The Top Eight Things to Do to Write Great Grants

The Top Eight Things to Do to Write Great Grants

Don't even think about doing anything else but these things!

Good grant writing is formulaic, and a learned skill. Some people are naturally better at it, but you can learn to be just as good. So, follow the formula! It's not magic or inspiration at midnight. Obviously, one can successfully deviate from this formula, but it is a formula that works — so it's a great beginning.

  1. Organize an Internal Review Panel
  2. Start Writing Early
  3. Write Daily
  4. Finish the "Junk" in Month One
  5. Tips for Good Grant Writing
  6. Actually Writing the Application
  7. Number of Grants, External Reviewers
  8. Apply for an Appropriate Budget and Term
  1. Organize an Internal Review Panel.

    This is the number one thing to do, by far. Even if your institution doesn't require an internal peer review, our strong advice is to organize an Internal Review Panel with three colleagues, ideally 10-14 days before the grant deadline. The panel should meet with the PI to review the grant as a team (a key feature, see below). The Research Institute of Sick Kids (The Hospital for Sick Children) has required this practice for more than 25 years and the grant isn't signed off by the Director of the Institute until the internal review has been done. The internal review is invaluable for:

    1. Tremendously improving the PRESENTATION AND THE SCIENTIFIC CONTENT of the grant. That this process invariably improves grants is true for even the most hardened veterans of the grants wars.

    2. Increasing COLLEGIALITY within the institution. Your colleagues get a better idea of what your research is all about. Intra-institutional collaborations frequently emanate from these reviews.

    3. Giving Pis invaluable EXPERIENCE IN REVIEWING grants. In turn, this helps improve their own grant writing.

    4. Making you finish your grant application long BEFORE THE DEADLINE. In fact, this is one of the major advantages.

    5. Creating institutional TEAM SPIRIT. The value of this can't be overestimated. You quickly realize that we all find writing a compelling, clear grant to be tough, and that eases the pain.

    Panel structure

    The Internal Review Panel should be composed of two researchers who work in the same field as the applicant, with at least one additional reviewer from outside the field-thus simulating the reality of a typical peer review panel. Since it is much easier to criticize someone else's grant than to write one yourself, your colleagues will always have something to c say. You will never get it perfect for this internal review (or at least none of the c authors of this Guidebook ever have, in c over 50 person-years of grant writing!).

    The process

    Reviews generally take at least 90 minutes. One of the three reviewers acts as the Chair. The Chair first invites general comments from all three reviewers. This part of the review is often the most important, and focuses on the summary pages, the overall quality of the writing and research proposal, and the big problems. Subsequently, the three reviewers go through the grant page c by page with the applicant, to discuss more specific issues. At the end, the reviewers e give the applicant their marked-up copies that highlight small details that needn't be discussed at the review itself.

    Avoid this mistake.

    There is no adequate substitute for an Internal Peer Review Panel, meeting together with youo Having two or three colleagues independently read your grant application, and then give you feedback on an individual basis, is not nearly as effective as an Internal Peer Review Panel. First, they rarely do it as conscientiously as when they are part of an internal review process. Second, and more importantly, a very constructive synergy develops among the reviewers that invariably improves the quality and richness of the feedback.

    Note: When you try to implement this practice at your own institution, your colleagues will invariably and predictably have 206 reasons why they don't want to set up this system. None of those reasons are valid. Yes, it takes time, but everyone benefits altruistically. Just do it!!!

    If you would like a copy of the Sick Kids Research Institute Internal Grant Review form, please email Jennifer Jennings at

  2. Start Writing Early.

    Start the preparation for your grant application at least three months before the deadline, by writing the overall research goal and specific research aims. Why so early? Doing so focuses your reading and thinking, and allows you to plan, seek advice and collaborations, and identify topics you need to read up on. You can't do many of these things well in the last weeks before the deadline-at that late point, you will be concentrating on the writing. It is very likely that your initial Specific Aims will change as you continue to write, and an early articula- tion of them forces you to focus and to think clearly.

    Grant Application Timeline
    12 wks before deadline Write the Overall Goal and each Specific Aim.
    6 wks before deadline Start gathering accompanying documents. Aim to have these in hand four weeks before the deadline.
    3 wks before deadline Start writing, a little every day.
    2 wks before deadline Give the draft to the Internal Peer Review Panel. Meet with the Internal Peer Review Panel.
  3. Write Daily.

