Grant Proposal Writing Tips

Following are some tips to help you organize and write an effective grant proposal.

Grant Writing Tips

This document contains tips for those interested in developing projects and writing proposals to external agencies. It is divided into three sections:
I. Developing Funding Sources
II. Designing and Developing Proposals
III. Proposal Writing Tips

I. Developing Funding Sources

1. Research Possible Funders
Ask your peers/your professional network
• Contact professional associations; read their newsletters
• Research World Wide Web Home Pages
• Contact the University Research Services & Administration Department or the Student Financial Services Department.
• Scan the Federal Register.

2. Contact the Specific Agency

• Get copy of agency request for proposals (RFP)
• Attend agency technical assistance meetings
• FAX an abstract; discuss it with program officers
• Research agency Web Home Pages
• Get copies of sample proposals
• Get lists of funded projects
• Contact project directors at other colleges
• Visit similar projects at other colleges
• Determine odds of receiving, average grant size ($$, participants), etc.
• Get an reviewer’s evaluation sheet

3. Conduct a “Soul Search”

• Do you have a champion to write/implement? Are you the champion?
• Do you have the internal college support for the project (space allocation, matching funds, project continuation, etc.)?
• Does the agency and program have too many regulations, restrictions, and “red tape” for you?
• Does the resulting program fulfill your needs?
• Do benefits out weigh the costs? –for proposal writing? –for project implementation? –for project continuation?
• Most grants provide seed money only. What will you do at the end of the project? –drop it? –make it a college project?
• Do you have enough time to plan and write the proposal?

4. Make the Decision

• Go/no go.
• Grants are not “free.” You may need to allocate resources (travel, release time, etc.).
• Be sure you are empowered to develop the project and write the project.

II. Designing and Developing Proposals

1. Follow Pareto Principle or “80/20” Rule
• Approximately 80% of the time/effort in writing a proposal should be devoted to project design and planning. The last 20% is devoted to writing the proposal.
• You cannot write a funded proposal without devoting the 80% in design and planning. Do not write until you have planned!

2. Remember: Proposals are “Disposable Documents”

• They are read once.
• The reviewer may only read summary and then rapidly skim document.
• Make proposals as short and as comprehensive as possible.

3. Know the Proposal Evaluation Criteria and Methods

• U.S. Department of Education Model (100 points; 100 = excellent)
• U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Model (500 points; 500 = poor)
• Political decision (Good old boy approach)

4. Conduct Reviewer Audience Analysis

• Who are the decision makers/readers?
• Under what circumstances will they read?
• How many will they read?
• Will there be a reviewer’s evaluation sheet?

5. Follow Outline in the RFP format

• Do not vary, even if it doesn’t make sense.
• If there is no outline, follow reviewer’s evaluation sheet.

6. Develop the Budget

• Do not exceed maximum.
• Base upon educated projections. Build in inflation/salary increases.
• Make it large enough to do job; do not pad; do not “do it on the cheap.”

III. Proposal Writing Tips

• Develop projects that can be implemented in phases:
Phase One: Research and Development
Phase Two: Field Testing
Phase Three: …
• Create graphic elements to make key points for two types of readers: methodical and lazy.
Methodical readers read every work, search for details, need qualitative and quantitative data. Lazy readers scan documents searching for summaries, charts, and heads and subheads to get the big picture.
• Each page must have a graphic element of some kind.
• Graphic elements include overall summary illustration, charts, etc.
• Summarize complex items into lists and charts (time lines, flow charts, critical path charts, etc.).
• Use jargon appropriately.
• Summarize. Use bullet statements.
• Develop a budget early.
• Plan to have the proposal done at least one day early, Murphy’s Law ALWAYS creates a problem on the last day.

Communication Counts!

By Ruth A. Kittner

Remember asking your fifth grade teacher, Does spelling count? Does punctuation count? The teacher would nod and smile and say, yes, it ALL counts. Last week I received drafts of three proposals with plaintive Post-it® notes from the writers: Help! My contracts office says this is boring, one doctor wrote; another wrote, my reviewer said I repeat myself; a chemist wrote that even he did not understand what he had written. Although their work may have been good science or good medicine, it was not always good communication. Unfortunately, there seems to be a correlation between education and obfuscation: the greater the education the more difficult it is to explain what we do. Our writing becomes muddy and our logic, murky. Today, when competition for grants is especially keen, communication counts.

There are no hard and fast how-to steps to proposal writing. There is only common sense. In the best of all possible worlds, a grant editor would review our proposal, polish our language, correct our spelling, fix our punctuation, and identify what “works” and what confuses. We do not live in that ideal world. Although it is axiomatic to say that all good writers need good editors, we can also learn to be effective editors of our own work. Here are some common-sense guidelines to follow when working on our own grants.

