Trying to get your proposal “right” on the first round of writing? That’s a recipe for failure…

Many of the scientists I work with try to approach grant writing as if it were an exacting science, like doing lab work. It’s like there’s a defined, exact series of steps to follow, like a recipe.

Imagine if well-known painters or photographers followed this by-the-numbers method. Every picture would be essentially the same. Every painting would just blend into the background of similarly painted, boring paintings.

What a dull world of art and photography that would be.

Now imagine your grant reviewer’s “dull world” of reading grants. If you’ve sat on a study section or review panel, you know how excruciating it can be to read one after another dry, boring, proposal with the word “novel” repeated 20 times, each underlined for emphasis.

Snoozeville.

Now here’s a question for you: do you think that putting your reviewer to sleep is the recipe for getting them excited and willing to go fight for your proposal during review?

Not in any reality I’m familiar with.

To be obvious: putting someone to sleep is the opposite of getting them excited. It’s all to easy to get lost down in the trees and forget that the forest exists.

So let’s say that this logic has convinced you: you want your proposal to not just blend in as one of the generic, dry, boring, fact-laden tomes that induces Z’s like a good cup of Chamomile tea.

In other words, you want your proposal to be original, interesting, and engaging.

Do you buy it?

Good. That’s the first step. Now, we must discuss how to accomplish that.

Many in the sciences don’t like the imprecision of this process.

Consider your favorite movie when you were a teenager. Mine was probably the original Star Wars – and yes, that really dates me.

Now: how many times have you watched that movie? For most people, the answer is less than 10. In extreme cases it might climb to 20.

So, if this is your favorite, why aren’t you watching it every day, or at least once per week?

This is the crux: because when you know exactly what is going to happen, anticipating the every line, it is easy to get bored.

As an example, I’m re-watching the newer Battlestar Galactica series. I’ve seen it twice before. What makes it fun this third time is noticing all the little things that escaped me the first time, or that I had forgotten about. However, I know who the “final five” cylons are, so the larger element of surprise that was present the first time I watched it is gone. Each time I watch it, the surprise and newness fades away. If I were to re-watch it next month, I would probably get bored.

What does this mean about grant writing? I know this may be a shock, but your reviewer is a human just like you and I. She wants to be surprised, delighted, and to see something new and different that gets her intrigued and engaged.

If you’re a cynic, you might think: but wait! My reviewer doesn’t like my work because it’s too innovative, new, and different. While it may be true that reviewers don’t like things that challenge their belief systems about what is “true” and “not true” – nor do they like to be threatened by someone who seems like a competitor – all humans do like surprise and delight.

So let’s return to the point about imprecision. If you are attempting to follow an exacting paint-by-the numbers approach in your proposal, that leaves no room for the intrigue and the creativity that may be required to delight your reviewer.

And let’s be clear, it’s not just about the language you use, it’s about the quality of the ideas you present. If you’re approaching problems in a 100% logical/obvious progression from what you or others have been doing before, that’s boring. It’s boring because it’s predictable and obvious.

A delicate balance

If you want to truly wow people, your ideas must be not totally obvious. At the same time, they can’t be obscure, either. Too obvious makes it boring, and too obscure makes it confusing.

There’s a thin bridge that straddles between those two. It reminds me of a red rock arch near Moab, Utah that is wide enough to walk across – and for brave souls, to bike across. It’s 2-4′ wide and very flat, much the same as a sidewalk. The only difference is that certain death lies on both sides with a 200′ plus drop.

In our case, that’s a “certain death” of your grant proposal that lies on both sides of that thin line in the middle.

What is that thin line, then? It is your creativity and your innovation, which step beyond the obvious and mundane yet not too far. It is a squishy grey-zone that researchers don’t like, because it is imprecise. Worse, it is subjective.

There is no easy objective measure of this “wow” factor. That’s because the “wow” factor depends on human foibles like excitement, inspiration, and belief. Yet despite the difficulty in pinning it down to precise analytical terms, it is always very clear which proposals have it, and which ones lack it. An experienced reviewer can tell within 30-60 seconds if the proposal in his hands has it.

This is one of the things my clients struggle with the most. While it is quite easy to pinpoint specific technical things that need to be done to make a proposal palatable, it is much more difficult to pinpoint the things that give it that extra umph – the “wow.”

The thing that makes this so difficult for most is a belief in an objective, hard, cold, precise “truth” that can be uncovered; cojointly with the second belief that if one only proposes how to uncover that truth, it will yield immeasurable brownie points with reviewers.

What if there is no such fixed “truth” to be uncovered? What if instead we are in an evolutionary process of exploring ideas, much like biological evolution explores new motifs and mechanisms?

If that is the case, then to say we seek the ultimate “truth” is, in terms of evolution, akin to saying that we seek the ultimate “master species” who is “perfect.” This further implies that some species are better than others. (Okay, I admit, I am speciesist when it comes to comparing humans to those damnable mosquitoes). But really, are humans “better” than dinosaurs? Is some genetically-engineered super-human “better” than you or I? Maybe they are better at doing certain things, but functionality relative to desired outcomes is different than some kind of absolutely true better or worse.

Now, I know this may seem obscure, but it is relevant. While we could see that such comparison of species or even races as being “better” or “worse” is a ludicrous notion, we do the very same type of thinking when it comes to ideas.

It is as if Plato was right – that those perfect ideas are just lurking out there in the ether to be discovered, and once we discover them, we have obtained perfection, truth, and so on.

