Writing a grant proposal is a lot like building a fire. In this post, I explain what to pay attention to as you gather wood, build a structure, and learn what burns.
Academics beginning a new proposal at any stage of their career will find this information useful, but it will be particularly helpful for first- and second-year grad students applying for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (applications in the Social Sciences are due October 29, 2015) or those getting started on their proposals for the Wenner-Gren Foundation Dissertation Fieldwork Grant (due November 1, 2015). Undergraduate students applying for the Fulbright or other funding opportunities will also benefit from this introduction to grant writing.
I've written previously about how to put the finishing touches on a winning NSF (DDRIG) proposal. Here I explain how to get started with any grant proposal, in three steps:
1. Gather Wood
The first time I applied to Wenner-Gren for dissertation research funding, I wasn't successful. I couldn't get over my own insecurity about sounding smart and relevant. As a consequence, my proposal was packed with concepts that all felt, at the time, incredibly important. I even used the word "important" twice in the very first paragraph. Here's what that looked like:
Now, there are a lot of ways this paragraph could be worse, but I include it here as an example of a common mistake in writing grant proposals: writing only in terms of Big Ideas or Theory without any sense of people and place. Infrastructure, transportation planning, Indian cities, economic growth, development, and the future are all abstract concepts in this paragraph, which is why it feels like a bit of a chore to read.
Now compare that to the first paragraph of my second round Wenner-Gren proposal, which was successful in winning funding:
The difference is in the details. This second version uses minimal conceptual language in favor of telling a story. Anyone can relate to the social tensions that exist between rich and poor, consumer culture and the environment. The project's concepts are grounded in a place with people and institutions. In the end, it's humanity that piques our interest.
Just as you can't light a pile of logs on fire with a single match (or even several), a grant proposal written only in terms of Big Ideas or Theory will not win you any funding. You need small and precise details to get your story started and concrete evidence of a research plan to build some heat.
If you were an Eagle Scout building a campfire out in the woods, you'd first spend 15-30 minutes gathering wood. Specifically, you'd look for dry bark and leaves to serve as tinder, small and medium sized sticks to serve as kindling, and larger logs to serve as fuel.
To begin a new grant proposal, start with 15-30 minutes of free writing. When did you first think of this new project as an idea? What is it that you’ve seen and heard and experienced that got you interested in coming to grad school in the first place? Write about class discussions, books, or articles that got you thinking about this current problem or phenomenon in new ways, and ask yourself what it was about each piece of scholarship that resonated with your own personal experience. Write out these experiences as if you were writing in a diary or journal. You can also make lists or write in poetry. Whatever helps you get ideas down on paper.
You’ll be surprised by how much you can write in 15 minutes when you suspend judgment and get out of your own way. At this point, you’re not judging. You're just collecting material. Repeat this exercise a few times, taking breaks - up to a day - in between writing sessions. Then read what you’ve written.
If you wrote these first few sessions on a computer, print out what you've got. Jot notes in the margins where something strikes you as interesting. Make note of key themes or concepts that resurface more than once. Cross out what seems boring or unnecessary.
Then code the material according to these three categories:
- Tinder: people, places, events, pictures, questions, and quotes
- Kindling: articles and books, newspaper stories, research methods, archives, data analysis
- Fuel: concepts, trends in the literature, broader public debates, theory
Make three separate lists and begin to take stock of how much material you have in each of these categories. You want to have more than enough material for the proposal, because not all of it's going to get used. If you've got lots of ideas about relevant theory, but no mention of methods or what you might actually do in the field, spend some time free writing specifically to fill the category of kindling. Likewise, if you've got ample ethnographic details but no theory to connect it to, spend some time free writing for fuel.
Some of you may have excellent Statements of Purpose you wrote to get into grad school. Or papers you've written for class. These can also serve as starting material. Go back and mine your best lines and ideas. Get rid of what's no longer exciting. Add these nuggets to your lists.
Eight rounds of 15-minute writing sessions, or two hours of total writing, should be sufficient to gather enough wood for your proposal.
2. Create Structure
The two most popular methods for building a fire are the teepee and the log cabin. These methods serve as blueprints that save time and energy: You can trust that either method will offer a structure to both protect your material and give it room to breathe. These are the conditions necessary for nurturing a fire.
The same goes for grant writing, which is among the most formulaic of genres. You want your reader to be comforted by clear markings of order and organization of thought, while allowing for visual breathing room. Luckily, there are also tried and true structures for formatting a grant proposal. Save your creativity for the writing itself!
Every grant is slightly different, but here is a generic outline with questions to ask yourself for each section. Begin to plug in your tinder, kindling, and fuel to tell a story about the problem or phenomenon you're interested in, as well as what you plan to do to go about studying that phenomenon.
