Category Archives: Research Grant Applications

What is the Problem?

Most of the research grant applications that I read make me think that the writer is trying to solve the wrong problem. I’m referring specifically to the problem they are trying to solve by writing the case for support. Usually, but not always, the problem is about what they think the case for support should communicate, and to whom.

There are two ways that writers try and solve the wrong problem.

  1. In the worst case, writers use the writing process to try and work out what they have to say. This is a problem that they should have solved before beginning to write. Trying to solve it by writing the case for support produces a hopeless mess.
  2. Many writers work out what they have to say before they start writing but they design their case for support to communicate with the wrong audience in the wrong way. This approach usually produces an application that is fundable in principle – indeed the vast majority of funded applications are like this – but which would have a better chance of funding if it were designed for the readers who will make the funding decision.

Some writers, particularly early career researchers, use the writing process to refine their research topic and then to work out the design of a project that addresses the topic. They are hoping that the writing process will enable them to create a well-defined and well-justified project. It never does. There are two reasons:-

  1. Refining the research topic has no natural end point and most people continue until they have raised more questions than could conceivably be answered by a single project. Worse, the detailed development of the research topic takes so much space that they don’t have enough space left to describe a project.
  2. A detailed set of research questions is a bad starting point for the design of a project because it is likely to be impossible to design a project that answers them. Remember, the research questions in a grant application are really just a sales device, so it is much better to design the project first and then work out what research questions will create the best sales pitch.

Other writers, including most experienced researchers, start with a well designed project and try to solve the problem of cramming as much technical detail as possible into the case for support. They reason that the expert referees who read the case for support will penalise them if they omit any relevant details. They compound matters by seeking advice from close colleagues who suggest further details. The case for support becomes such a mass of detail that they need to reduce page margins and font size and devise ingenious abbreviations so that the mass of detail fits within the page limit.

Cramming in detail does not produce an effective case for support. To be effective, the case for support must make a clear argument that the research topic is important and the project is likely to be successful. And that argument must be accessible to every person that participates in the funding decision. Of course detail is necessary to convince referees of the merits of the argument, but detail on its own is not enough, and even if it were, the referees do not make the decision. They make a recommendation that accompanies the application to the grants committee, which decides whether or not to fund it. A negative recommendation from the referees is likely to kill an application, but a positive recommendation does not guarantee success. An application that fails to communicate its argument to the committee – most of whom do not have time to read the detail and would not understand it if they did – is likely to fail.

To be most effective, the case for support must convince readers with different levels of understanding, who will read it in different ways, that the research topic is important and the project is likely to make good progress. There are three groups of readers who participate in the decision:-

  1. Referees are experts on the topic and will analyse the case for support in detail.
  2. A small number of committee members will have a fairly good understanding of the topic and will read the case for support carefully.
  3. Most of the committee will have only a hazy understanding of the topic and will spend very little time reading the case for support.

Designing a convincing argument, and then setting it out in a way that works for all three types of reader, is the most important problem to solve in writing a case for support. Many academics think the problem cannot be solved, except possibly by a magic formula. In my next post I will explain how my approach to writing the case for support solves the problem.

From an Idea to a Research-Project

You have a research idea. You would like a research grant to enable you to pursue your idea. What do you do?

A grant application is a request for funding to carry out a research project. In order to write an application you need to have worked out the details of a project. An idea, even a brilliant idea, is not enough. So here I deal with that missing link: I explain how to use a research idea to work out the details of a research project.

Research Project

The details of the research project are the starting point for writing a grant application.

Why the Detail?

There are two reasons that you need to include details about your project in your case for support.

  1. The funder needs to judge whether your project will achieve enough to merit funding. To make such a judgement they need to know what research you will do. Usually they will want a moderately detailed description of what you will do, when you will do it and how you will do it so that they can assess the likely outcome of the research in relation to the grant you are requesting.
  2. The funder needs to judge whether the grant you are requesting is necessary and sufficient to enable you to do the research. Typically they want to know what resources you will use to do the research and whether the resources will be provided by the grant or by your institution.