    Researchers who write daily, even 30 minutes/day, are much more productive and successful than those who leave it all to a last-minute cataclysmic effort.

    In preparing a grant application, it is a good idea to commit to writing part of the grant every day. Begin the actual writing at least 6 weeks before the Internal Peer Review Panel deadline.

  4. Finish the "Junk" in Month One (but not only the junk)

    All the accompanying documents — CV module, letters of collaboration, collaborative details, references, cost quotes — take a lot of time to obtain or complete, and generally much more time than you think (often several weeks). Get them done early. Put the references into EndNote® or Reference Manager® right from the start.

  5. Tips for Good Grant Writing

    Write an application that the reviewers will enjoy reading. Aim for nothing less. Remember, the reviewers are wading through up to 14 other grant applications, so make yours clear, thoughtful and in- teresting. Good writing reflects clear and precise thinking. In fact, writing generally forces clear and precise thinking:

    "Writing maketh an exact [woman] man."

    -Sir Francis Bacon

    Getting the style, unconsciously.

    Get copies of a couple of very highly rated (i.e., successful) grants from PIs in your institution, or somewhere else, preferably Pis at the same career level as yourself. Before you write a particular section of your grant, read those others to pick up the 'rhythm' of really good grant writing. To get the rhythm of excellence and clar- ity, always read a few paragraphs of a few good Nature "News and Views", and one of the papers of Tom Jessell (Columbia) in Cell, which are models of clarity and beautiful scientific style. (It matters not that you may not be a neuroscientist, like Jessell).

    Get it down! Don't be a sentence "caresser"

    Word processors encourage the endless reworking of a sentence, to get it 'perfect'. Don't do this. It is a time waster that creates the illusion of effective progress. To generate a well-written grant, follow these four steps:

    1. Get it down, even rough, ugly, too long and incomplete.
    2. Get it right (factually correct, balanced).
    3. Get it pretty. Now is the time to do some sentence caressing.
    4. Get it out!

    Good expository writing has two predominant features.

    1. Begin each paragraph with a great lead sentence. A strong lead sentence is interesting and says what the paragraph is about. It is worth spending time on, even in the first ugly draft, since it defines the rest of the paragraph. One should be able to get the idea of most of a grant-or a paper-by reading the lead sentences alone. Try it with a Tom Jessell paper-it works!

    2. The remainder of the paragraph should elaborate on the topic defined by the lead sentence. The content of the remainder is generally less important than that of the lead sentence. Thus, a good paragraph has an inverted pyramid structure, as shown.

      Figure for inverted pyramid showing darker shading in the top wider quarter.
      Lead sentence: this is the main message.
      Elaboration on the lead sentence.

    A very common error is to have a rousing concluding sentence that is often, when slightly reworked, a superb lead sentence.

    Who is the audience?

    What types of Pis are on the pane/? Almost all grants panels, including CIHR panels, are generally very heterogeneous. Therefore, you are usually writing for intelligent researchers who are not expert in your area, except for maybe two to three panelists who will know more. You have to write with simple clarity for the majority, but also convince the two to three experts that you really know your stuff. "Who is my audience?" is the number one issue in grant writing, just as it is in giving a talk.

    Give the BIG picture, don't drown the reviewer in details, and state rationales.

    Three of the most common weaknesses in grant applications are:

    1. Failure to give the big picture (why should the reviewer care?)
    2. To drown the reader in details (the reviewer doesn't want to know). Some details may be critical, but the application doesn't need equal detail everywhere. Excessive detail is usually just an inappropriate way by which the applicant is trying to reduce anxiety.
    3. Failure to state rationales: why do these experiments need to be done.

    Use illustrations

    Use illustrations, figures and boxed texts to help the reader easily see the big picture. Nothing is more depressing to a reviewer than to see pages of dense text unalleviated by something visual. In-text illustrations do not count toward the total page numbers of CIHR grants. Illustra- tions help the reviewer grasp background information, be convinced of the strength of your preliminary data, and acquire a quick overview of your Research Plan.

    Use the first or third person.

    Instead of..."The samples will be analyzed for traces of..."

    Use..."I will analyze the samples for traces of..."

    Instead of..."This result is an affirmation of Rachubinski's theory..."

    Use..."This result affirms Rachubinski's theory..."

    Note: NEVER reduce your font below Times 12, or have less than 1" margins.

