Tag Archives: Objectives

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 off 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.

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.

Pippin Key Sentences can Summarise a Workshop, as Well as a Grant Application

As an exercise, I have written a set of PIPPIN sentences that summarise the grant-writing workshops I run.

The workshop teaches an 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 successful approach to grant writing makes research grant applications easier to write and more likely to be successful. It must have  three elements:-

  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 will include lectures and exercises to teach participants the three elements of a successful 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.

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!

The Case for Support: Structure Solves its Problem.

Birdy folding bicycle front fork.

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 case for support has to do all those things without them actually reading it. That is the 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-justify structure. 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.

You can read more about the key sentences in these three blog posts.

The Introduction

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.

Catalogue

The posts discuss 8 themes:-

  1. How to write a Grant Application
  2. Strategy for writing grant applications
  3. Writing Style for Grant Applications
  4. Giving and Receiving Feedback on Grant Applications
  5. Dealing with referees reports and with rejection
  6. Interviews and Talks
  7. Software
  8. Academic Life and Afterlife

How to Write a Grant Application

Strategy for Grant Applications

Writing Style for Grant Applications

Friendly fire: Giving and receiving feedback

Dealing with referees reports and with rejection

Interviews and talks

Software for Writing Grant Applications

Academic life & Afterlife

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

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

The_Seven_Deadly_Sins_-_Pieter_Brueghel

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

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

The effect you want to have and the readership.

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

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

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

Anything that makes it hard for a committee member to pick up a clear understanding of the rationale of your research project, what it will discover and why that is important,  is a sin. So is anything that makes it hard for a referee to get a clear picture of the detailed reasoning in your argument and the detailed description of your intended research activities. Referees and committee both work under time pressure, so anything that slows them down is also a sin.

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

Sins of commission

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

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

Say it again Sam. And use the same words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Build the Project, Then Fit the Question

Was your question clearly linked to your project?

Is your question important to the funder?

The first thing you must do in a grant application is convince the reader that you are going to address a question that is important to the funder. In chapter  7 of The Research Funding Toolkit, we refer to this as the ‘Importance Proposition‘.

The importance proposition is fundamental: your grant will definitely not get funded unless you convince the reader that your research question is important to the funder. Even so,  you should take a project first approach. Generate your project and then fit the question to it. Do not try to pick an important question and then design a project to solve it. The project first approach is quicker – often by several months – and it reduces the risk of writing a zombie grant.

The project first approach is easier if you take a modular approach to project design and start by generating a catalogue of sub-projects.  As you generate each sub-project, you should ask  yourself if the outcome will contribute to answering an important question. If it will, keep the sub-project and begin preparing yourself to make that case. Otherwise, discard that sub-project and try  to generate another one with an outcome that will contribute to answering an important question.

Once you have a few sub-projects – ideally at least five or six – it is easy to generate projects. The ideal project has three, or just possibly four, sub-projects.  When you combine sub-projects to generate a project you need to start looking hard for a good research question. You need a question that covers all  of the sub-project outcomes comfortably. It is better to take a question that is too big to answer, and answer it partially, rather than risk picking a question that is too small to be exciting and answer it completely.

An important part of your development as a researcher is to develop the ability to design projects that produce results that help to answer important questions. I absorbed this from the culture of the lab in which I did my PhD and this is part of the approach we recommend in the book. However, it is also possible to search on the web to see if a given funder will fund the kinds of research outcomes you are likely to produce.  Obviously every funder’s website will have a statement of their remit, but this can be hard to interpret because it will be couched in terms of questions rather than outcomes. A better way to get a sense of the outcomes that excite a given funder is to scan their press releases. Best of all, some funders have a database that includes the abstracts of all their funded projects.

The Gateway to Funded Research is a searchable database that covers  all the UK research councils. The Projects and Results page on the European Research Council website is also searchable and allows you to see research outcomes.

How to Write a Research Grant Application in 2 Weeks

MonkeysAndTypewriters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The perfect introduction

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

Henry Stanley introduces himself to Dr Livingstone

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

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

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

1. What you will do

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

2. Why it is important

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

3. Your research aims

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

4. Your research objectives

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

5. What you will do with the results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reshape Your Draft Grant Application

20005338_sLast week I explained how to tell if your grant application is misshapen. This post is about how to get it into shape.

Let’s start with the most difficult kind of draft to deal with, one in which it’s hard to tell the shape of the proposal because it’s written in such a way that you can’t tell what a paragraph is about until you have analysed its meaning. Last week I described this kind of writing as zombie text.