How to Work Out the Detail

The easiest way to work out the details of your project is to imagine that you already have a grant and are ready to start research. You can start planning your imaginary project straight away. You simply describe what you will do to pursue your idea until it delivers something that the funder will be interested in. You can use this approach to flesh out a vague idea or to catalogue the details of a very specific idea. The only rule is that you have to end up with a description of a project that the funder will judge is worthy of funding.

It is better at this stage to write too much detail rather than too little. You should try to include enough detail to demonstrate that the activity will definitely lead to the outcome you intend. Don’t get too hung up on specifics. Most funders are looking for a plausible description of how you will use the resources they will provide to do productive research, rather than a detailed set of commitments to do specific actions on specific dates.

As you write about the research activities, you should include information about personnel, timing and resources. Say who will carry out each activity, when they will do it and what resources they will use. You can use this approach to compile the list of resources you will be requesting in the grant, or if the resource-base is predetermined, to ensure that you will make effective use of it.

It will be important to divide the project into three parts, so that you have three work-packages to frame your PIPPIN sentences. You can choose whether you build the project from work packages or divide it into work packages after you have built it. Whichever you do, you should ensure that the work-packages are created by compiling sets of research activities that produce clear outcomes rather than lumping together activities that occur within a particular time-frame or in a particular place. This is particularly important in collaborative projects: if each work-package takes place in a different institution it can give the impression that the collaboration is just a smoke-screen.

How Not to Do It

It’s really important to avoid the trap of refining the idea before you generate the project. It’s an easy trap to fall into because it seems obvious that you need to refine the idea, clarify the hypotheses you want to test, establish the research questions that need to be answered, and so on. These are the starting points for the narrative that justifies the research project to the funder, so why wouldn’t you start working on them straight away?

The answer is simple: the more you refine the question, the harder it becomes to devise a project that answers the question. The more work you do on the question the more likely you are to fall into the trap of the never-ending grant application. If you want the project-design task to be tractable, you shouldn’t do any work on the question until you have used it to define your project.

Creating the Research Questions

Once you have created the project, you use each work-package to generate a research aim or research question. If your work-packages don’t achieve research aims or answer research questions, you need to work on your project design until they do. This approach may seem artificial, but it is much easier than starting with a set of aims or research questions and trying to design a work package to answer each of them. You may find it difficult to create a research question from your work-package. You can be certain that it is much harder to design a work package that answers a research question that you have generated independently of it.

On-Line Workshops are Better Than Face to Face

I decided several years ago to launch on-line research-grant workshops purely as a convenience measure. Over the last few months I have created the materials for a fully on-line workshop. As the on-line workshops launch, I am a little bit surprised to realise that they are better in almost every respect than the face-to-face workshops that I have been delivering for the last five years.

I suspect that on-screen I am less engaging than in real life but I know that in every other respect the on-line workshops are better. The on-line lectures are shorter and clearer. They are supported by well-structured written material. The on-line workshops offer opportunities to get feedback. And they give participants more flexibility and more time.

Better Lectures On-Line

My face-to-face workshops were almost entirely lecture-based, and always received rave reviews. So naturally I assumed that recording a face-to-face workshop would produce excellent lectures. The recorded lectures were fine except for two problems. The picture quality was appalling. And the audio content was dull, repetitive, and full of speech tics and idiosyncrasies. Clearly I had to take a different approach.

The cancellation of all my face-to-face workshops at the end of January created the opportunity I needed. I set up a studio at home and scripted and recorded new lectures. I enjoyed the recording and editing and I am very pleased with the results. The video lectures are clear, crisp and to the point, while retaining enough editing imperfections to create an impression of authenticity. Friends assure me that the appeal definitely comes from the quality of the content rather than the slickness of the production.