Know the audience. If we do not know who will read our writing, see our video, or hear our music, how do we know what metaphors to use, or what language to speak? How do we create a work that resonates with our audience? Before I edit any proposal or article, I ask, Who will read this? Unfortunately, when most proposal writers ask this question of themselves, they tell themselves the answer they want to hear: experts — people like themselves — will read their proposal. And if we assume that our proposals will always — and only — be read by experts, we miss more than half our audience. This holds true for proposals to private foundations, to government agencies, and to corporations.

Why? Consider this: most organizations require an in-house review of proposals: our proposals are read by a colleague or two, usually not experts in our field but in related areas, the department chair, the division dean, and the grants officer. Similarly, many people with varying degrees of education and expertise will read our proposals in grant-making organizations. The expert reviewers will read our proposal, but it will also be ready by the program officer, who presumably has some depth in our field, and the area supervisor, and the divisional manager who may know next to nothing about our area. In a private foundation or a corporation, the members of the board or a contributions committee may also read the proposal; these people may be from very diverse backgrounds. Proposals to government agencies could be read by not only the program officer and the area director, but also by members of Congress, lawyers, and publicists.

After we identify “who will read,” we must consider an even tougher question: how will readers wade through the request? Will it be easy for them to read and understand? Will they have to find every other word in the dictionary? Will they call a specialist in the field to request special tutoring? Will they return to college to get another degree? Or will they read your proposal with interest and ease, nod their head in agreement with you, and shout a mental yes! At your important points?

Teach your reader what you know. A proposal is a teaching document. In the proposal, the writer teaches the grant-maker about the subject. In the process of teaching, the grant-requester (you) persuades the grant-maker (them) to support your idea by giving you the money to complete your project. When we assume our readers are experts, we cheat as teachers. In our proposal, we must teach our readers about our subject, whether it is speciated analysis of chromium, hypertensive syndromes, or parallel symptomology of schizo-affective disorder and schizophrenia, and we must instill in them our passion for our subject. How do we use a proposal to teach?

Keep it simple! If a typical undergraduate would not understand an idea, explain it. Pay attention to sentence structure. If the idea is complicated, the sentences should be short and the vocabulary, simple. Short sentences are eight to ten words long. Generally, if your sentences are more than fifteen or twenty words, you can make two sentences. If a sentence is more than twenty-five words, you might actually have a paragraph. Yes, many famous and effective authors wrote books with very long sentences, but you and I are not William Faulkner and our proposal is not As I Lay Dying.

Keep it readable. Complexity impairs a proposals readability. Strong, declarative sentences are easiest to read. Ideally, we should be able to understand your entire story by reading the first sentence of every paragraph. Your readers are as busy, overworked, and stressed as you are. If the proposal is tough to read, the reader stops paying attention. If necessary, use your word processing software’s grammar program to determine grade-level and readability. If your proposal is more difficult to read than the IRS 1040EZ instructions, you’ve got a problem. If your proposal is comparable to a Hemingway short story, you’re in good company. Strive for no higher than the twelfth grade reading level, even if you know you are writing for doctor-level readers. Most Americans read comfortably at the tenth grade level.

Keep it organized. A proposal answers six questions: who (personnel), what (project description), when (time-frame), where (location), why (need), how (methodology), and how much (budget). When you are finished with your proposal, overall, it should answer a seventh question: so what? If the answer to so what is not implicit, then be explicit. Tell your reader why support of this project is vital.

If it helps to organize your proposal around these questions, using them as rhetorical devices, then do so. You can always take the questions out at the end, inserting bolded headers. Some guidelines give you specific questions to answer. Use them, in bold, to organize your narrative.

Cut the jargon. Many people writing proposals will fall on the sword for their jargon. It’s only a short-cut, they tell me. It’s used in the profession: every chemist (doctor, psychologist, computer scientist, social worker, etc.) knows these words. Anyone will understand it.




A word not commonly-used is a word not commonly-understood. There are elements of jargon that have entered the common vocabulary that are understood: user-friendly, cost-effective, and UFO, for example. It is okay to use these — judiciously. But when a psychologist writes the patient presented with… I underline presented with and suggest the patient described…. Although the phrase, the patient presented with…, may be used in the psychology profession, it suggests to the reader not that the writer is a psychologist, but that the writer does not know the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. The patient presented her daughter with a jar of pickles. The patient described symptoms of depression.

Some common prepositional compounds take two to five words to express what we could say in one word, or leave out altogether. Because of the fact that.. can become, quite simply, because… The phrase Inquiries undertaken for the purpose of exploring the possibilities … could be better said: inquiries undertaken to explore possible interactions, or, even better, We explored possible interactions…
Learn the English language. Remember the psychiatrist whose reviewer told him his proposal was repetitive? It was not. The problem lay not in his repetition of ideas, but in his overuse of adverbs and his dependence upon passive verbs. He used significantly as a crutch for his weak verbs. Results were significantly improved by ….

