Tag Archives: We need to know

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?

Seven Deadly Sins of Grant-Writing: the sins of Commission

By Pieter Brueghel (http://gnozis.info/?q=node/2792) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The_Seven_Deadly_Sins_-_Pieter_Brueghel

The first rule of writing is that you must think about the effect you want to have on your intended reader.  From this perspective,  a research grant is one of the easiest writing tasks imaginable: the effect you want to have is very simple and the readership is well-defined. This makes it very easy to work out that there are some things you should never ever do. Almost all grant-writers do them. These are the deadly sins of grant-writing.

To help you understand how bad these sins are, I will describe the effect you want to have and the readership before I list the sins.

The effect you want to have and the readership.

Obviously the effect you want to have is to get funded. For this to happen, your  main readership, the grants committee, must understand your aims and believe that they are important and that your project will fulfill them. Then they must rank your application high enough to fund it. Typically the committee will read your application in parallel with about 80 others and to get funded you need them to rank it the top  15 or so.

Few if any of the committee will be familiar with your research area. Mostly they will be struggling to understand what you are going to do and why it might be important to do it. They won’t spend long reading your application. A couple of them may spend as much as an hour on it because they will be tasked with explaining your application to the rest of the committee. Most of the others will probably just read the summary and ‘speed read’ (glance through) the case for support during the discussion. At the end of the discussion they will all vote on your score.

Your application will also be read by referees, who tend to be more knowledgeable about your research area and who will probably spend a couple of hours on it but they will not contribute directly to the decision. They will read your application in detail and write an evaluation of its strengths and weaknesses for the committee to consider. They probably will not read any of the applications you are competing against.

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.

It may be helpful to distinguish sins of commission, things that you do deliberately, from sins of omission, things that you do because you just can’t help it. All seven sins make a long post, so  I’ll  leave the sins of omission to next week.

Sins of commission

  1. Elegant variation, using synonyms to avoid repeating yourself, is my top sin. It’s not the worst, but  it is the easiest to avoid. I have heard many reasons why you should say things in different ways when you repeat them. None of them applies to grant-writing.  Elegant variation is bad for two reasons.
    • First, it cuts down on repetition. Repetition is good in a grant application because it helps the reader to remember what you are writing about long enough to join in the discussion. It also helps them become familiar enough with  your technical terms to feel comfortable using them.
    • Second, synonyms are dangerous because members of the committee may not realise that they are synonyms. They will get hopelessly confused.
      People justify elegant variation in a variety of ways. Most of them are wrong and none of them applies to a grant application. Trust me.
  2. Aggressive space-saving is bad in all its forms, shrinking margins, shrinking font size, removing white space between paragraphs, and coining new abbreviations. They all make the reader’s real problem, reading and understanding your text, harder. And the reader will not love you for that. It is better to cut text than to cram it in and make it unreadable. Removing white space and coining abbreviations are particularly bad.
    • Removing white space makes speed-readers (most of the committee) lose the plot. Completely. Normally a speed reader will read the first line of every paragraph: their eyes automatically land on the edges of the white space at the top of the paragraph.  That means that the speed reader understands your proposal and thinks it is very clear because they pick up all the essential messages – you do start every paragraph with the topic sentence don’t you? Without the white space the speed-reader’s eye movements will go all over the place and they will pick up four or five random phrases from each page.
    • Coining abbreviations can’t do any harm can it? Surely it’s ok if you spell out each abbreviation the first time you use it? Well, no. I mean NO. Imagine reading 80 grant applications, all of them with half a dozen sets of abbreviations. Then imagine trying to re-read the difficult parts to try and understand them. What happens with the abbreviation when you start reading half-way through the grant? I can tell you: searching backwards through the text for the point where the abbreviation is spelled out makes a reader grouchy. Grouchy readers give grants low scores. So my advice is that if you have  to spell out an abbreviation you can’t use it.
  3. Over use of the passive voice – or of any convention that breaks up the natural flow just makes it hard to decipher your meaning. Of course sometimes your meaning is made clearer by using the passive. If you would like some helpful ideas about how and when to use the passive have a look at  this excellent post, which gives very clear advice on when it’s bad and when it’s good, including a brilliant sentence made shorter and sharper by using the passive voice 5 times.

It should be easy to avoid all these sins of commission because they are things you decide to do. Next week I will deal with the sins of omission, which are much harder to avoid.

Say it again Sam. And use the same words.

groundhogRepetition of key sentences and key phrases is extremely important in a grant application. The key sentences that introduce each subsection of the background and the description of the project in the case for support should be repeated in the introduction and also in the summary.  So each key sentence should appear at least three times.