Written Material

The lectures are supported by extensive written material, which was originally intended to be published as a book, and may yet be. This has allowed me to resolve a long-standing problem with the face-to-face workshops. Although they were supplemented by slides, handouts, and blog-posts, the material was fairly disorganised. Now each lecture sits on a web-page. The web-page contains text that develops the points made in the lecture. The web pages are organised into three strands that address the main needs of workshop participants.

  1. They need to understand strategy: how to plan grant writing, what to do before starting to write, and what to do after finishing.
  2. They need to understand tactics: the characteristics of a good grant application and what to do to produce one.
  3. They need to develop skill: the ability to write the kind of text needed in a good grant application.

Feedback, flexibility and time

It has always been difficult to work on skill in face-to-face workshops. Skill only comes from practice. People get better at writing by practising their writing, and by getting feedback on what they have written. In a face to face workshop most of the time is taken up explaining tactics so there is little opportunity either for participants to write or for me to give feedback. In the on-line workshop, all the material is pre-recorded, so participants can practise writing and I can give feedback on what they write.

The principal cost of a workshop is determined by the amount of time that I have to spend presenting it. In a face-to-face workshop, the presentation time has to be a continuous block, bracketed by travel time to and from the venue. The need to travel meant that short face-to-face workshops were uneconomic, except very close to home.

In the on-line workshops, I stay at home, and all the material can be presented, for as much time as the client wants, without me. So my involvement can be as little or as much as the client wants and can be recorded, so that participants can choose when they want to engage with the material and with me.

The Fly in the Ointment

Despite all these advantages, the on-line workshops haven’t yet delivered what I expected when I first conceived them. I expected that on-line delivery would be stress-free. In fact, the stress has increased. I am comfortable with face-to-face workshops. I know how they work, I can see when they go wrong, and I know how to fix them. On-line workshops depend on web-page components that I don’t fully understand. I shall be anxious until they have built up a track-record of trouble-free delivery. I hope it will take less time than it took me to learn to lecture!

Who is Your Target Reader?

This post is about who will read your research grant application, and how they influence the funding decision. There are three different groups of reader:-

  • referees, who are typically experts from outside the committee,
  • presenting members, who lead the discussion on your application by explaining it to the committee, and
  • the rest of the committee.

The three groups have different levels of specialist knowledge and different amounts of time. Failure to satisfy any of the groups can kill your chances of a grant but, surprisingly, the least knowledgeable readers who spend the least time reading your application are the ones most likely to push it across the threshold for funding – in either direction.

Referees

The referee only has to read one application

Referees are the most knowledgeable readers because they are selected from the international research community for their knowledge of your research topic, so there is a pretty good chance that they will understand your proposed research project. Referees are also likely to have enough time to read your application carefully because each of them has only one grant to read.

Unfortunately, the referees’ input to the funding decision is indirect, precisely because they only read one application. The referee writes a report and recommends a score. Low referees’ scores will likely sink an application, but high scores are no guarantee of success.

The next step in the funding decision is taken by a grants committee, who produce a ranked list of the applications in a batch of about 100. The committee assigns a score to each application, and then compares the applications that have similar or identical scores. The final step in the decision is to distribute the available funding to the highest ranked applications. Typically there is enough money to fund about 20% of the applications.

The grants committee considers the referees’ reports as they evaluate each application. However, they also compare the application with other applications, which the referee has not seen, and consider it in the context of the committee’s aims, which may not be known to the referee. Although all the members of the committee can read your application, it is likely that only two or three of them, the ‘presenting members’, will spend much time on it.

Presenting Members

A presenting member can probably spend an hour on each application they have to present.

The presenting members are second to referees, in terms both of their knowledge of your subject and their reading time. They will probably have been selected to present your application because their interests are relatively close to your research area. However, the committee will only have about twenty members to cover a huge subject area, so the presenting members may not understand the finer points of your project. They will spend as much time as they can reading your application because their job is to explain it to the rest of the committee and to recommend a score. However, your application will be probably be one of a batch of about ten that they have to present, so it will be unlikely that they can spend more than an hour or two reading it.

