Grants are now officially “hyper-competitive(TM).”
I’ve seen more than one great grant not quite make the cut, because there were even better grants in the pool for that round.
Dealing with this requires a shift in thinking. In the past I’ve focused exclusively on “quality” of proposal, but the reality is changing. You now need quality and quantity.
Don’t mistake me. Quantity and quality in grants are often opposed. If you go after too much quantity, your quality will suffer, and so will your odds of funding.
The only way you can make this work is by first developing your quality grant writing skills, and only then, shifting over to speed it up.
I’ve seen plenty of people try to do it the other way around, and all they do is write proposals, one after another, with nearly all of them rejected. What a sad waste of time. There is a better way.
I’ve shown that this works in practice. A grant I wrote over a 1-week span, for a highly-competitive RC2 project, was funded for $1.6M. However, word of caution: by the time I wrote that, I’d already written four successful R01’s, each of which had been funded on the first round of submission. I had the “quality” thing down to an art form. So all I had to do was to speed it up.
I’m going to give a few pointers on how to write a grant quickly, but first, develop your quality grant writing skills, or none of this matters.
1. Prepare in advance. When I did my speed-written proposal, I’d already talked to the program officer twice, and I’d gone through multiple iterations writing the specific aims page.
2. Get clear. If you’re going to attempt this, you must have total clarity about your project, before you sit down to write it. If you’re not entirely clear, if you don’t have a solid specific aims or project summary, then the rest of the writing you do is likely for naught. You’ll just wander around, and the writing will be like a bowl of spaghetti, but not as tasty.
3. Turn off the critic. When I’m speed-writing, I get into a “writing trance.” This is a mode where I’m not editing at all. I’m just letting the ideas flow, and getting them on the page as fast as possible. Editing comes later. Most of the scientists I work with struggle with this, probably because the word “trance” is so alien to scientific thinking. Yet, it works. Embrace the trance. Tune out the mental critic, and tune into the mental muse.
4. Have your team built, before writing. If you’re writing for a big grant like an R01, you must have a strong team lined up. If your budget justification is full of TBNs (to be named), you’re going to be toast. Line up a solid team well in advance of writing. That was certainly true for my RC2.
5. Become a better grant writer. No, you’re not going to do that by staring at your “pink sheets” (code word for NIH reviews). Those reviews tell you nothing that you need to know about how to write a better grant. I found out the hard way, with 7 rejections during a short span of two years when I’d just started my career (four of those as PI). The reviews didn’t help at all. It was only by finding a hyper-critical mentor that I got better… much better… at writing good grants.
So, that’s the core of speedwriting.
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