Some key phrases should be repeated more than three times because they occur in more than one key sentence. For example, imagine you are writing a grant in which one of the sub-projects will characterise the relationship between motherhood and apple pie.  The phrase ‘the relationship between motherhood and apple pie’ will be in two of your key sentences.  One will explain why we need to characterise ‘the relationship between motherhood and apple pie’.  The other will introduce  the description of the sub-project that characterises the relationship between motherhood and apple pie.

Most academics accept that it is helpful to repeat key sentences. But most of them reject the idea that the repetition should use  the same words in the same order.  So I want to explain now why it is more effective to use the same words in the same order whenever you repeat a phrase or sentence.

Effectiveness is much more important here than correctness.  Few would disagree with the assertion that exact repetition is a more correct use of English than paraphrasing but it is much more important to think about how you can increase the effectiveness of a grant application by using repetition in the way that I recommend and how you will fail to increase effectiveness in the same way if you change the words you use or their order.

In thinking about the effectiveness of a grant application, we should consider who will read it and how.  Committee members and referees have different needs and derive different benefits  from repetition.

The most important readers are the committee members that make the decision.  All of them will have a vote in deciding whether or not the grant application gets funded. Few, if any,  will understand the details of the research topic. All of them will read the summary and most of them will stop there. Some will try to read the application and understand it. Usually two  members of the committee, the designated members, are tasked with reading the application and leading the committee discussion. They will try hard to understand the application, but they will find it very difficult and they won’t have much time – maybe an hour. Any help you give them will be gratefully received.  Although most of the rest of the committee will not read the application they will probably glance through it during the discussion.

There are three ways that repetition is particularly helpful to committee members:-

  • Repeating the key sentences means that all the committee members will be likely to remember them. Even those who just glance through the application once will read the key sentences three times. This means that there is a very good chance that they will remember them and understand the logic of your case for support – what outcome your project will achieve, why it is important, what things you need to know in order to achieve the outcome and how you will achieve them. If you repeat the key sentences but substantially change the wording then people will be less likely to remember them. Every change in wording is likely to be interpreted as a change in meaning, leading to potential confusion.
  • Repeating key phrases in the sentences that state what we need to know and what the sub-projects will discover makes it very clear that the project will discover exactly what we need to know. In this way the key phrases act like labels for the different parts of the project.
  • Repeating the key phrases enables committee members to learn them and to have a sense of what they mean. Humans learn the meaning of new phrases by encountering them repeated in different contexts. Committee members who read your grant application carefully will get the sense that they know what it means , even if they don’t. If you vary the wording of the key phrases it becomes harder to learn them and  less clear to the reader that you mean the same thing.

The referees are, notionally at least,  experts in the research topic. They will read the application, write an analysis of its strengths and weaknesses and give it a score, which the committee will consider, but not necessarily follow.  The referees are likely to read your application more carefully than the committee members and to have a deeper understanding of the topic. However, they will want to assess whether the detailed content of your case for support actually supports the assertions made in the key sentences. Repetition helps them do this in two stages.

  • Reading the key sentences in the summary and in the introduction allows them to create a mental list of questions to which they want to find answers in the case for support.
  • Repeating the key sentences at the head of each subsection of the case for support guides the referees to the answers. Again, the key phrases act like labels. For example, a referee that has some doubts about whether your research approach really will characterise the relationship between motherhood and apple pie will be guided straight to the place where you describe the relevant part of your research approach by the phrase the relationship between motherhood and apple pie. If you decide to change any of the words in the key phrase, not only does it become less effective as a label, it also introduces the possibility that you are seeking to do a piece of research without having told the reader why it is important to do it.

In sum, repetition of key sentences and key phrases makes a grant application more effective in four different ways, provided that you use the same words in the same order.

 

 

Dealing with rejection 2: Salvage.

Collection_of_scrap_aluminium_in_Welshpool_by_the_Womens_Voluntary_Service_(8559465818)

Salvage is the only way forward after rejection.

The most difficult aspect of grant rejection, apart from not having a grant of course, is that your motivation to write new applications evaporates. That’s why it’s even more important than working out what was wrong with your rejected application to salvage what you can from the rejected application and start putting together a new one.

It is of course important to take the opportunity to learn what you can about what was wrong with the rejected application and I wrote about how to do that last week. However, whether or not you learn anything from it, you must come to terms with the fact that your rejected application is dead. Yes, dead. I’m sorry, I did say dead and I do mean dead. Mourn its passing but do not imagine that editing will reanimate its corpse. Use your editing pencil instead to mark useful parts to salvage and recycle.

 Salvage the Sub-Projects One at a Time

The most important part of the case for support is the description of the project. This should be at least half the case for support and it should be subdivided into three or four sub-projects. If it isn’t subdivided into projects then you can divide it up as you salvage it.

A sub-project is a discrete set of research activities designed to produce a definable outcome. You must divide your project into sub-projects in order to make it accessible for the grants committee. Remember, they are not experts in your field so they are unlikely to appreciate your project unless you can break it into bite-sized chunks.