The presenting member’s role in the decision is to explain your application to the rest of the committee and recommend a score. It is important to be aware that even if the presenting member thinks your application looks brilliant, their recommendation is likely to be pretty conservative. They have to leave themselves room for manoeuvre because of their relative lack of expertise and because they do not have time to analyse every last detail. So it is very common that a presenting member lavishes the highest praise on an application, and then recommends a score that is only just above the likely cut-off for funding. Then if other members of the committee notice faults in the application, the score can easily be reduced, and if the other members of the committee are impressed by the application, the score can be increased.

The Rest of the Committee

Committee members have so many applications they don’t have time to read those they don’t have to present.

The rest of the committee have a very important role in the decision. Their input can push a borderline score up to a safe score, or put it completely out of contention.

The rest of the committee probably make their contribution on the basis of a hazy understanding of your subject and a hasty impression of your application. They are unlikely to be knowledgeable about your research topic because the committee covers a very broad range of subjects and their expertise will be in a different area from yours. And simple arithmetic shows that they definitely don’t have time to read your application carefully. It takes about 5 or 6 hours to read a grant application carefully; a committee will deal with about 100 grants each meeting, and will meet about 3 times a year. Reading all the grants carefully would take 1800 hours, more than a year’s work. The most likely approach for committee members not presenting an application is to read the summary before the meeting and skim through the application itself during the discussion.

Which of these readers should you write for?

So what should you do?

  • Should you cram your application with detail, to impress the referees, and risk leaving the committee members scratching their heads trying to understand your jargon?
  • Should you fill the application with explanations, so the presenting members can understand it, and risk turning it into a dull textbook?
  • Should you write for the rest of the committee and risk patronising the other readers?

Or do the ‘Pippin’ key sentences make it possible to create a structure for the case for support that allows you to package the detail where the referees will look for it, while making your research logic clear to the presenting members, in language that makes your technical jargon self-explanatory?

I’ll tell you more in my next post.

Example PIPPIN Sentences that describe my Workshop

One reason that so many of the posts in this blog are about key sentences is that participants in my grant-writing workshops find it very difficult to write a set of key sentences. The structure of the key sentences and the relationships between the sentences are critical for my approach to writing a case for support, so I am always on the look-out for ways to help people write sets of PIPPIN sentences. As an exercise, I have written a set of PIPPIN sentences that summarise the grant-writing workshops. Here it is.

The workshop teaches a systematic approach to research grant-writing that  won the presenter continuous funding throughout his research career and that is informed by his participation in committee decisions on thousands of grant applications. A systematic approach to grant writing makes research grant applications easier to write and more likely to be successful; there are  three elements it must include.

  1. It must include an effective strategy to maximise success and reduce wasted effort, so that it is clear when to write grant  applications and  how to prepare.
  2. It must include a specification for an effective grant application, so that it is clear what to write.
  3. It must include a step by step recipe for producing effective grant applications, so that it becomes easy to  write.

The workshop consists of lectures and exercises to teach participants the three elements of a systematic approach to grant writing.

  1. The presenter will explain how the uncertainty of funding decisions can be ameliorated by an effective strategy to maximise success and reduce wasted effort.
  2. The presenter will analyse how funding decisions are made and derive a specification for an effective grant application.
  3. The workshop will include writing exercises to help participants follow the presenter’s step by step recipe for producing effective grant applications.

The presenter explains how the approach is based on real-world experience of applying for and awarding research grants, so that participants can use the workshop to develop a funding strategy tailored to their own experience and ambitions.

There are exactly ten key sentences in the set and they conform to the pippin specification –

  • Promise sentence, a single sentence description of the workshop
  • Importance sentence, stating the value of the workshop
  • 3 Problem sentences, each stating and justifying a problem.
  • Project sentence (in this case a summary of the workshop activities)
  • 3 implementation sentences, each of which describes a part of the workshop and then uses exactly the same words as the corresponding problem sentence to describe the outcome of that part of the workshop.
  • A sentence that wraps up the description of the workshop and says what happens next.

