Thoughts on a Proposal as Scholarly Writing

Preparing a good proposal--a competitive proposal--is both an art and a craft. Your goal is to receive reviewer comments like:

    The hypotheses and objectives...are closely reasoned and follow upon the background material. The protocols are presented in admirable detail. The presentation was exemplary in terms of the adequacy, appropriateness, and completeness of the methodology proposed. The very thoroughness with which the proposal was prepared and presented provides further evidence of their capability. Although these are young investigators, without extensive experience, they appear to be eminently qualified to undertake this research--if the care with which they have prepared this application is any indication.

The two project directors for that NIH grant were very young, and they had taken seriously the following NIH advice:

As with a scientific publication, you should present your research logically and clearly, and show that your research is meaningful. Explicitly describe your hypotheses and how it will be tested. Be sure that your proposed project has a coherent direction, that the various sections are well-coordinated and are clearly related to a central focus. Be sure to allow time for a thorough editing and proofreading of your application. Ironically, many scientists who are extremely precise in their research procedures do not take the same care in presenting their research. A sloppy application with typographical errors makes a poor first impression on reviewers. They may wonder about the care you will devote to the actual research.
--NIH Publication #13, August 1987.

The notion of a proposal as a piece of scholarly writing reinforces the need to have a long-range plan for professional growth that involves idea-wrestling and proposal-writing . When people say they find proposal writing difficult, I urge them to think of the advice of Henry Taylor, a poetry professor at the University of Virginia, "...the trouble with aspiring poets is that they try to write their 10th poem before they write their first."

Or, as a friend at NEH said once to me, "it is like trying to write a sonnet without ever having read one."

Read good proposals--those submitted by colleagues on your campus, those from F21 colleagues, and those you find in files at agency offices. Note that although there may be differences between how proposals might be written for various agencies, clarity in presentation of the idea is the key. If you know what good proposals look like, you will be able to look at your proposal and ask: "is this good enough, or should I wait until the next deadline?"

Read bad proposals too, or (perhaps), judge your own writing from the perspective of this list of frequent errors in NEH proposals:

  1. Application marred by inflated rhetoric and ignorance of similar projects elsewhere.
  2. Arguments in support of the application are subjective and unconvincing; applications assumes that reviewers are familiar with or predisposed to support the application.
  3. Plan of work is missing, or is too vague; it is disorganized and illogical.
  4. Application is unconvincing because of errors in grammar, fact, spelling; it is a sloppy presentation of mixed rhetorical styles, unreadable attachments.

A list from NIH cites similar frequently-committed-errors:

  1. The application reveals an apparent lack of new ideas.
  2. The research plan is described in a manner that is diffuse, rambling, superficial, and/or unfocused; there is a lack of critical detail.
  3. The experimental approach is based on questionable reasoning and misinterpretations of the current state of the field; there is an absence of an acceptable scientific rationale for the research.
  4. The application suggests a lack of understanding of published work in the field, as reflected in the presentation and treatment of the pertinent literature.
  5. The proposed PI does not have adequate background and experience in the essential methodology.
  6. There is no certainty about the future direction for this research.
  7. The application outlines a work agenda that is unrealistic.

Be tough on yourself in the process of writing; your peers on the review panels will be.

Remember this advice:

Simplify, simplify.... Thoreau said it, as we are so often reminded, and no American writer more consistently practiced what he preached....How can the rest of us achieve such enviable freedom from clutter? The answer is to clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one cannot exist without the other. It is impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English. He may get away with it for a paragraph or two, but soon the reader will be lost, and there is no sin so grave, for he will not easily be lured back.
--William Zinsser, On Writing Well

For proposal writers, the "readers" are the reviewers, and the gravest sin is indeed to loose them, for they "...will not easily be lured back."

But "simplifying" is something that can best be done in collaboration. (Thus the value of a mechanism to link F21 members involved in proposal preparation.) A proposal--at least a good one--is not the product of an isolated activity. At its best, preparing a proposal is an exercise in collegiality.

There are no solitary, free-living creatures: Every form of life is dependent on other forms...We should go warily into the future, looking for ways to be more useful, listening more carefully for the signals, watching our step, and having an eye out for partners.
--Lewis Thomas, Phi Beta Kappa Oration, Harvard University

This quote has been at the heart of what we have been about in PKAL..."...looking for ways to be more useful and having an eye out for partners."

What does this mean for proposal development?

In a paper prepared for Project Kaleidoscope, Uri Treisman (whose work with learning communities has shaped much of the current reform movement) talks about communities of interest that must be developed, locally and nationally, if reforms are to succeed.

The wrestling with an idea, developing a road map--working with a grid for thinking through career steps and stages, should be done with a community of interest, with others within your academic community: departmental colleagues, with others interested in research, with your dean, development officers, and librarians--as well as with your F21 colleagues.

The collegial notion of proposal development is more visible among scientists than other members of the campus community. Collaborative activity is at the heart of scientific research. Because scientists need support for expensive equipment, time away at major research laboratories, students and other resources, they know that external support is essential for their work--and thus more readily take the initiative in seeking external support.

Connecting to colleagues in the process of proposal writing helps reinforce the activity as a scholarly activity. As you share your nascent idea, your plans for the future, you are making the same kind of internal, pre-proposal connections to your scholarly peers that you make when you submit the proposal for review.

This is taking a risk, of course, and writing a proposal is evidence of the willingness to take a risk. Putting your ideas out for review by your peers is not easy, but in the words of John Gardner in Self-renewal:

The independence or detachment of the creative individual is at the heart of his capacity to take risks and to expose himself to the probability of criticism from his fellows.

Review panels, study sections, whatever they are called at NEH, NSF, Fulbright, or NIH are made up of your peers. They may not be made up of specialists in your specific area of expertise, but they will be from faculties from colleges and universities across the country. In large part, the reviewers are selected from the group of previous and current grantees from the funding agency--persons in whom the agency has confidence. In large part, these are people who know what a good proposal smells like--they can almost see it coming: "what an idea; I wish I had thought of that!"

Your colleagues, on- and off-campus, like reviewers, may not need specific expertise in the given field to know if:

  1. you have an intriguing, compelling idea
  2. the request is appropriate for that funding agency
  3. you have read and followed the instructions carefully
  4. you have outlined clearly and persuasively for the non-expert the idea, the hypotheses, the approach, etc.
  5. you know what others are doing in the field--and how your work connects to or differs from that other work
  6. the care with which you have prepared the proposal demonstrates the quality and care with which you will do your research.

What can an F21 Network do? Use what you know/what you have learned about how proposals are reviewed, as you work together to provide advice and counsel on each other's drafts. A good idea will take root and flourish, will come to life, and will both shape and reflect your goals as teacher/scholar.