If you cannot easily divide your research into sub-projects you can use the timeline of your project to divide it into phases. You will need to be able to say in a single sentence what you expect to be the outcome of each phase. If it’s impossible to do this you need to think again. You won’t get funding for a research project unless you can produce a succinct statement about what you expect to have happened by the time you are about a third of the way through it.   Of course you can use natural break-points in your project to divide it into phases that are not exactly equal, but if you want to get funded you must be able to give confidence that you will are able to plan the progress of your research.

Record Key Information About Each Sub-Project

To make it easy to re-use the sub-projects you need to record extra information with them. I suggested in a previous post that you should compile a catalogue of sub-projects with this information.

  • The most important thing to record is what the outcome would be if you were to carry out the sub-project. You should use this to draft a key sentence that describes the sub-project and states the outcome, unless you have already written such a sentence.
  • A list of the research activities that comprise the sub-project.
  • A list of the skills needed to carry out the sub-project.
  • A list of the resources needed to carry out the activities in the sub-project. This consists of 2 sub-lists:-
    • resources already available to you, and
    • resources you need the grant to pay for.

If you can salvage all of your sub-projects you should have about half what you need for another grant application. However I strongly recommend that you try to create a portfolio of sub-projects so that you can re-use them in different combinations.

 Useful Sentences and Phrases

The descriptions of the sub-projects are the only large chunks of text that I would advise you to salvage from the proposal. The other sub-sections will probably not be relevant if you restructure your project, which I strongly advise you to do. However, there are some snippets of text that could be worth salvaging from the rejected proposal.

  • Key sentences, other than those in the sections of text you have salvaged, are probably not worth salvaging. The ones that express the need to do the sub-projects you have salvaged will be useful but they are very easy to write. Any others should be viewed with suspicion because they have failed.
  • Sentences that refer to your research and project management skills and those of your team are quite difficult to write and should be salvaged if they read well. If your project is for BBSRC, NERC, MRC or EPSRC there will be whole sections of text describing the accomplishments of the different members of the project team that should be salvageable.
  • Descriptions of how existing resources will be used should also be salvaged, even when they are part of  sub-projects that you may not re-use.

Finally, a word of caution, be suspicious of all the text you are salvaging. Something in your grant application sank it and, unless your feedback made it very clear what it was, you should be cautious about the possibility of salvaging something that could sink the next one.

How to Deal with Rejection 1: What could I have done better?

Are you driven by the question or by the project?

Did you design a project that will answer your question? Thanks to Nick Kim, http://lab-initio.com

Getting a grant application rejected has three things in common with other rejections.

  1. Rejection is slightly less painful if you have other applications still being considered.
  2. Regardless of how painful it is, rejection is an important learning opportunity.
  3. Regardless of the pain and the learning, you need to make sensible decisions about whether, and how, to try again.

I know – believe me I really know – that getting grant applications rejected is painful. In my experience the combination of pain and humiliation can make it impossible to think analytically about the application for weeks or months. However, unless your desire to do research is completely extinguished, sooner or later you have to come back. When you do, it’s really important to learn as much as you can from the rejection and use it to plan the best way ahead.

If you are still consumed with the pain of rejection, you might want to bookmark this page and come back when you feel able to be analytical. However there are three practical  reasons you might want to work through the pain and deal analytically with the rejection now.

  • Dealing constructively with a rejection helps to draw a line under it and resolve the pain.
  • The sooner you start, the better will be the outcome for two reasons.
    • You will do a better job on the analysis if you do it while your memory is fresh.
    • Any plans you develop as a result of the analysis are more likely to be successful if you can implement them before they go out of date.
  • The more times you deal with rejection, the easier and the quicker it gets. I can remember once  (admittedly it was about my 20th rejection) I was able to deal with it in less than a day, rewrite the grant in under 3 weeks and get it fully funded.

If you have got this far I am assuming you want to be analytical. There are four separate steps.

  1. Work out why your grant application was rejected.
  2. Work out how you could have made it stronger.
  3. Salvage useful components.
  4. Get back on the horse.

I’ll deal with the first two in this post and the other two next week.

Work out why it was rejected

Usually the reviews you get back will  say lots of good things and it can be hard to understand why an application with so much going for it could have been rejected. Rejections usually boil down to:-

  • the committee thought the research question wasn’t important enough or
  • the committee couldn’t see how the project would answer the question.

There are three things you should consider here.

  1. It only takes one hole to sink an otherwise perfect boat. It might make it easier to find the hole if you filter out the negative comments and look at them separately.
  2. In most cases the committee discussion is more important than the referees reports but the description of their discussion is likely to be both short and vague. So the hole in the boat my not be very well defined.
  3. Funding rates are falling and sometimes perfect grants, grants that propose well-designed projects that will answer important questions, don’t get funded because there just isn’t enough money.