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that these sentences were originally published at the end of my PIPPIN post. I decided to pull them out and make them a stand-alone post because of the need for examples of pippin sentences. Expect more short posts with examples.

Key Sentences are a PIPPIN for Communicators

Pippin: “An excellent person or thing”, Oxford English Dictionary

A few years ago I found that writing a summary in the form of a set of key sentences is a good way to start writing a complex document with a specific set of requirements, like the case for support in a grant application. Since then I always start a case for support by writing a set of key sentences and I teach workshop participants to do the same, with mixed results. Most workshop participants find it very hard to produce key sentences that work well, and sometimes I wonder whether a different approach might be better. Recently I have come to realise that the most important advantage of the key sentences is the help that they give the reader.

Key sentences create a framework for the case for support that makes your main points accessible to every reader and places the detail that supports your arguments where readers will find it. Consequently, even if key sentences don’t help you to write a case for support, you should use them to structure the case for support when you have written it.

The key sentence framework gives a document a hierarchical structure, so that it starts with the most important point of the document, states the main points, and then fills in the details. Each key sentence states one of these points, starting with the most important, and continuing with those that support it. The key sentences comprise the introduction to the document; they state every point you want to make, beginning with the most important.

The rest of the case for support consists of a series of sections, each of which begins with one of the key sentences, and continues with the detail that supports it. The key sentences reappear in the same order as they appear in the introduction, starting with the second. This means that the introduction states every major point you make in the document, in the order in which you make them. Each of the other sections repeats one of the points, helping the reader to remember it, before supporting it with the detail that will convince critical readers to accept the point. The first key sentence doesn’t reappear after the introduction because its job is to start the first section, the introduction.

It makes sense to give each section a hierarchical structure too. The first paragraph of the section summarises the section by stating the points you want to make in the section, the section continues with paragraphs that make those points in order. The paragraphs are also hierarchical: each one begins with its topic sentence, which states the point of the paragraph, and continues with the sentences that support or develop it.

For a research project grant application there are ten key sentences. I have named them so the initial letters spell the word PIPPIN, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “An excellent person or thing”. Other kinds of grant application, such as fellowships, need a slightly different set of key sentences because they need to make a different set of points. The PIPPIN sentences are:-

  • Promise – a one-sentence overview of the whole case for support. It should say what the research project will achieve, in a way that is both accessible and convincing.
  • Importance – this sentence tells the reader what is it that makes the project important to the funding body you are applying to. This sentence should give evidence that the project will help achieve one or more of the funder’s strategic aims.
  • Problem There will be three sentences that state problems that your project has to solve in order to fulfil its promise. There will be three problems. These sentences are part of a device to convince the funder that the project will be a success. The ‘Implementation’ sentences (see below) complete the device.
  • Project There will be a one-sentence summary of the project to say whatever you need the reader to know if they only read one sentence about the project.
  • Implementation There will be three sentences that describe the main work-packages in a way that makes it clear that each work-package solves one of the three problems. This convinces the funder that your project will work.
  • Next This sentence says what will happen when the research is done. It could be about ensuring impact or exploiting other opportunities created by the project.

I designed the PIPPIN key sentences to meet the needs both of the grants committee, who decide on the ranking of the grant, and of the referees, who write an expert report for the committee. The differences between their roles mean these two groups read the grant in different ways.

The grants committee don’t have time to read the case for support carefully, and most of them will find the specialist jargon of your field impenetrable. So the PIPPIN key sentences state the things committee members want to know as clearly as possible. The sentences are repeated more than once so that the jargon they contain becomes more familiar. The introduction tells exactly the same story as the full case for support, and uses the same words.

The key sentences also form the core of any summaries that are attached to the application form, including the lay summary, the technical summary and the aims and objectives. Some members of the committee may read these summaries instead of the case for support, so using the key sentences ensures that these people read the same story, in the same words, as those who read the case for support. Even those who read the case for support will probably read one of the summaries first. Using the key sentences in the summaries makes these readers more likely to understand the case for support when they read it.

