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.
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.
It must include a specification for an effective grant application, so that it is clear what to write.
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.
The presenter will explain how the uncertainty of funding decisions can be ameliorated by an effective strategy to maximise success and reduce wasted effort.
The presenter will analyse how funding decisions are made and derive a specification for an effective grant application.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:-
If your project is good, a well-written application will improve your chance of success.
If your project is bad, a well-written application will help you to see that it needs to be improved.
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.
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.
The front fork of a Birdy folding bicycle has a distinctive structure that smooths out bumps in the road and solves the bicycle’s main problem, how to fold quickly into a compact space.
This post explains how you can structure the case for support in a research grant application in a way that solves its main problem and enables it to do its tasks efficiently.
A case for support has two main tasks. It has to convince the committee that your research project is important. And it has to convince referees that your project will be successful. However, these tasks are not the case for support’s main problem.
The case for support also has to do several minor tasks. It has to make the grants committee think that they understand your project. It has to convince referees that you are competent to carry out the project. And it has to convince them that the resources you will buy with the grant are necessary and sufficient to carry out the project. These tasks are not the case for support’s main problem either.
The case for support’s main problem is this: most members of the grants committee will not read it, and those who do read it will probably not understand it. Despite this, the case for support has to convince them that your research project is important. It has to convince them that your project will be successful. And it has to tell them what your project aims to achieve, and how the project will achieve it and how competent you are.
The committee members will not read the case for support but it still has to convince them that your project is important and will be successful. That is its main problem.
My recommended structure for the case for support solves this problem. All the committee will skim the case for support while your grant application is being discussed, but they will all have read the summary beforehand. So if you give the case for support a structure that gives the right information to someone who skims it, and if you create a perfectly matched summary that ‘primes’ them by giving them the same information in the same words, that solves the problem.
So what kind of structure allows someone who only skims the case for support to pick up all the right information?
A three-layered structure.
As I said, the case for support has two main tasks. First it has to convince the reader that your project is important. Then it has to convince them it will be successful. The ideal structure has three layers, a main structure, a local structure and a fine structure.
Main Structure: Introduction, Background and Methodology.
The most efficient way to convince the reader your project is important and will be successful is to divide the case for support into three main sections.
Two of the sections do the main tasks:
the background section convinces readers that the intended outcomes of the project are important, and
the methodology section describes the project and convinces the reader that it will achieve its intended outcomes.
The third section, the introduction, increases the effectiveness of the background and methodology sections by telling the reader the points that will be made in those sections. You write the introduction last but the reader reads it first.
The names that I have given to the three main sections are not fixed. They will vary, depending on the funders’ instructions for the case for support. Whatever those instructions, it is always possible to write the case for support so that it has a background section that describes the state of the art in such a way that it is completely clear that the intended outcomes of your project will be important to the funder, a methodology section that makes it clear that your project will succeed in delivering its intended outcomes, and an introduction. The local structure of these sections, which we discuss next, gives the reader the bigger picture of what makes your project important.
Local Structure: three aims in background delivered by three objectives in methodology.
A good way to help the reader to assess the value of your project is to describe it as consisting of three components, each of which will deliver a clear outcome. If it suits you, or if the funder asks you to state aims and objectives, you can call these three outcomes the aims, and the sub-projects that will deliver them, the objectives.
Breaking the overall research outcome into components like this makes it much easier for the committee to discuss it and analyse it, and it also makes it much easier for you to write the background in a way that makes it clear that your project is really important. If the background convinces the reader that the aims are really important then the project will automatically become important if your description of it convinces them that it will achieve the aims.
Three aims and three objectives is the perfect number. If you have too few aims or objectives it becomes hard to describe them concisely. If you have too many, it becomes hard to remember them. And if you have different numbers of aims and objectives then the aims and objectives will not give the reader a clear picture of what the project will achieve and why it is important.
Because each objective delivers exactly one aim it is easy to write the background so that it convinces the reader that each aim is really important. It also makes it easy for the reader to remember the list of aims and to see that by carrying out the objectives you will achieve the aims.
The background and methodology sections have five subsections each. Three of each set of five are used to link the two sections together, so that the background convinces the reader that every component of the project is important. The remaining subsections have different jobs, enticing the reader to read the case for support, explaining the overall importance of the project, introducing the project and describing what will happen after the project is done.
The three pairs of subsections that link the background to the methodology section work very simply.
The background has three subsections, each of which explains the importance of one of the aims. Usually this is where literature is cited to support the case that the project will achieve important aims.
Each of the subsections in the background is paired with one in the methodology section, which describes the sub-project (the part of the project) that delivers the corresponding aim.
The background starts with two subsections that entice the reader to read the case for support, and explain the overall importance of the project.
The first subsection states the overall project outcome and explains it. If not much explanation is needed, this subsection can be expanded into an introduction for the whole project (see below). For that reason I would always write this subsection last.
The second subsection gives the evidence that the project outcome is important. These two subsections are essential preparation for the core subsections that explain how important the aims are. The aims are usually important mainly because they deliver the overall project outcome.
The methodology section starts with a subsection that introduces the project. It also leads into the three subsections that describe the objectives. The methodology section finishes with a fifth subsection that describes what will happen after the project is done. This could be be dissemination, impact, or even a new project.
Fine Structure: Key sentence followed by justification.