Don’t be too eager to assume that your grant was perfect. If the funding rate was 30% or better then it’s very unlikely. In fact, most grants that get funded could be improved significantly.

Work out how you could have made it stronger

Regardless of why your grant application was rejected, you should look to see whether it could have been improved. This is particularly important if the reason for rejection is not apparent from the comments: a badly written grant simply fails to convince the reader – the reader may not know why.

You should look separately at four elements:- the description of the project, the background, the introduction, and the summary. There’s a checklist here but as a rough guide you should be clear on the following questions:-

Description of the project

  • Is it clear what you will do?
  • Have you explained the steps that will take you from starting research to having a set of findings that are written up and disseminated?
  • Is the project divided into three or four (i.e. more than two and fewer than five) phases?
  • Is it clear what will be discovered by each phase of the project?

Background to the Project

  • Have you given a good reason why you should do your project? Have you linked it to an important question?
  • Is your link direct (your project will completely anser the question) or indirect (your project will take some important steps towards an answer to the question)?
  • Has the funder stated explicitly or implicitly that this question is important? This is probably worth a whole post. I’ll get around to it.
  • Have you linked the question clearly to each phase of your project by showing that we need to know what each phase of the project will discover?
  • Do other authors agree with your specific ‘we need to know’ statements or are they individual to you?
  • Have you cited publications that demonstrate that your team are competent to produce new discoveries in this area?
  • Have you overstated your contribution to the field?
  • Could other people think this area is a backwater rather than a niche?

 Introduction

  • Does the introduction make all the statements listed in the ‘key sentences‘?
  • Does the introduction state every thing that  ‘we need to know’.
  • Does the introduction state  every thing that the project will discover?
  • Are these statements in the introduction clearly the same as the statements that begin the corresponding sub-sections of the background and the description of the project? They should be recognisably the same statements although they don’t have to be exact copies.

Summary (I mean the summary of the Grant Application)

The summaries of most successful grant applications are appallingly bad. You can see this if you look for the details of successful proposals from the UK research councils or from the European Research Council. However, a good summary helps the funding agency to choose more appropriate referees and it helps the referees and the committee members to understand the research. You should check the following:-

  • Does the summary make all the statements listed in the ‘key sentences‘?
  • Does the summary state every thing that  ‘we need to know’.
  • Does the summary state  every thing that the project will discover?
  • Are these statements in the summary clearly the same as those in the introduction? They should be recognisably stating the same thing although they don’t have to be exact copies.

What Next?

It’s very likely that these two exercises will give you a clearer sense of how you could have given your application a better chance. Next week I will discuss what raw material you can take from a rejected grant application and how to turn it into the basis of future success.

How to Write a Research Grant Application in 2 Weeks

MonkeysAndTypewriters

The key to writing anything quickly is knowing what you have to write.

One of the things that puts people off writing research grants is that writing a grant can be a never-ending nightmare. However, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Last month I helped a client, let’s call him Dr B, to write a research council grant application in 2 weeks. It was interesting for me because it was a model of how to write with the minimum of effort – by either of us. Dr B tells me that he spent only about half of the working day on the application during the 2 week period when he wrote it.  I spent between 2 and 3 hours helping him.

The clock started on September 3rd when Dr B sent me a draft set of 10 key sentences and a  question about whether to follow my advice, to state the  aims and objectives in the introduction, or whether to follow the funder’s guidelines for a case for support which suggests that aims and objectives  form part of the description of the project.

I edited the sentences and sent an email suggesting that Dr B could follow both my advice and the funder’s guidelines. I think that it is essential to state the aims and objectives – and not much else – in the introduction to the case for support and also in the summary, so that the reader knows what to expect. And if the funder recommends that you state the aims and objectives at the start of the description of the research project then its fine to do that although I would suggest that you only format them as Aims and Objectives once. In other places you can use phrases like ‘We need to know’ for the aims and ‘In order to discover X we will do Y’ for the objectives.

I think that editing and drafting my email took less than 20 minutes. It can’t have taken much more because the email logs show my response 31 minutes after Dr B’s query. A few days later Dr B promised to send me a draft on the 15th and we made an appointment to speak about it on the 16th. The draft arrived on time and I spent about an hour and a half reading it and annotating it. Then Dr B phoned and we spent an hour discussing my suggested changes which took him less than a day to implement. We also kicked around some ideas that will be the subject of his next grant proposal.

The key to writing anything quickly is knowing what you have to write. That is why it is so useful to start by writing the key sentences. They define the grant application. Each of them begins a major section of the proposal. These sections justify the bald assertions in the key sentences and make the reader believe that they are true. The key sentences that define the background must be justified with evidence; those that define the project must be justified with descriptive detail.

