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The Black Hole

The art of grant writing: write, rewrite and write again

And don't forget the detailed budgeting and a looming submission deadline.


Grant writing is a fundamental skill for academics, acting as the lifeline to pursue their research endeavours. Creating a compelling grant proposal is an intellectual challenge. It demands not just a clear articulation of your research ideas, aims and approaches but also needs to adhere to stringent technical guidelines. And don’t forget the detailed budgeting and a looming submission deadline! Given this backdrop, let me share some general insights on grant writing based on my experience with writing a handful of successful and many unsuccessful grant applications.

So, what are the secrets to writing a successful grant application?

Express with clarity: Grant writing is no ordinary task, but there are some basic principles that pretty much apply to any grant application. Grant writing demands that you convey the importance and originality of your research in a very clear and concise way. Your proposal should resonate with both the generalist and specialist reader, emphasizing the relevance of your topic and your unique capability to perform the proposed research. In scientific writing, crafting accessible and concise content without sacrificing accuracy is  one of the biggest challenges.

Grant writing is a marathon, not a sprint: A compelling grant application is unlikely to be written overnight. Distilling the essence of your proposal into concise content is an art that takes time. The process typically starts with a first “shitty” draft followed by several rounds of rewriting and feedback to define well-developed hypotheses, outcomes and plans to mitigate risks throughout a project.

Align with the funder’s vision: Funding bodies aren’t cookie-cutter entities. Each has a distinct ethos and mission. Tailoring your proposal to resonate with a specific funder’s goals is really important. Furthermore, empathize with the reviewers – these busy, volunteering researchers who might not be experts in your niche – review proposals because they are good citizens who care about good science. Don’t make their work harder than it needs to be so write in a manner that is both accessible to both a specialist in your field and a passionate generalist.

Feedback is gold: An external perspective can highlight overlooked weaknesses, ambiguities, or jargon in your proposal. Ask mentors and colleagues for feedback and embrace the suggestions and comments. After all, using feedback can make your writing clearer and help everyone understand your proposal, no matter their background.

Less is more when it comes to visuals: A well-crafted figure or illustration can elevate your proposal, simplifying complex data or highlighting key objectives. However, resist the urge to inundate your proposal with a plethora of complicated charts and graphs. Strive for a balance, ensuring each visual adds tangible value to your writing.

Budget with precision: Your proposal’s credibility isn’t just tied to your research project but also hinges on your budgeting acumen. Ensure your costings align with the funder’s guidelines. Avoid bloated projections but also make sure to guard against underestimating costs. A detailed, well-thought-out budget speaks volumes about the viability and value of your project.

Turning rejections into opportunities: Remember, every grant proposal is a testament to your dedication, insight and potential. Grant proposals, much like journal articles, frequently face initial rejections. However, these setbacks offer a chance to refine your ideas and to resubmit, as many funders rarely approve on the first try. To improve, carefully integrate feedback or seek insights from program officers, ensuring your persistence eventually leads to a successful grant application.

Sarah Ruediger is group leader as well as a Wellcome Trust CDA fellow at University College London, U.K.
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