These tips are aimed primarily at interdisciplinary researchers in the social sciences & humanities, but will hopefully be helpful for many others. They are based on years of sitting on grant panels, reading over a thousand grants, discussions and tips from colleagues about their experiences, and lots of presentations at STS camp and proposal writing classes.
1. Write for your audience. Who is this audience? Your reviewers. They consist primarily of conscripted volunteers, not necessarily in your field at all, who have a stack of 50+ proposals to read the night before the panel meeting where their fate will be decided. They often have to read them in an airport, on a plane, in a hotel room, with bad light and CNN in the background. So you need to be clear. Crystal clear, organized, signposted, straightforward descriptions, no flourishes, and brass tacks practical. At the end of that first fast read-through, if your reviewer can’t quickly summarize what you are studying, what your research question is, and how you are going to generate the evidence to answer it, then your grant is “Not well formulated”. You don’t get a second reading.
Always consult the full grant call. Pay extra attention to any hints about the reviewing rubric. In most cases, reviewers will be given a form with a bunch of boxes to fill with comments (How well does the proposal contribute to the discipline? Is the method feasible? etc.). You need to make sure that the rapid reading reviewer has no problem finding the correct information to fill out the boxes!
Pro tip: Write your grant for panel members to present to others. You are not trying to persuade just the person reading, but helping that person persuade others (and to follow the rubric). At 9am the next morning, they are going to have to give a brief summary of what they think to other panel members who probably haven’t read it, everyone will glance at your document to pick out things they like or don’t like, so your grant must be supremely organized, topic sentences better be clear and at the front of paragraphs.
2. Grant language is not the same as any other language. This is a crucial insight to grasp. Certainly it is not the same as writing an article. Academic articles are demonstrations of mastery, showing off conceptual and grammatical dexterity. Academic articles thrive on writing within a community of scholars in the same discipline or sub-discipline. Here you will probably have external reviewers who know the field (and they want to see themselves represented of course: the grant officer is the one who scans your proposal and from it decides who to send it to based on the content, topic, and subfield). The external readers will take more time, but they too are reading quickly.
To put this more starkly: you must not confuse your grant with your dissertation. And certainly don’t confuse it with your soul. This means two things: Do not think in a grant proposal. Do not try and do everything either (see #4 below). If you start coming up with new insights as you are writing your grant proposal (because you are thinking through what it means), great! But put them into a file called: dissertation thoughts and plans. But don’t leave them that way in your proposal: If you are having insights, you are also making conceptual leaps and shorthand. No one reading fast will be able to follow you and they will (rightly) think it is your fault. Finish your thoughts in your dissertation plans, and then reassess what you are doing in grant language.
3. Write from the end backwards. The number one reason why grants fail is that “The methods don’t adequately answer the research questions.” We all want to solve big problems, address issues of the state, globalization, identity, and so on; and we know our research is going to contribute to them. But you aren’t going to answer “What is the relation between the state and money” by interviewing 60 people or ethnography in one town. The solution:
- Start from your methods. How are you going to spend the money? What exactly are you going to? Write that up, including a timeline. What concrete data will that generate?
- Given that data, what specific methodological questions will you be able to answer? This is your research design.
- Now what ongoing conversations in journals and books do these questions address, extend, and change? This will be your literature review.
- Given those conversations and your research design answers: what specific research hypothesis will you be able to confirm? That is your research question. It may seem small in scope but that is fine because it is doable and if you followed these steps, it most likely also requires your methods.
- Now you can add a larger frame of the form: “If my research hypothesis is confirmed, then I will be able to contribute to larger conversations over the nature of the state and identity…” This way you make it clear from the start that you know that you will be able to answer a part of a large issue, a right-sized chunk of research, and that it has promise beyond.
4. How are you going to spend my money? Reviewers look at budgets and think about all that money, thousands of dollars, and want to know what you are going to do with it and all that time. They feel a bit of ownership over it (and in many cases they don’t have research dollars of their own so are doubly insistent that it be well spent). So be clear!
First of all, methods in some disciplines (such as cultural anthropology) are not very explicit. Therefore, as you explain what you are doing, you can point out that others have used this approach and it worked: they produced books and articles. So one of the best tactics is to explain your process, and cite those books as your methods. This can be done succinctly and clearly and accurately – because your external reviewers will most likely be familiar with those books (or even their authors).
Second, do not mix in too extra methods. Grants are about specificity: I’m going to take your money and generate this data to answer this question for these reasons. If you add in, say “media analysis” or “archival research” or “ethnography” when you do not have a lot of experience doing or reading things generated by those methods, then you will seem supremely sloppy and disrespectful, especially when someone who is in Media Studies or History or Anthropology reads your proposal. Historians spend all of their time thinking about archival strategies, forms and limits of evidentiary claims, and about actual archives. Media scholars fight about the pros and cons of specific analytic strategies, sampling of corpora, and choice of media formats. Anthropologists are always thinking about the fact that ethnography is both method and product and as unstable as “culture” as a conceptual approach. If you aren’t steeped in these discussions, you can’t fake it. Of course you will do other things if you get the grant, but you do not need to put them in the proposal!
5. Take your time and practice and listen! Grants are a way of life for most scientists. Lab meetings that I spend time in are often 50% devoted to new grant calls, whether one is worth it, and if so who is going to take the lead, etc. Scientists become excellent and efficient grantwriters through practice, practice, practice. Remember that it is a different language. Treat it as such and learn it. Look at previous ones by your friends and colleagues, look at their reviews if you can. Learn the form.
Then start early enough to write a draft, trade with others, get feedback and listen!!! Whatever anyone says about your grant is true! It is your all your fault. Reviewers will be random and often not anywhere near your field. So if you want them to come away with a different response, then you need to rewrite so that response is generated each and every time. Practice stating out loud what you are going do, what data you will gather, what answers it will generate, what conversations you are building on, and what research question is being addressed. Then generate it all out loud the other direction. You should sense where it is unclear.
In the beginning grants are very weird. They made my head hurt, especially when i thought that i was supposed to be twisting my grand project into a single research question. Gradually i relaxed and learned that grants are their own thing. They contribute to my research with their own language and form and limitations. And what I write based on them is something altogether different. That’s when i really set about learning to speak “grant” as a second language.