Writing the key sentences should only take you a couple of hours. If you can’t write the key sentences in a couple of hours then you need to do some more thinking about your project. That can take days, weeks, or months, but until you have done it you are not ready to start writing a grant application.

Dr B is ready. I had an email from him last week. He has been thinking about the ideas we kicked around when we were discussing the edits to his last application. He wants to send me a set of key sentences next week!

 

The perfect introduction

Meeting_of_David_Livingstone_(1813-1873)_and_Henry_Morton_Stanley_(1841-1904),_Africa,_ca._1875-ca._1940_(imp-cswc-GB-237-CSWC47-LS16-050)

Henry Stanley introduces himself to Dr Livingstone

If you write your grant application in the way that I recommend, you should leave the introduction until last. The reason is that, by the time you start to write the introduction, you will already have written everything you need to say in it. You just need to copy it and paste it into the right place.

Here’s how it works. There are five things that you need to say in the introduction to a grant application,

  • what you will do,
  • why it is important,
  • your research aims,
  • your research objectives, and
  • what you will do with the results.

1. What you will do

Your first sentence should say what the outcome of your research project will be. Ideally it will also say something about how you will go about producing this outcome and give a hint of your credentials for doing it.  If you followed the advice in my last post then you will already have written the perfect sentence to do this, key sentence 1. You can just copy and paste it to the beginning of the introduction.

2. Why it is important

Your next sentence should say why the outcome is important. It will do this with reference to an important research question. My last post described how to write this sentence, key sentence 2, introducing one of the sub-sections of the background section. You should copy it and paste it into the introduction.

3. Your research aims

Next you need to state how the outcome of the project depends on about three things that we need to know.  My last post explained how to state this in 3 sentences (key sentences 3, 4 and 5). You should copy and paste these from their positions in the background section of the case for support into the introduction. At this point you may wish to edit the sentences so that you can run them together as a list of aims. Whatever editing you do you should avoid changing any of the technical phrases for reasons I will explain below.

4. Your research objectives

Then you need to say that the research project will tell us each of the three things that we need to know. If you followed the advice I gave a couple of weeks ago or earlier, you will have put four sentences that do precisely this at strategic points in the description of your research project. They are key sentences 6, 7, 8 and 9; copy them and paste them into the introduction.

5. What you will do with the results

Finally you need to say what you will do with the results. You will already have written key sentence 10, which says exactly this and introduces the last part of the description of the project. Copy  it and paste it into the introduction.

Exact repetition of the key sentences increases your chances of getting funded

When you copy and paste the key sentences you should keep the phrases that refer to your research activities exactly the same. It’s OK to change the structure, as long as you keep the parts that refer to research activities exactly the same. For example you might change three sentences saying “We need to know X.”; “We need to understand  Y”; and “We need to  characterise Z” to a list of aims, such as “Our aims are:- to discover X; to understand Y; and to characterise Z”. But you should not change the phrases X, Y and Z or the verbs discover, understand and characterise. 

One reason that you should not change phrases when you repeat is that to do so would be a stylistic error known as  elegant variation. However, there is an important practical reason that exact repetition is good.

The value of exact repetition comes from the way that a grants committee deals with applications. One or two members of the committee have to read each application and explain it to the rest of the committee. Usually they do this by stating  what you will do, why it is important, your research aims, your research objectives, and what you will do with the results. This is quite a difficult thing to do because they will not have had much time to read the proposal and they will have to present several other grant applications the same day: I once had to present 10 applications in a single meeting.

Anything that you can do to make the job of presenting your grant to the committee easier will be welcome. If you write the introduction the way I have suggested, it will be the perfect set of notes for the presentation. What could be better than that?

I frequently encounter  academics who feel that you should change the words when you repeat a message even though the meaning is exactly the same. I encounter two arguments for this.

  • The first argument is that the reader will get bored if they see the same phrase twice. This is not so. For the most important readers the repetition is a useful and reassuring signal.  The members of the committee that decides whether to fund your grant are unlikely to be familiar with the details of your research area and may not completely understand the phrases. Repeating the phrases exactly helps them to see that you are saying the same thing again. To say the same thing with different words is very risky indeed. The most likely outcome is that they will think you are saying two different things.
  • The second argument – which usually follows immediately I give the explanation in the previous paragraph – is that by using different ways of saying the same thing, you increase the chance that the reader will understand at least once. Even if it’s true, it’s no help for the reader to understand once because they will still think that when you repeat the sentence with different words that you are saying something different. It is far better to use exactly the same words because you increase the chance that the reader will remember the phrase, and even if they don’t understand it they may think that they do.

Can your grant application stand up on its own?

13550103_sThis is the third in a series of posts explaining how to edit your grant application into the right shape. In order to stand up a grant application should consist of three sections that are shaped to support each other. They are:-

  • An introduction that prepares the reader for the points the other two sections are going to make. It is less than 20% of the total.
  • A background that convinces the reader that the world needs the results that your project will deliver. It is less than 30% of the total.
  • A description of the project that makes it clear that your project will deliver the results that are needed. It is at least 50% of the total.

