I wrote this piece on grant proposals about 6 months ago, which I remembered since I’m on a National Science Foundation review panel today! The panel lunch break is a good time to finally post it…
There’s abundant advice out there about writing scientific grant proposals. Reading and reviewing a lot of proposals, however, I realize that some writers are remarkably talented at annoying me, and that their secrets are less well known. You may be thinking: the reviewer has several complex, dense proposals to slog through — isn’t he or she annoyed right off the bat? At least in my case, no. Though it’s a lot of work, I often find grant proposals fascating to read; the author really has to make a special effort to annoy me. Here are some effective, easy-to-implement ways to do this:
1 Use lots of bold and italic text.
I like to think that I’m not a moron. Some writers, however, are not so sure, and so won’t let a paragraph go by without indicating with bold or italic text that I should be paying attention to some particular point. In moderation, or to highlight headings or lists, these accents are great. If you’re writing entire sentences in bold or italics, however, you may want to ask if your phrasing itself naturally guides the reader to your conclusions and their importance. If not, try writing better rather than bludgeoning the reader with strong typefaces. If you’re writing a twenty-line paragraph in which eleven lines have words bold, italics, or bold italics (which really happened in a proposal I read), you should get a fresh start the entire proposal, writing it, this time, in Windows Notepad.
2 Use lots of vapid adjectives.
The canonical rule for writing fiction, “Show, don’t tell,” also applies to grant proposals. If you write that your proposed experiments will be “transformative” and “impactful,” this in itself does absolutely nothing to convince me that they are, in fact, transformative and impactful. Related to this, a colleague of mine suggests mentally deleting all adjectives when reading proposals — someone should write an app for that!
3 Include dense figures that you don’t explain, or even refer to.
Figures are great — graphs and images are crucial to nearly every proposal. There are, of course, a lot of ways to make bad figures, but one that comes up in proposals more often than it should is the use of overly packed figures with lots of panels and very small text. There’s nothing wrong with lots of panels per se, but I’ve seen parts of the figure not be referred to at all in the main text. Why, then, are they there? Perhaps the writer thought that the meaning and importance of each piece of the figure is self-evident, without needing a callout in the text. (Rarely, is this true.) Or perhaps the writer just pasted an entire figure from his/her manuscript, even though only parts of it are relevant. (This more often seems to be the case.) In addition to being annoying because it forces me to try to decipher the point of some dense figure, it’s annoying because it is a waste of space — space that could have been used to describe things that are relevant to the proposed project.
4 Utilize big words.
I really hate the word “utilize.” There are few situations in which it can’t be replaced by the simpler, shorter, cleaner “use.” “Use” has 3/7 the letters, 1/3 the syllables, but 100% of the meaning that “utilize” does! We all know this: You don’t utilize a shovel to dig a hole, you use it. Similarly, you don’t utilize a laser to excite your fluorophores; you use it. There are also other words that annoy me — not always, but in situations when they’re needlessly used. (Elucidate, for example.) What ties all these together is an unnecessary avoidance of simplicity.
5 Get your reviewer to do your literature search for you.
Surprisingly often when reading a proposal, I find myself looking up some topic and finding studies that are very relevant to the aims of the proposed work and that aren’t cited. In some cases, a few minutes of Googling shows that quite similar research has already been done, or that there are better ways of tackling the topic than what the writers are proposing. Admittedly, it’s hard to stay on top of the vast and ever-expanding scientific literature. Still, I expect the writers of a proposal to provide a solid and thorough background on the state of their field, and I’m annoyed if I end up having to construct this myself.
There’s more I could write. I have yet to see a proposal, for example, in which a flowchart isn’t a waste of space. I’ll stop here, though. Despite my listing of all of the pitfalls above, I generally feel that most proposals are clear and well-written. And, of course, I try my best to focus on content when reading grant proposals, and there’s no shortage of great content out there.