How to write a grant

Maybe the title is misleading. In this post I will not be talking about how to organize, structure and present ideas in your grant. This is not about what you put in your grant. That’s up to you. What I will be talking about is what your grant should look like. Recently I’ve been dealing with graduate students putting together two-page graduate fellowships for the NSF which are due, like, this week. This is typically the first taste of grant writing students get, and it shows. Not only are thoughts disorganized, ideas vague and descriptions wordy, but the drafts often just look like crap. I’ve gotten everything from 2 pages crammed with impenetrable walls of text, or grants that are one page over the limit or something so sparse and thin that while it fills the 2 pages, there’s about zero content. And of course I wouldn’t expect any different, since these folks have had no prior experience or guidance. One thing that is often overlooked in grant workshops is how to make your grants more readable and pleasing to the eye. Most granting agencies have strict limitations on font types and sizes you could use, as well as specific margin sizes and line spacings. But even within these constraints there are good and bad practices regarding how you format your grant.

What follows is a miniguide of practices I follow to maximize the amount of space to put information in, without sacrificing readability and pissing off all of your caffeine-addled reviewers. I won’t even go on about which font is better, people have strong feelings about what works and which doesn’t and these arguments run deep. I will just tell you how I format my grants, I’m sure you can adapt these tips to your personal font preferences:

1. First and foremost, keep in mind that grants have a page limit for a reason. If the limit is two pages, then write two pages worth of grant, not six and try to fit it all in into two. But even if you are conscientious about page limits, there’s always that extra paragraph that you want to add describing that extra method, or alternative interpretations of your results, or whatever. How do you squeeze this in?

2. Turn on hyphenation: This will not only shave off a few lines from your proposal (up to half a page for a 10 page proposal), but it will make your right margins neater. It is never a good idea to turn on right justification, because although the text looks prettier, it makes it hard to read. With hyphenation, it will tighten up the right unjustified margin without detracting from ease of reading.

3. Use several short paragraphs and don’t skimp on headings: Often I’ve seen grants with page-long single-paragraph walls of text, with headings embedded in bold lettering within the text. While this impenetrable wall might be useful for keeping out the wildlings, it is very difficult to read. So use headings to organize your proposal, write several short paragraphs containing one or two ideas, this makes it so much more readable and increases blessed white-space on the page. “But,” you say, “I can’t afford to waste all those empty lines between paragraphs and after headings?” True, these two things use up precious space, but one way in which you can minimize the use of empty line-space, yet still open up your text, is to set spacing following each paragraph to be 6 points. That way, you have a half line of space between paragraphs to make it look good, but you save a few lines.

4. Use 11 point Arial and set line spacing to be exactly 12 points: This combo will pass muster of most spacing requirements (certainly NIH and NSF), yet minimize amount of space used and remain highly readable. When you set your word processor to “single space” it usually uses 13 or 14 pts, which is necessary for 12 pt font, but with 11 pt font, 12 pt spacing is fine. Keep in mind that 11 pt Times New Roman is too small, and 11 pt Georgia will look crappy with 12pt spacing.

5. Don’t use gratuitous figures: While figures are good for presenting preliminary data and outlining experimental design, use them judiciously. Often they are not necessary and take up a bunch of space that could be used for clarifying your methodology, emphasizing your key points or what not. If you do use a figure, put it and its legend in a text-box and wrap the main text around it, leaving about 6 points of white space around it. For the legend you can get away with 9 pt Arial, maybe even 8pt if you are really tight for space.

6. Remove danglers: Often you will have in the last line of the paragraph one or two words taking up an entire line. Try to rearrange and rewrite some of the preceding text so that these dangling words are carried back into the preceding line.

That’s it!  These tips and tricks will allow you to maximize use of space yet have high-readability. And while they will save you a few lines, perhaps half a page, they will not turn a 9 page proposal into a 6 pager. For this you will have to work on eliminating unnecessary or duplicated sentences and even whole paragraphs, which is much, much harder.

Do you have any other tips and tricks you’d like to share?

