Tag Archives: Research Grant Application

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.

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

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!

Life After Academia

More enjoyable work and less of it!

More enjoyable work and less of it!

It is almost exactly 2 years since Parker Derrington Ltd opened for business and over a year since I  changed career definitively and gave up my university job to become a full-time businessman.

The change of career was a leap in the dark but 3 key facts convince me that I have landed on my feet:-

  • I enjoy my work more.
  • I do less work.
  • I earn more money.

Of course, things could be even better and I want to use this blog to improve them. This post is a review of my career change and an outline of what I want to do better. It follows one of the good practices I developed as an academic manager – annual planning and target setting.

When I changed career,  the target I set myself was to develop enough paid work to replace my salary before the end of 2015.  I had a 3-point strategy:-

  • Start a blog;
  • Build a website;
  • Offer free workshops to people I knew and generous discounts to people that I didn’t.

My plan was that the blog would bring people to the website; the website would bring clients; and free workshops would turn friends into clients. I thought that any client that had a free or half-price workshop would very quickly order a full-price workshop once they knew how good they are.

I was wrong both about free work and about discounts. Clients act as if workshops are only worth what they pay. They act as if my workshops are worth nothing. The workshops are very good but the attendees seem to expect them to be bad. And, they don’t lead to more work: clients act as if they  are reluctant to pay full price for something they have had free or half-price. So now I charge the full price and I offer new clients a BOGOF (buy one get one free – two days for the price of one). For many clients the BOGOF clinches the deal. I am careful to make sure that my invoice states the full price and applies the discount so that the client sees the full price even if they don’t pay it. Since I changed my approach, a good proportion of clients have asked for follow-on work at full price.

The website and blog, which I promote through Twitter, have also been very useful. Of the 30 different clients or organisations that have hired me, about 20 found me through the web site or through Twitter.

I met the target I set myself with a healthy safety margin. I earned more last year through the company than I would have done if I had stayed in my job. However, although my income is higher than it was when I was an academic, it is a lot less predictable. I never know when I will get offered work and the delays between working and getting paid are variable and huge. The fastest payer so far was the University of Exeter, which paid within 3 days of my invoice. I won’t name the slowest payer because, even though they took over 4 months to pay, they will probably be replaced by someone even slower quite soon. Almost all my business is with universities and  almost all universities are apallingly slow to pay their bills.

My next target is to change the  mix of work. At present it is about 60% teaching people how to write, 25% writing and editing, 10% consultancy and 5% coaching.  I’d like to do more writing because that’s what I enjoy most. It’s probably also where I add most value. Very few clients trust me to co-write their grant applications and papers but those few are delighted with the results: better papers and grant-applications with less effort.

My target for 2016 is to  shift the balance of business towards writing and consultancy. My strategy will be to use the blog, the website and direct contacts to promote writing and consultancy.

So do get in touch if you don’t know what to write, if you don’t know how to write it, or if you know what to write and how, but don’t have time.

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?

Ten questions to Get Feedback on a Grant Application

FeedbackThis post was triggered by an  article in Harvard Business Review about how to get feedback on your performance at work. Getting feedback that you can trust is a universal problem and it affects grant-writers more than most. The key to getting good feedback  on a grant application is to think carefully about whom you should ask and how you should ask them.

Whom should you ask for feedback on your grant application?

The best option is to ask the right kind of expert, if you can. Expertise on grants is much more important than expertise in your subject. The ideal person would be someone who has served several years on the grants committee that will consider your proposal. Failing that, you could ask someone who has wide experience of similar grants committees and a good understanding of the scheme for which you are applying.  Unfortunately these people tend to be busy and you may be in a hurry. You can ask Parker Derrington Ltd to read your grant application and give you face-to-face feedback by Skype or Facetime, but you would have to pay. What can you do if you don’t have an expert on call and can’t afford to pay one?

If you can’t get an expert, you should choose an ignoramus, or someone who can act the part as far as your project is concerned. You need someone who does not share your views about what is important in your subject but who is open-minded. This mimics the kind of expertise that a grants committee member will have. The ideal person would be someone at your level, in a different but related field. It can be a good idea to exchange feedback with a colleague in a different subject area who is also preparing a grant application. It is a mistake to use someone who knows as much or more than you do about the area of your project, unless they are sufficiently experienced in the way grants committees work that they will be able to discount their knowledge of your subject.

How should you ask for feedback on your grant application?

If you ask a real expert for feedback, it doesn’t matter how you ask, they will give you useful feedback. Otherwise, you need to design your questions carefully if the answers are to be useful. Here are some suggestions.

