How to Gain a Competitive Edge in Grant Writing

Applying for a grant takes time and effort, but there are ways to make your application stand out from the crowd.Credit: Getty

Writing a research proposal is a time-consuming but invaluable opportunity to develop research ideas, develop critical thinking skills, and develop communication strategies, not to mention securing funding. As research and development strategists, we train clinical and basic science researchers in the art of writing compelling proposals. Grant writers often ask if we have examples of successful proposals we can share. Yet few early-career grant writers know how to turn their access to these proposals into a competitive advantage.

Proposal libraries are collections of proposals, funded and unfunded, that have been previously submitted for review by funding agencies. We have developed such a library with proposals submitted to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other foundations, including applications for Major Project Grants, Research Grants, Career Development Fellowships and scholarships. Our proposals are not anonymized; instead, we encourage grant writers to only provide what they feel comfortable sharing. We have examples of one-page documents on specific objectives and research strategies, as well as boilerplate documents and full proposals. In some cases, comments from reviewers are included and provide insight into how the application was received.

Submissions from our library are accessible using a cloud-based content management platform and available as read-only, which means they cannot be downloaded. We also refer grant writers to a repository called Open Grants. To create your own proposal library, ask your peers or mentors if they would be willing to share their proposals with you. Many funders post lists of people who have received grants, so reaching out to previous award winners is a good way to start. Ask for a 20-minute meeting to discuss their application experience, then ask about their willingness to share their proposal.

But how can you turn such a library into a meaningful grant writing aid? Our three-step approach can help.

Assess the structure

Start by taking an overview of the proposal. Scan each page but do not read the text (yet). Consider margins, font size, number placement and more. Is it filled to the brim with text, or does it have room to breathe? Is the organization well defined? Do the authors use typographical accents such as underlining, bold text, or italics to emphasize key elements?

Note that while previously submitted proposals may provide important clues, requirements may change, so be sure to check the most recent guidelines when preparing your own applications.

Assess content

Then give a quick read of the proposal to review the placement of ideas in sections or subsections of the proposal. As this step involves annotations, it is best to have a printed or digital copy that you can annotate.

Grant writers usually present the main themes in an expected and strategic order. For example, consider the specific purposes of an NIH application, examples of which can be found on the websites of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the US National Cancer Institute. The most compelling specific objectives documents tell reviewers that the proposed research is important and necessary, that the objectives are appropriate for the principal investigator or team, that they address specific questions, and that the expected return on investment is raised. As you review the submissions in your library, note where these ideas are addressed. Examine how much space the authors devote to each idea.

Now dig deeper. Inspect an objective in the specific objectives. Although discipline-specific, each objective likely has a title that stands out in bold or italics and begins with a verb (“evaluate”, “determine”, or “define”, for example). The objective text can include background information, hypothesis, preliminary data, approaches, and expected results. This structure is likely to be repeated for all objectives.

See if you can identify patterns for sections that have similar structures in multiple proposals. Although different funders have specific requirements, you will find that proposals are often similar at this basic level, and you should seek to emulate this in your own proposals.

Assess word choice

Finally, read the text more closely. Remember that high-level grant writers can explain even complex ideas to non-experts. So if you have trouble understanding the proposal, it’s probably a reflection of its quality rather than your scientific understanding. You will want to review several submissions to identify a few that you find interesting and others that you find harder to read. Ask yourself: why are we easier to understand than others?

Carefully consider word choice, such as authors’ use of jargon and domain-specific acronyms: both can make applications inaccessible and difficult to read. Do the authors use active verbs to express their research goals, such as “determine”, “identify”, “define” or “discover”? Active verbs convey precision and action, which is important in science. Notice also how much more convincing the “I will” is than the “I intend to” or the “I hope to do”. In addition, it uses fewer words. For all data included in your library’s proposals, do the authors clearly explain how this data supports their hypothesis or demonstrates that an approach is feasible? Effective grant writing provides the reader with clear take-home messages.

For some funding opportunities, such as fellowships and career development grants, it is essential that you use “I/my” rather than “we/our” so that reviewers unambiguously understand your contributions in the context of the project. wider. Do the proposals you read clarify these distinctions?

Our experience suggests that following these steps leads to better grant writing and more attractive, frequently funded grants. They should work for you too. Good luck!

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

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