If you have followed the advice in my last post you will have done the most important part. The second half of your application will be a description of your research project in five or six subsections. The subsections are introduced by matched key sentences that say what your project will produce and what you will do with the results. The sub-section that follows each key sentence adds the detail that will convince the reader that your project will deliver what the key sentence promises. Now you have to write a background section that sells the promises.

The shape and content of the background section are dictated by the description of the project. This follows from the fact that the function of the background is to sell the project. Obviously it should sell everything your project will deliver. Equally obviously it shouldn’t waste time or space by selling anything else.

So if you are editing the background to support such a description, the first thing to do is to create the sub-sections it needs by drafting the key sentences that introduce them. You need the following sub-sections:-

  • A sub-section that states the overall outcome of the project in a way that makes it clear that it is exciting and that stakes your claim to carry it out. This is introduced by the first key sentence, which ideally states the overall outcome of the project, links it to an important research question and to a distinctive claim for competence. The sentence says “This project will do X, which will (partially) solve huge research problem Y, by using technique Z, developed by our group.” For example “This project will develop a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s disease by testing the efficacy of a plaque-dissolving molecule, which our group has discovered, in a mouse model of the disease”. The subsection prepares the reader for the “we need to know” subsections which are preceded by the “importance” subsection.
  • A subsection that discusses the importance of the problem and of the contribution that your project will make to its solution. This subsection is introduced by a key sentence about the importance of the problem and of your project and has two functions. First it is like a funnel for the importance of the question. If you have picked a problem that is big enough to be exciting then it is unlikely that a single project will solve it completely. Everybody knows that. But everybody needs to be convinced that what you will do will be an important step towards a solution. So you need to help the reader to see that the piece of the problem addressed by your project is important. The second function is that it creates the need for whatever you will do to disseminate your results. For example, if your project promises to discover a cure for a disease then the dissemination plan needs to address the question of making the cure available to those afflicted by the disease.
  • A “we need to know” subsection for each of your sub-projects that explains why (and how much) we need the knowledge that sub-project will produce. Drafting key sentences for these sub-projects is very very easy. The first draft is “We need to know XXX” where XXX is the knowledge that the sub-project will produce.

Once you have created these  subsections and introduced them with the key sentences, you can copy over text from your old draft and write new text so that each sub-section explains, with reference to relevant evidence, why the key sentence that introduces it is completely and compellingly true. That makes the background the perfect preparation for the description of the project: it convinces the reader that we desperately need everything that the project will deliver.

All that you need now is an introduction. The perfect introduction is very simple to describe but it takes a bit of time to explain exactly why it should be so simple. I will tell you about it next week.

Key Sentence Skeletons

Is there a recipe for the 10 key sentences?

RECIPE

Recipe for Key Sentences in a Grant Application?

This post is about an easy way to work out what to write the 10 key sentences that define a grant application. There are two reasons I think it’s worth writing even though I have written about the key sentences several times recently.

  • A good set of key sentences is half-way to a case for support. A really good case for support consists of nothing more than the 10 key sentences and the text that fills in the detail and convinces the reader that the key sentences are true. Of course this extra text is much more than filler, but it is a great help to have the key sentences because they define the task of the rest of the the text.
  • I have been working with a couple of clients who, even though they are clever people and they get the idea of key sentences, find it really hard to write them. So I have been on the lookout for a good way of making it easy to write a good set of key sentences.

Skeleton sentences, which Pat Thomson’s excellent blog recommends as a way of handling difficult but often repeated writing tasks such as framing a thesis introduction, or introducing a theoretical framework, look perfect. You take a key sentence that works; you separate it into its component parts and identify the parts that are specific to its current use and the parts that are generic. Then you turn the generic parts into a skeleton and replace the parts that are specific to its current use with equivalent parts that are specific for your use, and you have your own equivalent sentence.

Complication warning

ComplicationWarningI should perhaps warn you at this stage that although this post really does simplify the process of writing key sentences, it is quite detailed and it doesn’t do anything else. So if you aren’t trying to write a grant application   you should probably just bookmark the page and return when you start writing your next grant.

Finally, before I get down to the nitty gritty, I have two strong recommendations.

  1. It is very risky to start writing key sentences before you have worked out the details of your research project. As soon as you have done that you should divide it into three or four sub-projects, each of which will find something out, establish something, or develop something. This post tells you how to do that.
  2. Although it makes most sense to read about  the key sentences in numerical order, it’s pretty hard to write them in that order. I’ll make some suggestions about writing order as I explain the recipes.

So, what would skeletons for the 10 key sentences in a grant application look like? I think I can tell you in 9 of the 10 cases. I will describe them in numerical order, which is the order in which the reader will encounter them.

