How to write a successful academic grant application

I’ve been editing a lot of grant applications lately. To borrow from Tolstoy, good grant applications all have several things in common, but there are many, many different ways for grant applications to be bad. Here are some tips to help you succeed in applying for grants.

The number one thing that successful grant applications have in common is that they follow the directions. Most granting agencies have many applicants for a limited pool of resources. Don’t let your application get screened out early for failing to follow directions. It’s about respect: if you can’t even be bothered to submit what the instructions call for, the reviewers will have less reason to believe that you’ll use the grant money appropriately. Beyond showing basic respect by following the directions, be kind to your reviewers. Make your application easy to read and easy to understand so they will focus on your content. Here’s how:

Layout tips

Even if there is no minimum font size specified, use a font size of at least 10 points – even in figures – to make your text easy to read. Don’t play with the spacing, margins, line height or paper size, either. Reviewers see many applications and will notice when something about the layout is unusual. Giving reviewers more to read when they’re already swamped with applications is not a way to stay on their good side. But there are still ways to use the space you have to maximum effect.

All grant applications have limits of some kind on how much writing should go in each section. Page limits and word limits are pretty unambiguous. Character limits usually crop up when submission through specific types of digital forms is required. Many of these forms count spaces as characters. Maximize the amount of text available by using only one space between sentences. (Two spaces between sentences is a hangover from the days of typewriters and not a habit that holds up well now). Make sure there are no extra spaces by searching for and replacing “ ” (two spaces, no quotation marks) with a single space. Check that there are no stray spaces at the end of paragraphs.

Style tips

Many grant applications have a plain language summary section. Write this section as if you’re explaining your research to an intelligent person outside of your field, such as an elderly relative. You can use slightly more technical language in the rest of your application, but keep in mind that most grant applications will be reviewed – even if only at the early stages – by people outside of your field of expertise. Many of these readers will also not have English as their native language. Help these readers by avoiding words with ambiguous meanings, phrasal verbs, and colloquial or metaphorical expressions. Also eliminate Latin expressions and abbreviations other than the most common ones (e.g., i.e., in vivo, in vitro, and et. al). When you must use jargon, explain or define each term in a few words as you introduce it. Spell out each abbreviation the first time it is used. Provide enough detail about the techniques you are using and why you chose them to let your reviewers know that you are aware of the other options and have good reasons for proceeding according to your plans. Mention other research teams that are working on the same project or on similar projects, or using similar techniques, and tell the reviewers how yours builds on their work and/or is more relevant to what the granting agency wishes to accomplish. Name your collaborators, and indicate what each one brings to the project. Don’t be subtle – make the logic behind every decision you describe as obvious as possible. Keep the tone positive by using “will” and “we anticipate” instead of “may” and “might;” discuss the benefits that your project will bring about rather than the catastrophes that will happen if your project does not get funded.

Incorporating language from the instructions is a good way to show that you are paying attention to what the reviewers are looking for. Usually there are several keywords that you can deploy in this way. They are generally included in the list of criteria that will be used for judging the applications. Common ones used to describe research include “innovative,” “timely,” “disruptive,” and so on. There may also be terms that have particular power in each section of the application, such as “collaboration,” “interdisciplinary,” “partnership,” etc. when discussing, well, interdisciplinary collaborations, or “hands-on” or “experiential learning” when discussing training. If there is a regional focus to the grant you want, mention the benefits to that region (country, province, city, etc.) that your project will yield. Keep in mind that doing something for the first time is only worth funding if it is also relevant to what the granting agency wants to get done. To be innovative, something must be more than just novel – it also must have a high likelihood of bringing about significant benefits, and it is up to you to demonstrate how you will do so.

