“The devil,” the expression goes, “is in the details.”

When writing a grant, that is especially true because details in a grant proposal show that you have thought about your project, which is what the reviewers want. However, when you only have a few pages and a lot of ground to cover, getting too detailed, especially in one section, can come at a large cost.

It is hard to get the balance right. Some sections are more fun to write than others, and other sections are frankly much harder than others, so most writers save them for last, which may limit the space available. And it is a rare solicitation that tells you exactly how the information should be divided, which leaves you up to your own devices when determining the best division of information.

Find and study what the sponsor’s review criteria is.

However, you have to get the balance right because if you run out of space and a section has far less detail than others, reviewers assume the lack of detail is because you didn’t have any details because you didn’t think enough about that portion of the application. They will take this to mean you are not ready to do the project.

So, how do you keep from falling into that trap? You can usually find and study what the sponsor’s review criteria is. Take some time and really read up on the review criteria. Your proposal should be organized and written around it! While every sponsor has different criteria, the list usually includes some collection of the following:

  • Importance
  • Contribution to the sponsor’s priorities
  • Originality, timeliness, and novelty
  • Contribution to theory, knowledge and/or methods
  • Competence
  • Appropriateness of design and methods
  • Value for the money
  • Outputs, dissemination
  • Likely benefit
  • Risk
  • Career development/training of project staff
  • Project management

Once you have that information, it is a matter of organizing your proposal to help the reviewers find the information. In terms of this discussion, I am going to divide the program description into three parts: Introduction, Background, and Research Program.

Balance your grant: review sponsor criteria and organize information

The Introduction is just that; essentially you are getting your foot in the door. It introduces the research question you are working on, the importance of that question, and a preview of your project. Based on my list of review criteria, you should include importance, contribution to the sponsor’s priorities, likely benefit, and originality, timeliness, and novelty. Like most introductions, it should be fairly short and concise, so keep it less than 20 percent of your program description, or in a 15-page description, no more than two and a half pages.

The Background goes into more detail, but it essentially explains there is a problem that needs solving, that your project is the best way to solve the problem/bridge the gap of knowledge, and that you have the skills and experience to solve the issue. So, as you can see from the list of review criteria, you are discussing originality, timeliness, and novelty, contribution of theory, knowledge and/or methods, appropriateness of design and methods, and competence. While these are all points that need some space in your project description, there is still a lot you need to say about the project. So, your background should be less than 30 percent of your program description, or four pages in a 15-page description.

Once you have that information, it is a matter of organizing your proposal to help the reviewers find the information.

The Research Program is the rest of the program description and focuses mostly on the logistics of the research. Essentially, this is the detailed information of the “who,” “what,” “when,” “how,” and “where” of the project. It has the research design and methodology, the methods, the research activities, project management and the dissemination of results. It also will include information on the risk, outputs, program management, and career development/training of staff. It should be the project’s guidebook. It should also be the longest section of your proposal—at least 50 percent of your program description, or at least eight pages in a 15-page description.

The best way to handle getting a correct balance is to write too much into your first draft and when you go back to edit it, start cutting out the sentences that do not specifically address the review criteria.

I hope that helps you as you write. My thanks to the NIH and The Research Funding Toolkit for help with my math.