Updated: Oct 11
By Dr. Peg AtKisson, President and Founder of ATG
Back in June, 2021, Dr. Michelle Cardel posted this thread about her experiences as a reviewer. It contains a lot of great information, starting with, “Justify, justify, justify.” Or as I would say, make sure the reader always knows why. Start with why.
But she also talked about issues with typos and spelling errors, with crowded pages and unreadable figures. If "grantsmanship" is technically defined as the art of getting grants, then the first step in getting the grant lies in the quality of the proposal—the packaging and presentation of the idea. The idea is paramount, but a poor proposal can bury your gem of an idea.
Step one is avoiding the avoidable problems. "Hard to read" means more than typos and small figures. It means burying the ideas in details, not starting with why, and writing tangled sentences.
There is no single One True Way to structure a grant proposal. Nor will following a specific structure result in a good proposal. You can find plenty of “fool-proof outlines”, any of which could be used or adapted effectively. But every decision you make in structuring a proposal should come down to a few questions that focus on your reviewer and their experience.
What does the reviewer need to know, and when will they be ready to absorb it? Is the problem to be solved stated clearly? It is clear to the reader why this problem is important and why the applicant chose the specific approaches to solve it?
The point of most writing is to put your thoughts into language with the goal of putting your thoughts in someone else’s head. In a proposal, you convey your model of how your problem and proposed solution come together to have a potential impact on the world. It has to get out of your head and into the reviewers'.
In a grant proposal, words and graphics are the medium to convey your idea in the proposal narrative. But a well-structured proposal also includes how you use the "administrative" forms such as Facilities & Other Resources page or the Biosketches. Know what purpose every part of the proposal serves, and tailor that part of your proposal to serve that purpose. The whole proposal should come together in a clear, coherent, compelling story. Who, what, when, where, how, and, through all of it, why.
The skills for packaging a good grant proposal can be taught. This is why I have a job. This is why Dr. Cardel wanted to tweet her observations: to help others do better. But beyond a certain point, there are flavors, nuances, an applicant's particular "voice".
IMO, "good grantsmanship" has a lot of underlining mechanics. (I must think so or I wouldn't have written a book about it.) The mechanics provide the bones for how an applicant structures their argument, presents their problem and solution to the reviewer. On top of the bones of logic and structure in a grant proposal lies the art of clear prose, clear graphics, good information design. You might call those the "art" part of grantsmanship.
But if the reviewers are not excited about your idea, no amount of grantsmithing will lift it.
But this point is also key: @drugmonkeyblog pointed out in this thread, “and if this is true, it shows how topic bias and other biases are so devastating. if reviewers are already half to three quarters on board with the idea this is ‘significant’...the lifting is a lot lighter.”
Yes. Yes, it is. But you can do what you can to make the idea clear.