While it is helpful to use keywords from the instructions in your writing, they should not dominate your application. Most of what you write should be about the project you want to do. Everything in an application needs to be done with attention to this context. Start each section with a one-sentence intro that mentions the context and vision of your project and how the material in that particular section ties into it. Everything you write in each section must be in the context of what the instructions for that section demand, but always with reference to your overall project goals. For instance, if you are requesting infrastructure, or funds for a trip, to perform a particular function, indicate why you need to perform that function in order for your project to succeed. Then explain why you have chosen that particular type of infrastructure or travel destination over others that could also do the job. This part is necessary to show the reviewers that you haven’t chosen something expensive for spurious reasons. Of course, if the infrastructure or specific trip you are requesting is the only thing in the world that can meet your needs, say why this is so. End each section with another sentence or two referring back to the overall vision.

It is perfectly OK to cut and paste material in from other grant applications so long as you adapt it to the particular needs of the application you’re filling in. This advice especially applies to descriptions of qualifications. Reviewers are not looking for an exhaustive list of awards or a play-by-play of your career history, especially if you will be including a CV as part of the application. Instead, focus on the parts of your career history most relevant to the application, for instance, where and when you got your PhD, where you are working now, the most prestigious awards you won and/or papers you published based on research that is of direct relevance to the application, your h-index, etc., and, most importantly, the skills and experience you will bring to the project in question. If you have been interviewed by the press or run a blog or have any other history of demonstrating your expertise in non-academic contexts, you can either describe it here or in the section about outreach and knowledge transfer, if one exists.

Redundancy can bore and confuse reviewers, so keep your text as concise as possible. There is no need to fill space with text as long as all the points that you need to mention in each section are covered. Headings are helpful only insofar as they help readers navigate, but each heading also takes up space that you could be using to explain your project. Use the instructions for each section as a checklist for the contents of the section, not as a list of headings. As long as the text in each section flows logically, making an argument for why your project does what the section demands, it should be fine. You can even combine headings if splitting them up would lead to redundancy. For instance, if you are supposed to discuss the economic, social, and commercial benefits of a project in a particular section, but the economic and commercial benefits overlap significantly, you can use “Economic and Commercial Benefits” as a single heading to let reviewers know that information about both are to be found in that one place.

I wish I didn’t have to say this, but don’t plagiarize! Use your own words throughout your application, even when describing mundane things, such as background information or the specifications of equipment. Tailor everything you write to the context of the section it is in. Do not include extraneous information. Again, reviewers are attuned to changes in tone and context. If they suspect plagiarism, even in a section that is not about the main thrust of your research, it will make them doubt the quality of the rest of your application.

Finally, watch out for typos, clichés and/or outdated terminology (e.g. “paradigm”), mixed metaphors, and verbal tics that could make readers focus on your language use rather than your content. Having someone else read over your application is the best way to flag and address these issues. This person can be a friend in a different discipline. Of course, if you hire a professional editor with experience editing academic grant applications, you can be confident that you will get the best possible assistance in helping your application stand out in all the right ways.

How to work with an editor

If you’ve never worked with an editor before, getting into a working relationship with one can seem daunting — but it’s actually no different from any other close working relationship. There are a few things that are the same as hiring a mechanic or hair dresser or any other professional:

  1. First, find a good one who has the skills necessary to handle your request.
    • Check out Editors Canada’s Online Directory of Editors. You can search for someone with the right background for your project, and even specify where in the country you’d like to search, if you don’t want to work remotely.
  2. Explain what you want to have done and what your deadline is, and ask if the editor has the time in their schedule to do it.
    • Freelance editors have multiple clients and we’re often juggling our schedules to accommodate everyone’s requests. We can often squeeze in a new job — but if you want it done quickly, chances are you’ll have to pay more for the privilege.
    • Because of the feast-or-famine nature of freelance work, many freelancers are happy to recommend other editors they respect if they don’t have the time to work on a job.
  3. Discuss your budget for the project.
  4. Expect to sign a contract outlining the work to be done, when it will be done, how much is to be paid and when, the method of payment, etc.
    • If anything about the contract seems unclear to you, ask! As editors, it’s our job to make sure our clients understand what they are reading.
  5. If the person you’ve contacted does not seem like a good fit for the job, keep looking.