The first step with zombie text  is to identify the topic of each paragraph. The next step is the same with zombie text and with text where the paragraph starts with the topic. It is to find the best grouping of paragraphs into larger subsections.

Dealing with Zombie Text

The first step with zombie text is to use the reverse outlining  procedure described on @thesiswhisperer’s blog about the zombie thesis to identify the paragraph topics. There is another description of reverse outlining on @explorstlye’s blog, Explorations of Style.

  1. Number the paragraphs in your draft. Open a new document, give it a different title and copy the whole text of your draft into it.
  2. Replace each paragraph in the new document with a single short sentence that states its point. Keep the numbering so that you can copy across the remaining text from the original document when you need to.
    • If you can’t state the point of a paragraph with a single sentence then you probably need to revise your approach to paragraphs. There is good advice in the explorations of style blog and in lots of other places on the web. For this exercise just split the paragraphs into smaller chunks that canbe summarised with a single sentence and give them compound numbers (2.1, 2.2 etc).

If your draft is written so that the first sentence of each paragraph states the topic of the paragraph then you simply number the paragraphs and create a new document containing just the first sentence of each paragraph, still numbered.

In the reverse outlining process you rearrange the order of the topic sentences until you find the best structure for your document. With grant applications we already know what the best structure is, so the task is to arrange the text in that structure. We start with the largest component of the case for support, the description of the project.

Description of the project: key sentences and topic sentences

The next step is to sort the topic sentences of the paragraphs on the research project into five or six sections. In order to do this you will need to have worked out the main details of your research project. At the very least you will have divided the project into three or four sub-projects and you will know what outcome each sub-project will produce.

ZombieGrantWarningIf you haven’t done this then I am afraid I have bad news. This post will not help you: you have a zombie grant. There is no point in rewriting it until you have designed a project.

I’m sorry if this is disappointing but I can’t change the facts of life. The best I can do is to help you deal with them. A grant application is a marketing document for a research project. Without a research project, it can never be more than an empty shell, a zombie.

The best help I can offer is to say that the text you have written may be useful but you need to design a project  in order to use it. This post tells you how to design and catalogue sub-projects and  this post tells you how to check whether a particular group of sub-projects makes a viable project. I will deal more specifically with zombie grants in a future post.

So, if you have a potentially viable grant application you need to sort the topic sentences into five or six sub-sections as follows:-

  • a general introductory section,
  • three or four sections describing the specific sub-projects, and
  • a section saying what you will do with the overall results of the project.

You should now select, or draft, a key sentence that will be the first sentence for each of these five or six sections.  This post tells you how but here’s a rough outline.

  • The key sentence for each sub-project should say something about what the research activities are in the sub-project and it should say what they will discover or what the outcome will be. It has the form [Very brief descripton of research activities in the subproject] will [show, discover, reveal, or other suitable verb] [whatever the outcome of the research in that sub-project will be]. If you have written such a sentence, by all means use it, but if you haven’t, you need to write it now.
    • As you write each of these key sentences you should write a corresponding key sentence for the background to the project and paste it into the corresponding sub-section of the background of the case for support. This sentence states that we need to know whatever the corresponding sub-project will discover. The general form is We need to  know [or discover, understand or similar verb] [the outcome of the research in the corresponding sub-project].
  • The key sentence for the introductory sub-section on the research project as a whole should say what kind of research it will involve, something about the facilities it will use – especially if these are distinctive in some way, and what it will discover.
  • The key sentence for the sub-section on what you will do with the overall results may be about publication or about dissemination or exploitation of the results in some other way.

Once you have the key sentences in place you should copy each numbered topic sentence into the section where it fits best. Then arrange them in the best possible order. Now you are ready for the detail.

Final shaping of the description of the project

Once you have the topic sentences in the right order you  should take text from the body of each original paragraph and edit it so that the paragraphs flow internally and from one to the next. The introductory subsection should contain a description of your general research approach together with any necessary preliminaries. The sub-sections corresponding to the sub-projects should contain  a coherent description of your intended research activities that makes it clear how they will lead to the result mentioned in the introductory key sentence.

This is the point at which you adjust the length. Remember, the full description of the project should be at least 50% of the case for support. If it is more than about 65% then you either have too much detail or too big a project. Keep adjusting and trimming until you have a description of your research project that is the right size.

The next step is to produce a background section that convinces the reader that we need to know what your research project will discover. You already have key sentences that  define three or four of its five or six subsections. I will tell you how to produce the rest of it next week.