so the task is to arrange the text in that structure. We start with the largest component of the case for support, the description of the project.

Description of the project: key sentences and topic sentences

The next step is to sort the topic sentences of the paragraphs on the research project into five or six sections. In order to do this you will need to have worked out the main details of your research project. At the very least you will have divided the project into three or four sub-projects and you will know what outcome each sub-project will produce.

ZombieGrantWarningIf you haven’t done this then I am afraid I have bad news. This post will not help you: you have a zombie grant. There is no point in rewriting it until you have designed a project.

I’m sorry if this is disappointing but I can’t change the facts of life. The best I can do is to help you deal with them. A grant application is a marketing document for a research project. Without a research project, it can never be more than an empty shell, a zombie.

The best help I can offer is to say that the text you have written may be useful but you need to design a project  in order to use it. This post tells you how to design and catalogue sub-projects and  this post tells you how to check whether a particular group of sub-projects makes a viable project. I will deal more specifically with zombie grants in a future post.

So, if you have a potentially viable grant application you need to sort the topic sentences into five or six sub-sections as follows:-

  • a general introductory section,
  • three or four sections describing the specific sub-projects, and
  • a section saying what you will do with the overall results of the project.

You should now select, or draft, a key sentence that will be the first sentence for each of these five or six sections.  This post tells you how but here’s a rough outline.

  • The key sentence for each sub-project should say something about what the research activities are in the sub-project and it should say what they will discover or what the outcome will be. It has the form [Very brief descripton of research activities in the subproject] will [show, discover, reveal, or other suitable verb] [whatever the outcome of the research in that sub-project will be]. If you have written such a sentence, by all means use it, but if you haven’t, you need to write it now.
    • As you write each of these key sentences you should write a corresponding key sentence for the background to the project and paste it into the corresponding sub-section of the background of the case for support. This sentence states that we need to know whatever the corresponding sub-project will discover. The general form is We need to  know [or discover, understand or similar verb] [the outcome of the research in the corresponding sub-project].
  • The key sentence for the introductory sub-section on the research project as a whole should say what kind of research it will involve, something about the facilities it will use – especially if these are distinctive in some way, and what it will discover.
  • The key sentence for the sub-section on what you will do with the overall results may be about publication or about dissemination or exploitation of the results in some other way.

Once you have the key sentences in place you should copy each numbered topic sentence into the section where it fits best. Then arrange them in the best possible order. Now you are ready for the detail.

Final shaping of the description of the project

Once you have the topic sentences in the right order you  should take text from the body of each original paragraph and edit it so that the paragraphs flow internally and from one to the next. The introductory subsection should contain a description of your general research approach together with any necessary preliminaries. The sub-sections corresponding to the sub-projects should contain  a coherent description of your intended research activities that makes it clear how they will lead to the result mentioned in the introductory key sentence.

This is the point at which you adjust the length. Remember, the full description of the project should be at least 50% of the case for support. If it is more than about 65% then you either have too much detail or too big a project. Keep adjusting and trimming until you have a description of your research project that is the right size.

The next step is to produce a background section that convinces the reader that we need to know what your research project will discover. You already have key sentences that  define three or four of its five or six subsections. I will tell you how to produce the rest of it next week.


Is your grant application a misshapen monster?

Nuke_fishWhat do you do when your grant application (or your colleague’s) turns out to be a misshapen monster? How do you even know if it has? Can you tell if it’s just a little bit deformed? Read on. This post is about how to test whether your case for support is the right size and shape. Size and shape go together for three reasons.

  • If your grant is a monster then it’s probably misshapen too.
  • Even if it’s a perfectly formed monster, you will need to cut lumps out of it to get it down to size, so you need to check that the cutting doesn’t destroy the shape.
  • If it’s the right size but the wrong shape then you will probably need to cut some parts and grow others.

Incidentally, if you think that the solution to an overlong case for support is to shrink the margins and the font size I have no argument with you. None whatsoever. But you are reading the wrong blog. This blog is about grant-writing. Here are some blogs about typography.

Gross malformations: missing parts

The easiest malformation to spot is if one of the parts of the case for support is missing or the wrong size. In the research funding toolkit book we make the point that a generic case for support has three components.

  • An introduction that very quickly states the main objective of the project, why it is important, the aims, the objectives, and what will be done with the results. This should be less than 20% of the total. The commonest mistake is to omit it completely. Less commonly it is so big that it unbalances the case for support.
  • A background section that makes the reader feel that it is important to do the research in the project by showing how the aims contribute to a big important question. This part should be no more than than 30% of the total. It’s fairly common for it to be hypertrophied – and hideously deformed by philosophical quotations, particularly when people start by writing about the question they want to answer rather than describing the project that they want to do. I have seen a case for support that was 90% background.
  • The description of the research project, which describes the research in sufficient detail to convince the reader that the aims will be met. This should be at least 50% of the case for support. It is often too short and sketchy. It is rare for it to be too long except when the project itself is over ambitious.

Lesser malformations: malformed parts

The parts of the case for support must be the right shape as well as the right size if they are to work effectively. There are two major aspects to this.

  • The background must match the project. Each component of the project (there should be three or four such sub-projects) should have a corresponding sub-section of the background that makes the case that the outcome of that sub-project will meet one of the specific aims of the project. These sub-sections should be in the same order as their corresponding sub-sections in the description of the project and they should be preceded by one or two  sub-sections that explain the importance of the overall objective of the project and link it to the specific aims.
  • The statements in the introduction should be in the same order as the subsections of the background and description of the project to which they correspond. The introduction sketches a picture of the case for support and the other two sections fill in the detail.

The Zombie Grant

If you have generated your draft without thinking too much about structure and particularly if, like most academics, you tend to write statements as conclusions, rather than as assertions to be explained and justified, it may actually be pretty hard to work out what each section of the text does. If you are in this situation your draft is the research grant equivalent of what Inger Mewburn, Director of Research Training at the Australian National University  (AKA @thesiswhisperer), calls the zombie thesis. Let’s call it a zombie grant.

I have explained that you can avoid writing a zombie grant by writing key sentences and using them to impose structure on your draft.  But once you have it, you need to take drastic action to avoid getting sucked into a quagmire. As @thesiswhisperer says says “The worst thing to do with a Zombie Thesis is to do a line by line edit. This is like trying to fight a jungle war – you will find yourself hip deep in mud somewhere, with a sucking chest wound, too far for a helicopter to reach.”

To revive a zombie thesis @thesiswhisperer recommends a rebuilding process based on reverse outlining, which is explained in this blog post. To revive a zombie grant you need a combination of reverse outlining and retro-fitting key sentences which I will explain next week.