And of course, there’s the assumption that the reviewer will recognize the value in uncovering this perfection.

Which. They. Will. Not.

That’s because it doesn’t exist. Okay – I can’t prove that it doesn’t exist, but in my 5 decades of life, I have not seen a single example of someone finding the absolute, perfect “truth” of things.

Instead, I have observed an ever-ongoing evolution of ideas. While often the steps in that evolutionary chain lead to improvement in conditions, that’s not always true. Sometimes there are back-steps and side-steps too, and not only by a few fringe scientists, but by the mainstream.

It is easy to sit back and laugh at such long-ago foibles, like the one where many thought that blood letting with leaches was a good cure for many diseases.

It is much harder to laugh at our own current-day foibles, side-tracks, and backwards steps. Many of them are very difficult to spot, because we are so immersed in them. Yet no doubt, we are taking side tracks and backwards steps just this very moment.

And so let’s bring this back ’round to grant proposals. If you try to write from a standpoint that there is that “correctness,” “truth,” and “perfection” to be obtained, you will have much difficulty embracing the squishy, subjective, and fickle nature that is the evolution of ideas.

The best proposals don’t just get at some arbitrary “truth” that the writer deems important. Never mind that such present day “truths” often turn into “non-truths” with the perspective of the ages – the more important factor for grants is realizing that this is not what we humans actually want. And, presumably your reviewers are humans, last I checked.

While those human reviewers may think they want the “truth”, what we think we want and what we actually want (as judged by our actions and choices) is to be stimulated by new ideas, new approaches, better ways of doing things. What nearly all humans want is this evolution of ideas, in action. They want to see you, the proposer, to be a person who is pushing that leading edge of ideas forward (even if it’s really backwards from a historical perspective).

What this means is that your job is not to precisely uncover some perfect truth. Neither is your job to prove that you are a hard worker, nor a know-it-all (mistakes that I see many newer grant seekers making most often).

Instead, your job is to find that “next step” in the progression of ideas in your field. Such next-steps often share certain attributes:

  1. They aren’t obvious to most people looking forward, but once your reviewer encounters the idea, it gives them an “aha” moment such that they could see themselves pursuing such an idea. In fact, some of the approaches in my best proposals were later followed by my competitors who’d been on the study sections reviewing them. You might think that is “bad” – yet it is the highest form of acknowledgement that it is a “good” idea – which means funding is more likely.
  2. They are a step away from where the field currently resides, but it should be an evolutionary step, not a radical departure. Many researchers who consider themselves true innovators find this a bit mundane and boring. The hardest job for such people is the need to often dial back the innovation to a degree that it is not perceived as being “far out.” I suffered this, and had to substantially dial this back in my efforts.
  3. They solve problems that people in your field care about. I can’t overemphasize this one. Many rejections come from pursuing ideas that you care about, but that nobody else does. Nobody is going to support allocating scarce resources for something that only you care about.
  4. They push the boundaries of human thought and insight, they don’t just provide some practical advance. Look, despite all the lip service that funders like NIH give to the idea of “translation” into practical clinical use, the NIH is made up of scientists. Scientists like discovery and new ideas – they like playing in this field that is the evolution of ideas. If you have a perfectly practical solution to a problem that is simple and inelegant, you have little hope of getting funded. While that may be a major reason that “progress” seems so slow, it depends on which yardstick you’re using to measure progress. If you’re using the yardstick of simply finding a solution to human problems, then progress is slow. If you’re using the yardstick of the evolution of ideas in your field, then there is a lot of progress.
  5. There are no “rights” and “wrongs” when pursuing the next step in the evolution of ideas. There is only a squishy, subjective excitement that is either present or absent. Often the excitement is related to the “story” of that particular line of thought evolution – where it has been and where it seems to be going.
  6. Instead of “truth” and “right” and “wrong” – this evolution of ideas depends on humans who are capable story tellers and persuasive arguers for why a particular next step is interesting, exciting, new, and ultimately, has some practical value. In other words, the line of evolution that will get the most attention (and funding) is the one that has the most capable proponents. It has nothing to do with which ones “deserve” funding because they are “right” or “noble.” There are a limitless array of “noble” and “right” causes in the world. This vast array is beyond our present human capability to comprehend, much less to “fix.”

Evolution is imprecise and messy.

There are many missteps along the way. There is no “perfect step” or “perfect outcome.” There is only a never-ending progression of new approaches and ideas that ultimately attempt to lead to improvement of the human condition – not only with physical cures to disease and the like, but with additional insight and clarity available to the species about our place in a vast universe.

The extent to which you fully embrace this messiness in your proposal writing – and research in general – is the extent to which you can relax and have fun with it, along with being more likely to succeed. The grant seekers I’ve seen struggle the most are those who try to precisely pinpoint the truth – and to precisely describe in very dense, technical language, how such a pinpointing is to take place. While occasionally funding does go to grants produced in such a manner, it is almost always with multiple rejections and “just squeaking by” under the pay-lines.

So, you can either embrace the messiness that is the evolution of ideas, and claim your rightful place in pushing that evolution forward, or you can try to fight it with misplaced notions of “perfection” and “truth,” and struggle to get funding.


If you want additional free help with your proposals, check out the limited release of my free training, Six Essentials of a Successful Proposal. I will walk you through six core mistakes I see most writers make, and how to avoid them to make your next proposal shine.

One blog I ran across even said “it’s not rocket science” in reference to grant writing. I agree, but not for reasons they

Ironic, isn’t it

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