Research Question & Background
- Begin with a story that anyone can relate to.
- What is surprising about your interpretation? How do you think things are different than they are typically understood to be?
- Choose confident language to define your research question: "My research question is..." Saying something like "my research will explore..." is more vague. What does it really mean to explore something anyway?
- Do you have a conceptual term in your title or research question? If so, take a sentence to define it clearly: "I define x as..." or "by y, I refer to..."
- Why does it make sense to study this phenomenon in this place? Address the question of place directly.
- For inspiration, check out my previous post, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read.
- If you were to read your future book or dissertation as a published work written by someone else, what literatures would that imaginary author have included?
- Break your research question down and try to have at least one citation (or paragraph, depending on the length of your proposal) that explicitly addresses each major word or concept.
- Where will you work?
- Why this site?
- Do you have permission or access?
- Who will you talk to at this site?
- Are there other ways you'll interact with them besides conducting participant observation and interviews?
- Who else can you talk to outside of your immediate field site to get perspective on your topic?
- Do you have an academic sponsor or mentor at a local university or research institute?
- Devote one or two lines to describe each organization, firm, or institution that your research might engage.
- For each method, describe the method, what kind of data it will provide, and how you will analyze that data.
Personal Narrative & Future Goals
- I've seen successful proposals that opened with an ethnographic vignette in this section; one that places the applicant in the field, as a researcher. This isn't my style, but I think it can be effective. How did you get from point a to point b? What was it that first got you interested in this path of research? Tell that story. Ask questions.
- What schools (colleges/universities) have you attended, and what degrees have you secured?
- What training have you received in various methods? Qualitative, quantitative? Have you conducted interviews? Done a literature review? Surveyed archival materials (even just online)? Have you created a survey questionnaire? Carried out that survey?
- What were the results of your previous research experiences? I'm talking about the results of the research itself. Clearly state what the research hypothesis or question was and what its findings were. THIS IS IMPORTANT. Especially in Cultural Anthropology, we have a tendency to fetishize questions and The Search rather than results. Funders want to see results: that you are able to articulate the relevance of a finished research project (and that you actually finished it).
- How has this research informed the research questions that you are asking?
- What kinds of preliminary research (if any) have you carried out for the current project? At the very least, you have probably done internet research. Don’t mention Google or Wikipedia, but talk about tracking news articles, blogs, Twitter, or what have you.
- Have you published or presented your work? Where? To what kinds of audiences?
- How has your coursework prepared you for the research you are proposing?
- Do you have professional work experience that gives you insider knowledge or familiarity in your research site? What about networks or access?
- Do you speak a field language? What are your plans to acquire such language skills and on what level? Be specific.
- For the NSF GRFP, include a line or two about future goals. Specifically, say that you want to become a professor of Anthropology or a related or interdisciplinary field. What will you bring to the profession that is different or underrepresented? Do you offer a new interpretation or spin on the way your discipline has been taught and understood? How might your work build new bridges or forge new collaborations? Do you offer interdisciplinary knowledge? Do you have publication plans for the proposed research? Be as specific as possible.
- How would you describe the importance of your project to a family member, or somebody who knows nothing about Anthropology?
- What debates within Anthropology and more broadly does your research contribute to? Be specific about how your project will contribute.
- It’s much easier to construct a bibliography as you go, rather than wait until the last minute to throw it all together.
- Download and teach yourself to use a citation software, such as Endnote, Mendeley, or Zotero.
Once you've begun to fill out these outlines, you can do more free writing and begin to turn these bits and pieces into a narrative. As you write, remain attentive to your structure: you don't want to repeat information in more than one section of the proposal. Each section has a clear purpose. Take it one section at a time.
3. Light a Match and Learn What Burns
It often happens that after collecting a variety of wood and building up a solid structure, you put a match to it, but it just doesn't catch. Writing grant proposals can be just as disappointing - if not more so - when you get someone else to read what you've written. It's easy to be discouraged by an unenthusiastic review, but such honest feedback will save you so much time in the end.
If you never put a match to your fire, you'll never know what's going to burn. You need someone else's opinion in order to know what's making sense and what isn't, what's interesting and what's not.
As you learn what burns and gather more of it, It's tempting to just pile the new material on top and have another go. But this is always a mistake. You have to rebuild the whole thing, because the structure is everything. Same with grant proposals. You need space for your reader to breathe and for the significance of each line and paragraph to sink in. It doesn’t work if you just pile more words and paragraphs on top. The structure matters.
Remember the Rewards
The good news is that grant writing gets easier. Once you’ve got one proposal under your belt, gathering material, building it up, and learning what burns will be a little easier the next time around. Even if your proposal isn't funded, the feedback you get from reviewers can be invaluable. With time and enough matches, you'll get there. The rewards of getting funded are sweet indeed.