I decided to accept the call, serve the field and my country by joining an NIH study section. Since many of you academic readers are preparing June grants, I thought that I’d list my top grantwriting tips. There are lots of good places to get good, comprehensive information on grantspersonship. What I’ll mention are some quick thoughts that emerge after reading
what feels like hundreds of applications this round.
1. Imagine me. Not me and you. Just me. Sitting here, reading your grant. It’s late. It’s early. My kids just went to sleep. They’re about to wake up. I’m on my couch. I’m on the porch. It’s been a long day. It’s going to be a long day. I’m tired. I just woke up. I’m having a glass of wine. I’m about to make my kid’s lunch. I just fell asleep. Again.
Get the picture?
Most of us can’t fit our reviews into the normal workday, but we fit the reviews in. In weird places, at strange times, amidst our lives.
So make it easy! Kill the jargon. It doesn’t make the grant sound better. It makes reading difficult. Use whitespace. Lots of it. Be declarative. Use active voice. Use pictures. Be persuasive. Shorten your sentences. Make them painfully short. See what I mean? This works wonders at 11:27pm.
2. Abbreviations are absolutely horrible (AH). Why are they AH? Because they mean very little (VL) to me, so half-way through your grant, I remember VL about the terms. So now it’s 6:30 am, my kids are almost awake, I’m feeling AH, and you’re requiring me to flip back to the front of this 150 page PDF to find the first mention of this term. I know that you have VL space, but using non-standard (to me, not you) abbreviations is AH for the reviewer.
3. Be creative. Initially, I was most surprised by the huge amount of variability in the structure of individual proposals. I think people feel very bound to the structure that they learned when first writing grants. But you have license to make your grant stand out [positively]. No, you don’t need to use arcane heading structures (e.g., A.1., A.1.a., A.1.a.ii — really I’ve seen these out to four decimals). Use good figures, color, and reasonable images to get my attention!
4. Bold judiciously. I like a little hyperbole (stop laughing, everyone I’ve ever met). I get that you want me to notice your point. But you can stop bolding at the period (or even before if you like). The whole paragraph doesn’t need to be bold, because it becomes kind of like crying wolf. Oh, and pick something: bold, underline, or maybe even bold underline. But don’t do all of them, simultaneously.
5. Make your first sentence sing. There’s a reason that people get excited by the first lines of books. They matter. So make yours matter. I know that rates are rising, that disparities are prevalent, that gaps exist. Give me the gist, capture my attention, tell me why this matters, why your approach is golden, make me put this glass of wine down — all in a [short] initial sentence.
Last one [for now] — tell me why I should care. Really, I care about you, the field, and science more generally. I know that we have a horrible funding situation right now and trust that I’m in your corner. But, the sheer number of grants (which are about to increase) means that I can’t help but be … judicious. For this to work, I will need to advocate for you. I have to argue your case. I’ll need to stare down my fellow colleagues and argue why your idea matters. Inspire me to do that and I will. Promise.