Our language has interesting words culled from the world’s languages. Many of these words are verbs. Verbs show action. Proposal readers like action. Active verbs carry the action for us. As our preliminary research showed … uses an active verb. There is a direct relationship between the verb and preliminary research. Helping verbs direct attention away from the action. In some studies, it is shown that… could be better expressed as: As some studies show… When you read your proposal, try circling the word that. If that appears in every sentence, or every other sentence, you can tighten up your narrative — and make it shorter, simpler, and sweeter — by reworking those sentences.

Do intensive adverbs — very, truly, really, actually, and significantly — enliven our writing. Nope. When we use interesting words, especially when we use interesting verbs, we do not need to pepper our work with adverbs and modifiers. They use valuable space, bog down our narrative, and confuse our readers. Boring verb tense makes our writing dull, and we want to add intensive adverbs — actually, significantly, and so on — to spice up our passive writing. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but not if the thousand words are the right words.

Good science (medicine, social work, or whatever it is we do) + good communication = funding. A good proposal is easy to read. It teaches the reader about the subject and communicates your passion and interest. It answers the question so what? and when it works, the reader feels the writer’s enthusiasm and accepts the writer’s theories. When we explain clearly and concisely what we do, and what we want to do, the funding follows.

©Ruth A. Kittner, The Write Word, Box 8398, Swissvale, PA 15218. 1998.

Needs Assessment

Literature scholars must keep in mind that their proposal must persuade the committee members that a need exists and his proposed project will fulfil this lack. Unfortunately, deep heartfelt appreciation for a particular literary figure’s work does not constitute a legitimate need in the eyes of funding institutions. Therefore, a “statement of problem” or “needs assessment” must be included in the grant proposal. We construct these on a regular basis in essays about literature; most often we include them in the introduction. Indeed, in a grant proposal, the “statement of problem” usually follows the introduction, and its function is exactly the same as in our essays. It serves to show the panel of the funding institution why the proposed project is important, why it should be done. The fund-seeker should point out what he brings to the project that is unique, what new perspective his angle affords. Donald Orlich recommends concluding “the need statement” with a “statement of significance” (2). The needs statement should concisely identify the lack of research in an area, or it should show that the research which has been done is inadequate or faulty. This is, perhaps, the most persuasive element of the proposal. Its primary purpose is “to induce funders…to see the problem the same way you do” (Lauffer 270).

The problem with projects in literature (and the humanties in general) is that they often deal in intangibles. Therefore, it’s important to make sure the funding committee understands that the project addresses a lack in the extant research. Projects more readily funded are textual and bibliographical studies, biographies, and cultural and/or historical relationships between literary figures or their work.

Works Cited

Lauffer, Armand. Grants, Etc. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1997.

Orlich, Donald C. Designing Successful Grant Proposals. Alexandria: ASCD, 1996. 

Document Design

Assuming a proposal writer has produced an effective needs statement, what distinguishes his proposal from the other multitudes panel members read at funding time? Some proposal writing professional would argue that the appearance of the document could be a factor. People in literature are accustomed to writing in plain text so that attention is not drawn to the document itself, only to its content, which is certainly appropriate. While the substance of the proposal is, of course, the most persuasive element in a grant proposal, document design might be a factor to consider because of the highly competitive nature of funding in the humanities. An attractive document might stay in the minds of committee members more effectively than an ordinary one. Locke, Spirduso, and Silverman point out: that “What is not noticed is not funded. Amidst the sometimes formidable stack of proposals, the document that does not catch the eye—and thus the reward of closer attention and deeper consideration—cannot compete on the more formal criteria associated with quality of design and congruence with the [funding] agency’s priorities” (135). But this can be a dangerous recommendation. Certainly one’s desktop publishing skills should not overpower the substance of the proposal. In fact most of the literature on proposal writing either does not mention elements of document design, or they do so guardedly. However, a safe generalization would be to avoid graphics, photographs, color print or any other highly stylized formatting. Lauffer suggests that proposal writers “Take care that the format does not overshadow the content or in any other way suggest you place style over substance” (264). He does, however, suggest using some formatting tools on the title page such as “lined or shaded borders; larger or boldface type for some or all components; shading over sections you want to emphasize” (264).

Literature professionals should always be aware of the fact that departments in the humanities are not exactly experiencing budgetary windfalls; a proposal that looks slick and expensive might put off a committees evaluating literature projects. A safe place to include graphics or tables might be the budget section.

Works Cited

Locke, Lawrence F., Warren Wyrick Spirduso, and Stephen J. Silverman. Proposals that Work: A Guide for Planning Dissertations and Grant Proposals. 2nd ed. Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1997.