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19 Responses to How to write a grant

  1. Dr Becca says:

    Super tips, Nam! Removing danglers is one of my favorite things to do: it tightens up the writing and is so satisfying when you finally see that line jump up. And I have never thought to turn on hyphenation, but I’m excited to try it next time! I HATE full justification, but agree that sometimes the unevenness of left-only justified can look messy. Perfect solution!

  2. ecologist says:

    Good tips. The idea of making the text look good, which means easily readable, doesn’t get enough attention.

    My biggest suggestion to help with readability: LaTeX. Get it (it’s free), learn it, and use it. For example, with LaTeX, you can (and should) right-justify the text without any of the crap that MSWord does when it tries to justify. Because, LaTeX is a typesetting program. Just like they use in books and journals, because it makes text easier to read there too.

    And if, by chance, your proposal has any kind of mathematical symbols, displayed equations, greek or other alphabetical symbols, chemical formulae, or any of that, LaTeX will make them look professional and readable.

    • namnezia says:

      I don’t know about LaTeX. Sure, it’s a professional text layout software, and all that, but any word processing program that you actually have to *program* in order to use it is not my cup of tea. I actually use the little TextEdit window on my Mac to do the bulk of the writing and then use Word or Pages for the formatting. This basically meets all of my needs perfectly.

  3. David Stephens says:

    Useful stuff. Certainly agree that formatting and layout are important.
    Would also suggest a simple summary diagram on page 1 where possible. Often this is all an introducer on a grant panel will look at when talking about your grant in the meeting itself. Nt always easy to find space, generally worth it though.
    Not sure I agree with ecologist about Latex….word of warning, be prepared for a world of pain with those grant application systems and manuscript submission systems that demand Word format…hear that often Latex RTF does not suffice. Problem clearly is why not just accept PDF…most do, but not all.

    • ecologist says:

      I don’t know of any grant application systems that work with anything other than pdf, which LaTeX is a star at producing. NSF, NIH, EPA, at least work that way.

      Some journals haven’t figured out how to use LaTeX. Some will take the .tex file (which is a plain ASCII file, and hence readable by anyone) and re-typeset from that. But in my field, most journals accept LaTeX submissions, and many actually typeset the paper directly from the .tex file. Sweet. Journals that don’t accept LaTeX at all, I just don’t even consider submitting to them.

  4. Steve J says:

    I write the text of my grants in Word. I then paste the text into Adobe In Design and use this software to place the figures and legends. You have so much more control over the way your figures are put into the text – without the figure jumping and disappearing that happens in Word. It took me about an hour to learn the basics of In Design many years ago when I was writing my thesis. But, for large documents with lots of figures, it really is worth the time to learn the software.

  5. DrugMonkey says:

    Text boxes are for those that like to do it wrong (aka Mac users). Put figures and legends in Tables.

  6. DrugMonkey says:

    Also…. If you “need” to squeeze in one more paragraph…. Don’t.

  7. DrugMonkey says:

    More NIH grants are funded in Arial than any other font face, PeePee. Known fact.

    • Lorax says:

      Meaningless info as written. If more grants are submitted in Arial than any other font, more grants should be funded in Arial. As a % of total grants is Arial (or any other font) disproportionally funded or not funded?

  8. GMP says:

    Re #4: isn’t it known that serif fonts (Times, Georgia, etc) are preferable for printed matter, as they improve readability? From what I recall, the serifs help form a virtual line that facilitates reading. (Sans-serifs like Arial should be the preferred choice for PPT presentations as serifs would make the letters blurry on the screen…)

    Anyhoo, I don’t submit to NIH, so what do I know. For what it’s worth, all my grants are in Times New Roman, for years now all have been typeset using Latex. (I have had funding from NSF, DOE, two different DOD agencies.)

    • Namnezia says:

      I’m not sure if that’s “known” or just some typographers fantasy. For what it’s worth, I’ve also used this font strategy for NSF and private foundation grants (though NOT for two different DOD agencies).

  9. Ruthmarie says:

    I really wish that I had this guide when I was in the lab. This is absolutely SUPER. It should be bookmarked on every graduate student’s browser.

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