Key sentence 1, the Summary sentence

The first sentence of the proposal, key sentence 1, is probably the most complex and variable of the key sentences. It gives a simple overall statement of what the project will achieve, ideally it will relate that achievement to a big important problem and will also include something distinctive about how the project will achieve it in a way that will make it clear that you are a suitable person to do the project.

A minor variation of a sentence I suggested in an earlier post about key sentences, does all this. It has four parts, which are numbered.

  1. This project will develop a new potential treatment for stroke
  2. by identifying, synthesising and testing suitable molecules
  3. from a family of novel synthetic metabolic inhibitors
  4. that we have discovered.

A skeleton representation of the four parts would be:

  1. This project will [your own description of  how it will make partial progress towards solving a  huge, important problem – in the example it’s “develop a potential solution”]
  2. by [ your own much more specific description of what it will actually do]
  3. [your own assertion that the project is novel or timely – e.g.”novel synthetic metabolic inhibitors”]
  4. [your own claim to “ownership” of the project – e.g.”that we have discovered”].

I would suggest that you leave the first key sentence until near the end. I would also suggest that you content yourself with a rough draft initially. You will have plenty of time to refine it as you flesh out the detail int he case for support.

Key sentence 2, the Importance sentence

The second key sentence states the importance of the specific outcomes promised by the project. The following sentence does this in two ways. The first clause gives some evidence that the big problem is really important. The second clause asserts that the specific problem that will be solved by the project is an important aspect of the big problem.

  1. Stroke is one of the commonest causes of death and disability in the working population;
  2. one of the most promising new avenues of treatment is to shut down brain function reversibly using a metabolic inhibitor, we have yet to identify a suitable molecule.”

Its skeleton is

  1. The [huge important problem] is [your own statement that demonstrates with evidence that the problem is very important for one or more of health, society, the economy and the advance of knowledge and understanding];
  2. [your own statement that the project outcome will contribute to solving the huge important problem].

I think that the second key sentence is definitely the last one to write.

Key Sentences 3-5, the Aims sentences

Sentences 3-5 would be the first and the easiest sentences for you to draft. They are what I used to call the “we need to know” sentences. There is one for each sub-project. An example from our hypothetical stroke project would be:- We need to identify which molecules in this family are most effective as reversible inactivators of brain tissue. The skeleton for an aims sentence would be something like this.

We need to [know or establish or develop]+[your own statement of whatever the sub-project is going to discover or establish or develop].

Each of the aims sentences introduces a section of the background to the project (the bit where you justify the need for your research) in which you convince the reader, by citing relevant evidence, that the key sentence is absolutely, starkly and compellingly true. You would also re-use the same sentence in the introduction to the case for support and in the summary.

Specific Aims

Some funders – notably NIH and the UK research councils, like you to talk about aims, or even specific aims. For this you create a compound of all 3  aims sentences of the following form.

We have three (specific) aims:-
1) to [discover, develop or establish] [your statement of whatever the first sub-project is going to discover, develop or establish]
2) to  [discover, develop or establish] [your statement of whatever the second sub-project is going to discover, develop or establish]
3) to  [discover, develop or establish] [your statement of whatever the third sub-project is going to discover, develop or establish]

Key Sentence 6, the Project Overview sentence

This sentence introduces the description of the research project by saying what kind of research it will involve, something about the facilities it will use – especially if these are distinctive in some way, and what it will discover. It may say something about the resources it will use. It is very similar to sentence 1 but it might have a bit more information about the kind of research and the specific outcome.

The following sentence, in italics, is an example related to our example of sentence 1. The proposed project will be a mixture of synthetic chemistry to produce candidate molecules and in vitro physiology to test their efficacy in producing reversible inactivation of brain slices in order to identify a potential treatment for stroke. The skeleton sentence, is The proposed project will [general description of research activity] to [specific description of research outcome] in order to [weak statement indicating partial progress towards solution of huge important problem].

I think that the project overview sentence should be written after the sub-project overview sentences.

Key Sentences 7-9: Sub-project Overview sentences

Each sub-project has a “this will tell us” sentence that matches the “we need to know” sentence but is a little bit more complex. It begins with a clause that summarises what you will do in the sub-project and continues with a main clause that says what it will tell us. For example:- We will use voltage sensitive dyes to assess the activity and responsiveness of brain slices in order to measure the effectiveness of different molecules as reversible inactivators of neural activity.

The skeleton would be:- We will [do the relevant research activity] in order to discover [the thing that we said we needed to know in the corresponding Aims sentence].

If your funder asks you to list research objectives as part of the grant application, or if it suits your writing style you can phrase (or rephrase) your “this will tell us” sentences as statements of objectives. They would read like this.