The key sentence structure also makes the referees’ job as easy as possible. Referees read the case for support actively, looking for detailed evidence to support the main points that they noted on reading the summary. When the key-sentences reappear in the introduction, they reassure the referee that the case for support will deal with all the points listed in the summary. When they reappear again in the case for support, the key sentences guide the referee to the evidence they are looking for.

The pippin key sentences work to ‘sell’ any kind of project. They can also be adapted to sell similar activities, like my grant-writing workshops. I am also working on a set that sell my formula for a case for support.

If you have a different kind of grant application you may need a different set of key sentences. For example, in a fellowship application you would need a key sentence about what makes you a suitable candidate, and one about what makes your institution a good place to hold the fellowship. In grant applications where you have to write about your track record, you should create a key sentence for each point you want to make. In fact, key sentences are a good way of giving structure to any document that you want the reader to be able to read quickly and summarise easily. You create the summary as a set of key sentences and then you use the summary as a framework to organise the document. It’s unlikely that your set of key sentences will be the same as PIPPIN, but you will definitely find them to be an excellent thing.

Given all the benefits of the key sentence structure, you might question why anybody should structure a case for support in any other way. I don’t know the answer, but if you want to make your case for support easy to read you should create a set of key sentences and use them as a framework to organise the text.

Writing a research grant application: the quick way and the easy way.

There are two ways of writing a grant application, the quick way and the easy way.

The Quick Way

The quick way is to start by writing a set of key sentences. Each key sentence states one of the points that you will need to make in the case for support. These points include the main research goal, what makes the goal important, the sub-goals, the lines of research that will deliver the sub-goals, and so on. 

Writing the key sentences is hard work, but it only takes a couple of hours. If you can’t draft a set of key sentences in a couple of hours then you know you are not ready to write a grant application. On the other hand, when you write a set of key sentences you get more than the knowledge that you are ready to write. You get a short-cut to the finished case for support.  The key sentences enable you to write the full case for support in a couple of weeks.

The key sentences give you a short cut because the full case for support is simply an expanded version of the key sentences. It consists of a series of sections, each of which begins with a key sentence. Each of the sections should also have a heading that uses phrases from the key sentence. The remainder of each section consists of a few paragraphs that expand and justify the point made by the key sentence. 

Not only is it easy to write the case for support with the key sentences, it is easy to keep it short. And if it gets too long it is easy to shorten it. Every section starts by saying what is most important. If you write too much in any section you can trim the unimportant stuff from the end.

The Easy Way

It’s only a grant application. Why make it difficult?

Despite these advantages of the key sentence approach, most writers prefer to write a grant the easy way. They just start writing. If you write the easy way you won’t have the key sentences to guide your writing but you will have saved yourself two hours of dull work, so as long as you can work out what to write you will  surely finish sooner if you start the easy way.

It’s obviously best to discuss the most important issues first. Describe your research question and what makes it important to your chosen funder. Pretty soon you will have several pages of text. There’s lots of helpful advice on the web about what you should include. A google search  on writing a good research grant application give 37.6 million hits. Some of the top hits in the google search are written by the funders themselves.  The funders tell you exactly what to do, in detail. This page on content and presentation on ESRC’s website lists 37 points you should include and 5 questions you should answer. Following this advice will make it very easy to write a lot of text very quickly.

Unfortunately, there is no advice about how to write clearly. The most likely outcome is that the document you write will be a misshapen monster, far too long and completely unreadable. Editing a badly structured document of any kind is futile and utterly miserable. The excellent @thesiswhisperer blog likens the process to fighting a jungle war. If you are unlucky, you will have supportive colleagues who will encourage you to persevere in this miserable task. In fact you should quit and start again.

You should quit because because line-by-line edits do not fix the real problem, the poor structure. The more you edit, the worse it gets. You will work for months and when you finish you will know in your heart of hearts that your case for support is a mess.