Each of the ten subsections described above has the same structure. It begins with a single sentence that summarises the subsection. These are the ‘key sentences’ that are the skeleton of the case for support. The rest of the subsection fleshes out the key sentence, supporting it and increasing its impact. For key sentences in the background, the ‘flesh’ will consist mainly of evidence from the literature. For key sentences in the methodology section the ‘flesh’ consists mainly of details about what will be done in the project.
Within each of these sections, the punch-line of each paragraph is on the first line, and the remainder of the paragraph explains or justifies the punchline. This post explains the advantages of this assert-justifystructure. The most important advantage is that if you leave space between your paragraphs, someone who skims your text will read the first line of every paragraph.
The first draft of the introduction can be done by copying and pasting the key sentences. You may find it necessary to add some linking and signposting, so that they form a coherent narrative. When you write the main sections of the case for support you will edit the key sentences so that they link smoothly with the sections they introduce, so it will be better to leave the introduction until after you have written the background and methodology sections. This post describes the introduction.
The perfectly matched summary
The summary should be perfectly matched to the case for support. This will cause anyone who reads the summary and then skims the case for support (most of the committee) to feel that they understand the case for support completely. If you use the key sentences as a skeleton for the case for support in the way that I recommend, they will make a perfectly matched summary. This post discusses the summary.
I hope this post convinces you that my recommended structure equips the case for support to solve its main problem. In a future post I will discuss my recipe for producing a case for support that has this structure.
A 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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
I’ve just spent a very pleasant few days in New York City teaching post-docs at Mount Sinai my recipe for a NIH grant. We focused on the K99/R00 scheme, which is for applicants less than 4 years from their PhD. K99/R00 applications must include career-development as well as research, which makes them more complex than a pure research grant, but the recipe I developed can easily accommodate other grant schemes by adjusting the formula for their assessment criteria. Before I describe the recipe – how you get the grant written – I need to say something about the formula – what the finished grant consists of.
The formula is based on the principle that you should make it as easy as possible for those who carry out the peer review of your grant to do their job. NIH makes it very easy to apply this principle because they take great trouble both to explain their peer review process and to list the review criteria for every kind of grant they offer.
The peer review process is carried out by a study section, a group of about 15 scientists whose expertise covers the area of the grant. Three of them, the reviewers, have to produce a written assessment of the grant and score it against the review criteria before the study section meets. At the study section the reviewers present the grant orally, then it is discussed openly and then scored by secret ballot. All members of the study section join in the discussion and vote on the score even though they may not have read the grant, although they will probably have read the 1 page Specific Aims, or the 30 line Summary. So the formula has two requirements.
It must be very easy for the reviewers to understand the grant quickly and to find the detail that shows whether or not it meets the assessment criteria.
It must be easy for the other members of the study section to speed read it and understand it.
To make it easy for reviewers, the three versions of the grant – the 12-page Research Strategy, the 1 page Specific Aims and the 30 line Summary should be recognisably the same, so that someone who has read the Summary or the Specific Aims should find the Research Strategy looks familiar. I recommend that you define the grant with a set of about 10 key statements that address the review criteria. The key statements begin major sections of the Research Strategy and are followed by text that justifies them and convinces the reviewer that they are true. The reviewer will be familiar with the key statements because they appear in the same order in the Specific Aims and the Summary, but with less text to justify them.
To cook up a grant with this formula you need to start by deciding what key statements you need. NIH assessment criteria are very helpful here.
All grants are required to have a number of specific aims – goals that the research hopes to achieve. Three is the ideal number of specific aims – just as it is the ideal number of points to make in an emphatic statement.
The Research Strategy document must be divided into three sections, each of which is assessed. They are Significance, how important the research is; Innovation, what is new about the research, and Approach, how you are going to do the research.
Each specific aim needs one key statement to state its significance and one to state the approach to achieving it. Innovation can be stated separately for each aim or in a single staement that covers all three aime. Thus you need between 7 and 9 key statements to cover the basic criteria.
In addition you should have a couple of key statements to introduce the Research Strategy. These make the ‘elevator pitch’. The first needs to say what overall outcome is hoped for, something about how it will be achieved and something about your credentials for carrying out the project. The second needs to say something about the project’s overall importance. You can think of these statements as the opening remarks of the reviewer addressing the study section. They correspond to key sentences 1 and 2.
Finally you probably need an ‘onwards and upwards’ statement to finish off the Research Strategy, something that says how you will take the research forwards at the end of the project.
The K99/R00 grant has a training requirement. The research project must contain a mentored (K99) component and an independent (R00) component. The candidate is also required to submit a training and career development plan. The criteria make it clear that the K99 project must develop the candidate’s skills to prepare them for the independent phase. One or two extra key statements are needed to address this aspect of the project.
Once you have drawn up your list of key statements you draft them. They are the introductory sentences of the main subections of the Research Strategy. Don’t spend too much time perfecting these sentences. Get on with writing the sections that they introduce. As you draft those sections you will naturally polish the key statements until they are as good as you can make them.
Once you have a complete draft of the Research Strategy you can copy the key statements from it into the one-page Specific Aims document. Make that document up to a page by cutting and pasting more text from the Research Strategy or by drafting new text. You should cut and paste wherever possible to maximise the overlap between the two documents.
There are a number of sources that help you with content.
These can help you to modify the formula by choosing different sets of key statements and by varying which key statements appear in the different components of the application. But the best way to minimise the pain of writing is to follow the recipe.