The research objectives are as follows:-
1) to [do the relevant research activity] in order to discover [the thing that we said we needed to know in the corresponding Aims sentence].
2) to [do the relevant research activity] in order to discover [the thing that we said we needed to know in the corresponding Aims sentence].
3) to [do the relevant research activity] in order to discover [the thing that we said we needed to know in the corresponding Aims sentence].

Key sentences 7-9 can be written as soon as you like. You should have everything you need to write them right at the start. However, they are a bit more tricky than key sentences 3-5, which is why I recommend that you start with those.

Key sentence 10, the Dissemination sentence.

The dissemination sentence should introduce a description of the projects dissemination phase. It may say something about what you will do with the results to create a platform for future research – by you or by others. The range of possible dissemination strategies is too great for me to construct a skeleton, however I will comment on the relative importance of dissemination versus building a platform for future research. The relative importance depends somewhat on key sentence 2.

Dissemination beyond the research community is important if key sentence 2 claims that the importance of your project is related to some practical problem or opportunity (curing a disease, making a technological breakthrough). Your dissemination plan will need to include steps you will take to make sure that the results are put to use and your project. You may also be requesting funds for dissemination activities.

On the other hand, if the importance of your project is purely to do with its potential to advance your subject, you probably do not need to say much about dissemination activities although it might be important to talk about communicating the results to your research community by publication and conference activity.

 

 

Aims and Objectives, why the world needs your research.

the-mountainAims and objectives provide an excellent framework for the case for support in a research grant application.

A well-written case for support states an overarching aim based on a big research question. It shows how this big question gives rise to three or four smaller questions and then describes a research project that will answer those questions. The compelling logic for the reader is that the project deserves to be funded because it has been intricately designed to answer the big question. The truth may be that the intricacy lies more in the writing than in the project’s design. Matching sets of aims and objectives can be crafted to link a pre-designed project to a pre-existing big question.

Before we consider how to do this, let’s be absolutely clear about the difference between aims and objectives. There’s an excellent discussion of the difference in the context of a PhD project,  by Pat Thomson. She defines the aim as “…what you want to know…” and the objectives as “…the specific steps you will take to achieve your aim..”  This definition works perfectly for our purposes.

We can apply this distinction more or less directly in a grant application as follows.

  • Aims are the knowledge and understanding that you need in order to answer your research question. Well-designed aims create clear links between your research project and the big, important question that motivates it.
  •  Objectives are specific research actions that you plan to carry out in your research project. The objectives define the structure of the research project.  This means that if you design your project carefully, it will be clear that your research objectives will fulfil the aims defined by your research question.

The easy way to link up the aims and objectives is to start by describing the research that you want to do and what it will find out. You should divide your research project into (or assemble it from)  three or four sub-projects. Each sub-project will lead to a clear discovery or outcome. Each  outcome generates an exactly corresponding aim. If you want to do a sub-project that will discover how neurones in the cerebral cortex respond to lights of different colours, you have to have the aim “We need to know how neurones in  the cerebral cortex respond to lights of different colours”. Working backwards from the objectives in this way means that aims and objectives match perfectly. No skill is required

The place where skill is required is in tying together the three or four aims and making the case that meeting each of them will make a significant contribution to solving a larger research problem that is important to your target funder. That is where the real skill of writing grant applications lies.

For completeness, in addition to this set of three or four aims with precisely matching objectives, I would recommend another four sentences which are a more complex mix of aim and objective and which would be used to set the context in any full statement of the aims and objectives. So a full statement of the aims and objectives would be as follows.

  • The first sentence, which would be the first sentence of the case for support, would be a one sentence summary of the whole proposal. It would state the overall aim of the project, which is to take us closer to solving the larger research problem, and the overall objective, which is to carry out the research project. This is a very difficult sentence to write but a very important one, for two reasons. First, it gets the reader excited about the project by telling them its aim and its objective. Second, because it tells everything in a single sentence, it can afford to gloss over uncertainties, helping the reader to form a positive view of the project.
  • Second, there is a sentence that states why the research problem is important and which may also introduce the specific aims.
  • Immediately after this sentence you would state the three or four specific aims.
  • Third, after stating the specific aims, you need to set the scene for stating the specific objectives with an introductory sentence that describes the nature of the research project.
  • The three or four specific objectives, stating research outcomes that exactly match the specific aims, would be stated immediately after it.
  • After the objectives, there should be a sentence that says what will be done with the research outcomes. In a sense this is an overall objective which should ensure that the overall outcome of the research project  contributes to solving the larger research problem that motivates the entire project.

Finally I should make it clear that, although it matters for understanding this post, for the purpose of grant-writing,  it doesn’t matter that some authorities, including the Oxford dictionary, do not distinguish between aims and objectives in exactly the same way as I do. What matters in a grant application is how you present the argument that links your project to the important question. Whether you call any individual link an aim or an objective is neither here nor there.