  1. Write down the main outcome of the project. Mark where it describes it in the text with a (1)
  2. Mark with (2) in the text the section that gives evidence that the main outcome is important. Can you think of anything else that could be said to support the claim that the outcome is important?
  3. Is the importance of the outcome specific to this funder? Mark any references to the funder’s goals with (3).
  4. How many separate components does the research project have?
  5. Mark with (5-1), (5-2) etc, the sections of text that state the outcome of each component of the research project.
  6. Mark with (6-1), (6-2) etc, each section of text that explains how important the outcome is of a component of the research project.
  7. Mark with (7-1), (7-2) etc, the sections of text that give citations that support the explanations in (6-1), (6-2) and so on.
  8. Mark with (8-1), (8-2) etc, the sections of text that describe the research processes that will produce the outcomes (5-1), (5-2) etc.
  9. For each of these sections, can you mark with (?) any processes that are not clear, and can you suggest any extra processes that might be needed in order to produce the research outcome.
  10. Mark in the text with (1) where it states what will be done to make sure that the overall outcome of the project has maximum value to the funder. Can you think of any way that this could be made more valuable to the funder.

You should ask the reader to spend no more than half an hour answering these questions. If they are unable to answer them in that time then you need to do some serious rewriting. You might also consider reading chapter 11 of The Research Funding Toolkit, which has a comprehensive set of exercises to get feedback at every stage.

Finally, you should know that the correct answer to question 4 should be three.

We thank the referees for their helpful suggestions…….

PeerReviewCartoonIt may not be easy to keep your temper when responding to referees’ comments but you must make it seem like the easiest thing in the world. Whether the comments are on a grant application or a paper, you should compose your response with regard to the effect you want it to have on the reader. If you want your response to influence a grants committee to award your grant or a journal editor to publish your paper, anger is unlikely to help.

There are some differences between responding to grant-application referees and paper referees but most of the following recommendations apply to both.

Assume that the referee is trying to be helpful. You will do a better job if you can make the assumption of reasonableness. If you can convince yourself that the referees are doing their best to help you  and their comments are genuinely trying to help you improve your research project or your paper, it will be easier to follow most of the recommendations below. It doesn’t matter if the assumption is wrong and the referees are actually trying to sink your grant or turn your paper into tedious gibberish. The important point is that you will do a better job of responding to them if you assume that they are trying to help.

Take responsibility for the reader’s failure to understand. Some writers take pride in the knowledge that very few people understand their work. I have seen responses from grant applicants that berated referees for their stupidity. That is a risky attitude to take in any type of writing and is almost certain to lead to the failure of a grant application.

Express gratitude for referees’ suggestions. Derrington’s first law of responding to referees states “The less you feel gratitude, the more fulsomely you should express it”. This is probably more important in the case of a paper than a grant application because in the case of a paper the referee will usually be consulted about whether your response is satisfactory whereas in the case of a grant application your response will be usually assessed by the grants committee.  Of course it may help you to express gratitude if you can explain how the referees insightful suggestions have enabled you to transform the research project or paper.

Make it clear that the responding to the referees’ suggestions has enabled you to improve the research project (or paper). There are two reasons for this.

  • First, you want to give the impression that the final version of your paper (or grant application) is much better than the version that the referee evaluated and deserves a higher score than the referees gave it.
  • Second, you may want to distract the referee (or the grants committee) from the fact that you may not have made any changes at all. In this case, Derrington’s second law of responding to referees applies “The less you change, the more emphatically you state how much you have changed and how much this has transformed the paper.”

Derrington’s second law is more important for papers than for grants, because journal editors often regard referees’ recommendations as binding and authors often find them unacceptable. A grants’ committee is much more likely to recognise when a referee’s recommendation is ridiculous and accept a response that politely declines to implement it.

State clearly what you are responding to and how. This is particularly important when referees’ comments and suggestions are vague or ambiguous. It is often helpful to paraphrase the referees’ suggestions and to state what changes you have made in response to each one. This is a good way of dealing with the case when two or more referees suggest almost exactly the same thing. A list of your paraphrasings of the referees’ suggestions and a short statement about how you have responded to each one can make a very helpful executive summary that will reassure the reader that you have responded satisfactorily.

Some journals require you to do this but few funding agencies do. Even so, you should do it because it is likely to increase your chance of getting funded because it reassures the committee that you have responded satisfactorily to the referees’ criticisms.

Keep your overall response as short and simple as possible. This is more important with grant applications than with papers because the committee works under immense time pressure.

Know when to give up. If the referees’ reports on a grant are uniformly lukewarm it is unlikely to get funded whatever you say. Paradoxically, faint praise is more damning than strong condemnation because condemnation can give the impression that the referee is biased.

Of course, if you are overwhelmed by the desire to let the referees know how stupid their comments are, you probably won’t be able to follow any of the advice I have given so far. In that case I suggest that you wait until you can. Responding to referees is like inviting an  elderly relative to dinner, better not to do it than to do it with bad grace.