Tag Archives: Writing Style

What’s the Point?

I want to explain why I think it’s better to produce a well-written grant application than a poorly written one. Obviously, given the nature of my business, I have to make this case, but it is not as simple as you might think, not least because most successful grant applications are very poorly written. In fact, if you think carefully about the quality of grant applications, it becomes clear that, in this particular domain, quality is completely subjective. So I will start by saying what I think makes a good grant application.

The quality of a grant application is not the same as the quality of the research project it describes. A grant application is essentially a marketing document for a research project and you can have a first-rate application that markets a tenth-rate project. And vice versa. Indeed  poorly-written grant applications are very often successful precisely because grants committees are trying to judge the quality of the project, not the quality of the application. Judging the quality of a project can be very difficult if the application is poorly written. So what makes a good grant application?

The essence of a good grant application is that it makes it easy to judge the project. The application contains all the detail that an expert will look for. The detail should be set out so that it can be read at very high speed and understood by a non-expert. As a rule of thumb, it should take less than two minutes to understand the main points of what you will do and why it is worth doing.

Those main points should be expressed and justified in such a way that a non-expert ‘gets’ what you are going to do and why. An expert should also be able to drill down and find the detail that they need in order to judge whether your project is likely to succeed and achieve those main points. I have already explained how the ‘key sentence’ structure enables a grant application to fulfil these requirements.

Despite the fact that most successful grant applications are poorly written, there are three reasons that it is worth taking trouble to produce a well-written grant application:-

  1. If your project is good, a well-written application will improve your chance of success.
  2. If your project is bad, a well-written application will help you to see that it needs to be improved.
  3. A well-written application can be easier and quicker to write than a badly-written application.

I’ll deal with the first two reasons in this post and I will leave the third for the future.

Well written applications are more likely to be successful.

Well-written applications generate an enthusiasm among committee members that makes them give higher scores. For reasons I’ll explain in a future post, the person leading the discussion is likely to recommend a relatively conservative score, no matter how much they like the application. But if the committee are enthusiastic, they are quite likely to argue that the recommendation should be raised, and to exceed the recommendation when they score.

Poorly written applications can also get high scores, particularly if the referees have given very strong recommendations, but when committee members don’t understand an application they will not argue for a higher score and they may even score slightly below the recommendation. The consequence is that the scores of poorly written applications tend to drift downwards. The effect is small, but if the score is close to the borderline, which is likely to be the case, given the tendency for conservative recommendations, a tiny drift can make the difference between success and failure.

A well written application helps you see that you need to improve your project.

A well-written application explains your project very clearly at two levels.

  • First it explains what makes the project important to the funder.
  • Then it explains what the project consists of, and why each part of the project is important.

If your project needs to be improved, you are likely to find one or both of these explanations unconvincing as you write them. If you do find yourself writing arguments that you find unconvincing, then you need to reexamine your project and work out how to make it more convincing. If your application does not convince you, it is unlikely to convince a committee.

 

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.

 

 

First you tell them; then you convince them.

Quotative Like; xkcd.com

Some  common writing styles are very bad for grant applications and this post aims to help you to avoid one of the worst.  It is a style of writing that we refer to in the Research Funding Toolkit as “Argue – conclude”.

Argue-conclude writing sets out the argument for a statement before it makes the statement.  Done well, argue-conclude writing can be very convincing for a dedicated reader,  who will follow every twist and turn of  your argument. By the time they get to read a statement that ordinarily they might be inclined to reject, they already know the arguments that support it. Unfortunately, most of the readers who will decide whether your grant application gets funded are less dedicated. They will give up reading before they get to the crucial statement.

To communicate with these readers, you begin each paragraph with its main message. Then use the rest of the paragraph to convince them that the message is true. In the Research Funding Toolkit we refer to this style as “assert-justify“. An easy way to describe about assert-justify style is “Tell them; then convince them”.

As I was writing this I thought of nine reasons you should adopt “Assert-justify” style in research grant applications.  The first four are concerned with meeting the needs of the reader – one of the guiding principles for writing with style. The remaining five are concerned with making the task of writing easier. Naturally I shall assert each reason and then justify it.

  1. Assert-justify style communicates more effectively with speed-readers, tired readers, and lazy readers.
    These readers will skim through your document. The neurology of eye-movements dictates that, provided you put blank lines between the paragraphs, their eyes will skip from paragraph to paragraph. They will read the first line of each paragraph. Thus they will read the assertions and get the headline messages. If they are inclined to disagree with the headline messages, they will dig down into the arguments that justify them.
  2. Assert-justify style makes it easier for diligent readers, such as referees, to examine your arguments in detail.
    Each paragraph starts by stating what the paragraph is about. This makes it very easy for the reader to find the arguments they want to examine. They never face the problem of wading through an argument wondering where it is leading.
  3. Assert-justify style makes it easier for the committee-member who has to present your grant to the rest of the committee.
    They can see at a glance what points you are trying to make. This makes it very easy for them to select the points that are most important and relevant for the committee, even if they don’t entirely understand them.
  4. Assert-justify style is more likely to engage readers who are bored.
    The conclusion is always the most interesting part of the argument. By putting the conclusion first you are more likely to entice them to read.
  5. Assert-justify style makes it easier to write an accurate summary.
    The assertions from each paragraph comprise a draft summary. If you want a shorter summary you may be able to leave some of them out.
  6. Assert-justify style makes it easier to write a good introduction.
    The assertions from each paragraph comprise the core of the introduction. You may need to add some linking text and some signposts.
  7. Assert-justify style makes it easier to write short sentences.
    You can write in simple, clear statements. You don’t need to frame them and qualify them.
  8. Assert-justify style makes it easier to write short paragraphs.
    In argue-conclude writing you have to spend a lot of words preparing the ground for the argument. If you start by asserting the point you want to make, you leap straight into the argument without spending any words.
  9. Assert-justify style makes it easier to write.
    I used to spend a lot of time staring at my screen wondering how to get started on each section. In assert-justify writing you can write the ten key sentences that start each sub-section of a grant proposal in an hour.

There are probably more and better reasons to write in assert-justify style.  When I started writing this post, I only had three!  If you have any doubts about whether assert-justify style is correct, it may help you to know that some time after writing this post I discovered a tenth reason: courses on English for academic purposes advise that every paragraph should contain a sentence that states the message of the paragraph, the topic sentence, and that it should usually be the first sentence.

Let me finish with an example of what I think you should avoid. This abstract of a funded grant application is short and clearly written but it is in argue-conclude style; consequently the piece of information that the reader most wants to know – what will the research project do – is buried away in the second half of a sentence in the last paragraph. A speed-reader would not see it.