  6. Actually Writing the Application

    The structure of a typical operating grant is shown in Figure 1 on the opposing page. However, you should write the different parts of the application in the order that is shown.

    We suggest that you write the Research Plan before the Background section, since your Research Plan will indicate to you what Background information you should include. Otherwise, one often ends up writing Background that is ultimately irrelevant to the Research Plan. However, the very first thing you should write is an initial rough draft of the one page Summary of the Research Proposal. By doing so, you force yourself to focus on what you really want to investigate, and to develop a draft structure of your Research Plan.

    Summary of the Research Proposal

    This is the "seduction" page, in which you generate credibility (or not). If you write c this page (and the Summary of Progress) well, then the reviewer is on your side. If c you write this page poorly, the reviewer is already alienated, your chances of ranking highly will be eroded, and you will be at a huge disadvantage before you start!

    Initially, a rough and ugly Research Plan is just fine. Remember, the first critical goal is to "Get it down."

    The objectives of this summary page are to:

    Generate interest.
    Get the reviewer interested in the research question.
    Demonstrate importance.
    Convince the reviewer of the importance of your work.
    Give concise Specific Aims and an overview of each part of the Research Plan.
    Present a lucid, precise overview of the Research Plan that is well founded both on your experience and on that of the literature. In basic biomedical and clinical science, indicate that you know what the expected results are (and that you have a 'Plan B' if needed-but Plan B shouldn't be given much space, only recognition). In social science and humanities research, you will want to point out how and why your project will complement previous research, rather than simply building on the existing literature.
    Develop a timeframe.
    Outline your timelines at the end of the section of the Research Plan that discusses each Specific Aim. Only a few words are needed.
    Figure 1
    Structure of a Grant Application (in CIHR Grants) Order of Writing the Sections of the Application
    Summary of Research Proposal (1 page) Summary of Research Proposal
    Summary of Progress (1 page) Summary of Progress
    Research Proposal
    Background (approximately half the allotted pages)
    • General background – the literature with your published work cited
    • Your preliminary results
    • Rationale
    Research Plan (approximately half the allotted pages)
    • General Objective and Specific Aims
    • Specific Aim 1
      • Proposed Research
      • Expected Results
      • Difficulties Anticipated
      • Timeline
    • Specific Aim 2, etc.
    Research Proposal
    Research Plan
    Background and Preliminary Results

    Write the Research Plan before the Background section, since your Research Plan will indicate to you the background information you should include.

    Significance (a short paragraph) Significance

    The layout of this Summary Page

    Setting the stage
    (about 1/3 of the Summary Page)

    Give a few introductory sentences that set the general (biological/health/social) stage, and then the research stage. The level here should be comparable to a "News and Views" in Nature.

    For example:

    "The development of the brain is one of the most complex biological processes known. Each neuron in the brain con- tacts about 1,000 other neurons, but the molecular mechanisms by which axon guidance and synapse formation are regulated are poorly understood. Nevertheless, a number of inherited disorders have been shown to be asso- ciated with defective axon guidance."

    Next, present the General Objective and Specific Aims of your research proposal. In general, you will want to have only three to four Specific Aims. A hypothesis may not be required if it is implicit, or if the research is not hypothesis-driven.

    "The General Objective of our research is to identify critical regulators of... "

    "To attain this objective, we have three Specific Aims: ... " State them now.

    Proposed research
    (about 2/3 of the Summary Page)

    A commonly ignored yet essential component of this Summary Page is to state WHY you are undertaking the proposed research, or a particular experiment. You can force yourself to give the rationales by using the wording illustrated in the examples below:

    "To identify molecular regulators of axonal guidance, we will... " or

    "To establish what family members think about genetic testing, we will... "

    Then, state WHY you are using a specific strategy:

    "Our approach will be to identify homologues of CUB domain proteins expressed in the developing brain, since proteins of this class have been shown to..." or

    "The research is designed to produce replicable empirical data about the social ramifications of genetic testing."

    Significance of the work
    (a short paragraph)

    It is imperative to make your case well. For example:

    "This work will enhance your understanding ofthe biology of... and to provide a foundation for elucidating [disease category]." Make a disease link, if possible.

    Summary of Progress Page

    Even if the application is new, it is useful to summarize your previous work and progress achieved, for example, during post-doctoral training, in the Summary of Progress Page. This summary page should cite briefly your core findings and lead naturally to the major research questions that you will investigate in the proposal.

