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Grant Writing Tips and Guides

  1. Know your audience: To acclimate investigators to the peer review process, the NIH hosts a video of a peer review session, which provides insights useful for applicants to all sorts of funders. Understanding what peer reviewers look for will help you write a proposal that is better tailored to their needs.

  2. Follow the directions: Most proposals that are rejected didn’t follow the directions (though to put this in perspective, the directions may be complex). For example, it’s important to observe page limits and formatting requirements. If the granting organization requires specific formatting parameters (e.g., maximum 15 characters per inch, 1” margins), get out a ruler and follow them to the letter. Proposals that don’t may be returned without review. Such policies make sense if you put yourself in a reviewer’s shoes. If a reviewer gets a stack of 60 proposals to read in a few days, and the type and/or the margins are tiny, his or her job becomes much more difficult.

  3. Responsiveness: If the grant guidelines ask a series of questions, answer them in the order in which they were asked. You can do this without compromising the flow of your writing. Reviewers will find it easier to make sure your proposal effectively addressed the guidelines.

  4. Visual Clarity: Where a proposal is longer than a page or two, break it into easily digested chunks. For example, put section headings in bold, and/or use extra spacing to separate paragraphs. If you use charts or other graphics, make them as clear and informative as possible: show that you have given careful thought to how the proposal fits together, and to its visual appeal. Avoid including gratuitous graphics—for example, where a series of bubbles all turn out to connect to every other bubble. Such ambiguity does not make a clear argument.

  5. Verbal Accessibility: Put the take-home news up front; don’t make a mystery of your thesis. Emphasize clarity and use language that would be accessible to any intelligent adult; avoid terminology soup.

  6. Balance: Create a good balance between high-concept generalizations about the proposed project’s goals and impact, and details that demonstrate your ability to execute it.

  7. Relevance: The National Science Foundation requires proposals to address the project’s intellectual merit (value to scholarship) and broader impacts (value to society). Even if you’re writing to a funding organization that doesn’t ask these specific questions, your proposal should provide clear and interesting answers to them.

  8. Professional merit: To make sure that your proposal recognizes and addresses issues of current importance to your field, ask one or more qualified colleagues to read it. Show your proposal to a few non-specialists in your field as well; they will be able to tell you whether someone who’s not in your field will be able to understand it. Think carefully about their suggestions.

  9. Proofreading: As a courtesy to your reviewers, be sure your proposal is error-free. Do your very best to give your reviewers an enjoyable and compelling reading experience. 

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Proposal Writing Guides

Many of the federal agencies have their own proposal writing guidelines, and these may provide you with additional insight as you develop your proposal. However, the four writing guides below provide most of the advice you’ll need to produce competitive proposals to most types of funding organizations: 

  • U of Michigan – Directions are clear and to the point; excellent for all disciplines and funding agencies.
  • All About Grants Tutorials  – For use in preparing NIH proposals, which have many highly specific moving parts.
  • The Foundation Center – Sound advice for foundation proposals, which are prepared differently than proposals to federal agencies.
  • The Art of Writing Proposals – Tips from the Social Science Research Council; writing strategies are designed for all social science and humanities disciplines, but provide useful advice for other disciplines as well.
  • For information about the process of submitting grant applications at UCI, please visit Sponsored Project's Proposal Preparation page.