Foolishly, you will nurture a vain hope that maybe you are being overly critical because you have been working so hard. You will reach out to your supportive colleagues for reassurance. They will know how hard you have worked and will want to support your morale, rather than help you write a good case for support. When you ask them for comments, they will lie, to protect your morale. They will see that the case for support is a mess, but they want to be supportive, so they will tell you to dot a couple of i’s and cross a couple of t’s and you will breathe a sigh of relief and submit your grant application.

The point at which you discover the truth about your grant application is when you get the results of peer review, nine months after submitting. At this point you will probably no longer be pleased that you saved the two hours it would have taken to write the key sentences.

If you are lucky, when you find yourself with a misshapen monster grant application, you will engage a consultant like me who will tell you some really good news. Your misshapen monster of a grant application can be salvaged. There is an easy way to restructure the case for support that only takes a day or so. You start by writing a set of key sentences……..

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 deal with the third in another post.

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.

Lists: Keep them Short; Use Bullets.

Oxford college eights training early on a November morning

This picture, which I took a few weeks ago,  reminds me of a story I heard when I was an impressionable undergraduate. Like many such stories, it sought to celebrate the extraordinary mental capacities of Oxford dons. The story was about overhearing  a snippet of conversation between two dons walking in Christchurch Meadow, which is on the left bank of the river in the photograph. The snippet was “…and ninthly….”.

The snippet encapsulated the idea that an Oxford don could perform the extraordinary feat of constructing and delivering a list of nine separate arguments, during a spontaneous conversation. Indeed the story leaves open the possibility that there were more than nine arguments because the conversation continued after the snippet.

The commonest mistakes in research-grant writing arise from the implicit assumption that the grant will be read by superhumans with the extraordinary mental capacity of this apocryphal don. Superhumans may read your grant application, but they will not make the decision, so you should not write for them. The decision will be made by a grants committee. They are ordinary people.

A grants committee cannot follow a long list of arguments. And if they cannot follow your arguments, they will ignore them. A big part of the task of writing a grant application is making sure that what you write is clear enough and simple enough for the committee to appreciate it and understand it.

This post explains that lists in a grant application should obey two rules:-

  • Lists should have fewer than five items.
  • Lists should be formatted, for example by using bullets, so that each item stands out.

Lists Should Have Fewer than Five Items

This rule is more generous than the rule I use myself. When I write a list in a grant application, I get nervous if it has more (or fewer) than three items and I find a way of reducing or expanding it it to three items. Before I tell you how to expand and reduce lists, I should explain why three is the perfect number of list items.

Three is the perfect number of list items because it is the minimal list. It is enough items to justify creating a list, but not so many that a speaker (or listener) is likely to forget an item or get the order wrong. The first step of the decision process is a short oral presentation of your grant application to the committee, who probably haven’t read it but who will probably try to read it during the presentation. If you have a few lists in your application (such as your research goals and your work packages) it allows the presenter to use a bit of rhetoric and to give the impression that they are giving a complete picture – “first …., second…, and finally….” without exceeding their ability to replicate a complex and poorly understood argument.

If you feel you need a list and you only have two items, you must expand your list. You can either split one of the items in two, or break down your topic in a different way, so that you arrive naturally at a three item list. In a grant application you probably need lists for the following categories:-

  • Research goals.
  • Aims
  • Objectives
  • Research questions
  • Hypotheses
  • Work Packages

If you have more than three items to list, you must get rid of some of them. You can omit items, combine items or create hierarchical ‘lists of lists’. In the example above, aims, hypotheses, and research questions are all different ways of expressing research goals and so you would only use one of them, unless the funding agency asks you to use more than one, which several of the UK research councils do. For example, the Social and Economic Research Council ask you two write about your aims and about your research questions, as if they were completely different. I always make it clear that each aim is also a research question.

Lists Should be Formatted

The reason lists should be formatted is very simple. The reader should be able to separate the items and see how many there are at a glance. If a list is written without any formatting, separating the items requires careful inspection. Most readers of a grant application do not have the time to do this. And they won’t.