    The Research Plan — approximately half the allotted pages

    Begin with a short paragraph summarizing points that were probably made earlier in the Background, but which can always bear brief repetition for a tired reviewer. Thus, state where both (i) current knowledge, and (ii) your preliminary/previous work have led you. If you want to put in a "Rationale" paragraph, this is the place for it. Rationale paragraphs can be useful in indicating why you are particularly well equipped to tackle the proposed research, why the question is compelling, and why your approach is ideal.

    As part of the introduction to the Research Plan, restate the General Objective and Specific Aims.

    Key points in writing the Research Plan:

    • Write the Research Plan around each Specific Aim.
    • For each Specific Aim, state the Expected Outcomes, Potential Problems and Alternative Strategies, Techniques and Timelines. What will your experiments tell you, and why is that outcome particularly important to obtain? For example, "These studies will define the role of (your favourite protein) in (your favourite biological activity). More generally, this work will identify the major interacting partners of (your favourite protein), providing the first link between (whatever you are studying) and (whatever you want to link it with)".
    • Don't propose 13 approaches to doing something. Clearly identify your NUMBER ONE preferred method or strategy to achieve a Specific Aim, and justify your preference. At the end of that paragraph/section, indicate that, "If this approach unex- pectedly proves to be unsuccessful, we will use the method of Brenda Rachubinski, which has also been demonstrated to be effective (Ref)."

    In identifying potential problems, and alternative strategies that you will employ if those problems are encountered, be relatively brief. You mainly want to show an awareness of the problems that may arise, and of the alternative approaches that can be used if the problems do indeed occur.

    Timelines: Briefly state the estimated time, in months, required for each Specific Aim.

    Background and Prelimiary Results — approximately half the allotted pages

    In an introductory paragraph or two give the bird's eye view, a brief overview of the field and why this area of research is important. What are the big questions? For example, "The major question in inherited neurodegenerative diseases is why a neuron born with a mutant gene takes years to decades to die." OR "With regard to genetic information, a major ethical and legal question concerns the extent to which an individual's right to privacy and confidentiality can be overridden by the rights of family members to be apprised of genetic information that could have direct consequences for their health."

    Next, write the rest of the Background to provide the necessary excitement and information to make your Research Plan appear appropriate and brilliant. Thus, you should be conscious of why you are provid- ing each bit of background information. This is the reason for writing the Research Plan first. In your Background and your presen- tation of your preliminary results, you want to lead the reader up to your Research Plan so that they actually sense what you will be proposing before they have read the Plan.

    Significance — a short paragraph at the end of the grant

    This paragraph is obligatory and expected, but frankly, the significance of your research should be apparent right from the first sentences of your Summary of Research Proposal. This paragraph is a good place to bring out some additional implications of your work, and to sketch a brilliant future for the area of your research.

  7. Number of Grants, External Reviewers

    Do not apply for a grant until your track record will support it. For example, if you have one CIHR grant but haven't published any or many papers as an independent PI yet, don't apply for another CIHR grant until you have those papers.

    In general, submitting two grants to one panel is a problem, unless you KNOW that they are both terrific, and unless you have a track record that has demonstrated that you can do the research for both. The panelists will be doubly unhappy to be reading two grants from one applicant if one (or both) is/are weak.

    In choosing external reviewers, choose people known to be fair and respected, rather than your buddy. In general, don't e suggest new Pis as externals-they tend to have 'young faculty' syndrome, which makes them excessively critical.

  8. Apply for an Appropriate Budget and Term

    Justify your budget. If you can, link specific personnel to Specific Aims. Some committees spend much of their time looking at the budget and its justification.

    Keep your budget reasonable. For example, it's generally acceptable to ask for:

    • one technician, or one research assistant
    • one or two graduate students, and
    • for lab-based research, $15,000 per person-year in supplies and general operating costs for each member of your research team who is at the bench.

    If you are requesting funds for a post-doc or summer student, it is much more convincing if you have a specific individual in mind.

    Apply for a three-year grant. Reviewers rarely give longer-term grants to new PIs.

    Before submission.

    Before submitting your grant, create a checklist of all the points on grant writing, and go through your application-as you write and review it-to be sure you have followed the above guidelines. Please note, however, that the authors of this Guidebook will want to claim some credit when you are funded, but will deny any responsibility if you are not!