Why did I relax my rule in this blog post?

Finally,  I should explain why, if I truly believe that three items is the perfect list length, I relaxed the rule for this blog post. And why did I then break even the relaxed version of the rule in writing the post: one of the bullet lists has six items.

I relaxed the rule to make it easy for you. My consultancy clients always complain when I try to persuade them to follow the strict three item rule. I don’t want you to complain, so I will allow you to create lists of four (or two) items in your grant applications if you want to. But you should bear in mind that if your grant application is competing with one that I have written, mine will have perfect, three-item lists and yours will be at a disadvantage.

I have put a six item bullet list in this blog post because it is a blog post, not a grant application. I do not want you to be able to tell all the details of my blog post to your friends in a conversation. I want you to stumble and forget some of the details so that you will tell them that they have to read the post themselves!

How Key Sentences Work

Key sentences define the structure of a case for support and ensure that every reader gets the same picture.

A crucial challenge in writing the case for support in a grant application is that the finished document will be discussed by a group of people who have read it at different levels. For example:-

  • The referees will have read and analysed every last detail, in order to write a report for the grants committee.
  • The presenters will have read it very carefully and will have created their own summary of it, which they will present orally to the committee.
  • Most of the committee will only have read the summary but many of them will glance through the case for support when the committee are discussing it.
  • Members of the committee who find the case for support interesting will also read it in detail.

If the discussion is to be fruitful, all these people should get exactly the same picture. Detailed reading of the case for support should produce exactly the same picture as riffling through it at high speed, which should produce the same picture as reading the first page and stopping when it gets boring, which should produce the same picture as reading the summary and ignoring the case for support completely. All these different ways of reading should produce the same picture. The only difference should be in the level of detail.

To solve this problem, you build the case for support from a skeleton of key sentences. In the full case for support, you flesh out each key statement with a few paragraphs of text to create a subsection. The key statement summarises the subsection that fleshes it out. In this way the case for support consists of a number of subsections, each of which begins with a key statement. If you string the key statements together on their own, without the subsections that flesh them out, you get the same story as the full case for support, but with less detail.

The full case for support fleshes out the key sentences with supporting detail, whereas the summary consists of the key sentences on their own. This ensures that people who read the full case for support  get the same story as those who only read the summary. It also means that a reader who attempts to create their own summary from careful reading of the case for support is likely to create a very similar summary to the one you supply.

You can use the first sentences of paragraphs in the same way, to create a summary of a piece of text. This blog post has been written using the key sentence approach at the paragraph level. Each key statement is fleshed out with a few sentences to create a paragraph. You can see how the approach works by taking the first sentence from each paragraph in this section and stringing them together. It should make a good summary. Check the key sentence summary below to see how this works.

A second benefit of this assert-justify approach is that the key sentences act like signposts to tell the referees where to find the information they want. The referees will read the summary before they read the case for support and, as they read the summary, a series of questions and doubts will arise in their minds about whether the summary is backed up by detail. The key sentences in the body of the case for support will show them where to look for the detail.

In sum, the key sentence approach gives a summary that tells the same story as the extended version and makes it very easy for referees to find the information that they want. In the bullet points that follow you can see the summary of this blog post created simply by cutting and pasting the first sentence of every paragraph.

KEY SENTENCE SUMMARY

  • A crucial challenge in writing the case for support is that the finished document will be discussed by a group of people who have read it at different levels.
  • If the discussion is to be fruitful, all these people should get exactly the same picture.
  • To solve this problem, the case for support is built from a skeleton of key sentences.
  • The full case for support fleshes out the key sentences with supporting detail, whereas the summary  consists of the key sentences on their own.
  • You can use the first sentences of paragraphs in the same way, to create a summary of a piece of text.
  • A second benefit of this assert-justify approach is that the key sentences act like signposts to tell the referees where to find the information they want.
  • In sum, the key sentence approach gives a summary that tells the same story as the extended version and makes it very easy for referees to find the information they want.